Death is an idea that everyone must wrestle with at one point in their life, whether it be a quickly approaching doom or a peaceful end sixty years down the line. In Shute’s On the Beach, each character’s individual arch in the novel take separate paths but are all headed towards the same place: death. In response to the extreme scenario they are thrown into, that climax will come much sooner than any of them intended and many are left wondering if they are ready to meet their end.
What each one of them decide to do along the way in order to make their lives end on a positive note relates to how they choose to approach death. The theme deals with the way they react to their death, and what each distinct reaction does for them whether it be comfort, distraction, or enjoyment. Being that no one can simply escape death, seeking comfort in it, or even welcoming it is a tempting idea that many might juggle with when meeting their end. Peter Holmes is a character in the novel with an ideal much in line with that goal: finding comfort in his doom and accepting his death.
However, that may only be scraping the surface in relation to his true beliefs and motives. He knows a great deal more about the impending threat than his wife Mary because she lives a life “sheltered from realities, living in a sentimental dream world of her own” (Shute 127). He carefully tries to bring her to the same realization he had already accepted and chooses his words selectively saying “We’re all going to get it. Every living thing.
Dogs and cats and babies– everyone,”(Shute 125). He even implies that their infant daughter is involved. Peter, having been serving in the Australian Navy for years, is a strong willed man able to face the truth and protect his family from it.
For that reason, he takes it upon himself to make it easier on them and attempts to put a positive spin on the terrible truth. Simply put, he welcomes his and his family’s death in order to assure his wife that everything will be ok. Despite his love for the sea and the relaxation it brings him, he asks Commander Towers “Will the ship be at sea for much of that time, sir? Things aren’t too easy now, compared with what they used to be, and it’s a bit difficult at home.” (Shute 10) because of how concerned he is for his family’s well being. He may not truly accept that the world is ending, but he forces himself to believe and prepare emotionally because it is his duty to protect his family. His actions provide him with the comfort he craves for his family’s well-being.
Mary also receives comfort in the way she deals with death, but obtains it differently than her husband. She simply acts as though nothing is wrong. There is something both awful and wonderful about the way life goes on quite normally in On the Beach as the radiation level starts to rise, and Mary is the prime example (Smith 131). She continues to plan her and Peter’s future with Jennifer and “went on happily planning their garden for the next ten years” despite knowing they won’t live to see it grow(Shute 90). This is partly because of Peter’s initial sheltering, but it is evident that she subconsciously gains comfort by remaining ignorant. Despite there having had been a war that caused this obliteration, it seems almost secondary because characters such as Mary completely ignore the situation (Whipple 3061). As the radiation began to creep into the country, Mary began to fall apart emotionally until “back in their apartment on the hill she regained a little of her poise; here were the familiar things she was accustomed to. Here was security”(Shute 211).
In Mary’s head, outside her front door lies the future she does not wish to meet, but inside the confines of her home lies the security and familiarity she seeks in the end. Even though her actions are unhealthy, it provides her with the satisfaction and comfort she needs to grow and deal with her death. Another character who’s dance with death had him seeking comfort is Commander Towers and his denial over his late family. While it is true that On the Beach is about a nuclear holocaust, it is mostly about the ways in which the best aspects of human nature react to such an environment; and Tower acting as though his family is alive is a perfect example of that observation (Hacht 1432). In Shute’s words, “In the tranquility of the church he set himself to think about his family, and to visualize them. He would be going back to them in September, home from his travels”, he makes it apparent that Towers believes his family is alive (Shute 36). However, earlier in the novel it is expressed by Moira that the entire Northern Hemisphere, including where Towers’ family lived, is either destroyed or a city of the dead; full of people who chose to “opt out” rather than ride out the radiation sickness. Despite these facts, Towers’ goes as far as to purchase gifts for his family upon his return to the states, even though the North is described as uninhabitable due to the radiation.
In the end, Towers boards his ship and sets sail back home, knowing fully well that him and the crew will not survive the journey. However, he does this completely at ease, for he knows that he will be seeing his family soon and would “rather have it this way, in my own home town, than have it in September in Australia” (Shute 159). He was able to successfully find comfort and even peace in his own death through his belief that his family was in a sense, “alive”.
On the other side of the spectrum, some characters such as Moira Davidson, chose to distract themselves from their death and spent their last months drowning in denial and dissatisfaction. Early on it is shown that Moira is quite the flirtatious alcoholic, but that was not always the case. Shute wanted to understand why human beings act the way they do in a given situation and due to the poor hand she was unfairly dealt, Moira threw herself into a glass of brandy and unexplained love for Commander Towers in order to distract herself from reality (Bottome 174). She tells Towers, “I’ll never have a family like Mary. It’s so unfair. Even if you took me to bed tonight I’d never have a family, because there wouldn’t be time.
” (Shute 33). Moira said this is during a drunken rant in which she complained about the unfairness of their situation. She continued by asking “Why should we gave to die because other countries nine or ten thousand miles away from us wanted to have a war? It’s so bloody unfair.” (Shute 32). Up to that point, alcohol had been the only way Moira could forget about the pain for a short while, but combined with Towers, she was unable to keep her feelings under wraps.
After their conversation, Towers became Moira’s new distraction. Even though he continuously rejected her on behalf of his late wife, she continuously showed her affection. The largest example of that having had been the home-made pogo stick she constructed for Towers’ son as a gift. Her source of distraction may have changed, but her reaction to death remained the same: she clung on to the thing that numbed the pain, whether it be alcohol or Towers. She simply wanted to be pain-free, which is further supported by her actions towards the end of her life. Once Towers left Australia to die with his ship, Moira was left alone with her pain once more.
She drove to a cliff to overlook the ocean, and there, she resulted to her original source of numbing: alcohol. Her final shot of brandy was taken along with a suicide pill and she died pain free. Another character who attempts to distract themselves from the inevitable end rather than facing it, is Mary Holmes. Yes, for the majority of the story Mary also acted the way she did because her ignorance brought her comfort. However, once her husband made her aware of the seriousness of their situation, there were instances where she tried to distract herself from the horrible truth. For instance, once Peter and Mary were ready to take their own lives they were faced with deciding what to do with their daughter. And instead of Mary facing the issue she said “She’s too ill.
I’d rather think of her like she was, when we were all well.” (Shute 243). She selfishly decides to not deal with her infant daughter, leaving Peter to be forced to euthanize her. Mary used her husband as a shield and sat in her room awaiting her own peaceful release, while her husband killed their baby girl.
She did so because she did not want to face the truth, and would rather have her husband handle things while she distracted herself. Most people in On the Beach viewed death as a unfair end, but characters such as John Osborne quickly accepted his end and took advantage of his final months. John, as Shute describes, is “a man whose time was spent theorizing in an office or, at best, in a laboratory” and seeks more enjoyment in life (Shute 128). He immediately accepts his fate and explains his views to Peter: “It’s not the end of the world at all. It’s only the end of us. The world will go on just the same, only we shan’t be in it. I dare say it will get along alright without us” (Shute 96).
Due to his scientific background, he has a very straight forward view on the situation, free of hope or emotion. He views the apocalypse as a way to obtain the enjoyment he always craved. With the newly acquired freedom the end of the world has brought him, John decided to fulfill his life long dreams and enjoy the little life he had left. In the novel, he devoted all his time to his ferrari, and began to put himself into haphazard situations just for the thrill of it all. For example, he faces his fear by boarding the submarine even though, truthfully, he “had been terrified every time they submerged” (Shute 128). He also puts his life on the line for a chance to win the Australian Grand Prix; of which does succeed in. All as a part of a plan to complete his life’s dream.
He never feared death, and set out to truly live his life. Another characters who was fast to accept death was Douglas Froude; an elderly man who was already nearing his end. Douglas knew very well that his life was ending years before the catastrophic war poisoned the earth, and put his belief into words saying: “Stuff and nonsense.
I saw this coming twenty years ago. Still, it’s no good blaming anybody now. The only thing to do is to make the best of it.” (Shute 78). He is also John’s great uncle, which may explain why the both of them in particular are the ones to set goals before the apocalypse climaxes. He is found by Peter and Towers at the Pastoral Club in Melbourne, where he has been attending three times a week for the last few weeks.
His goal, as he explains to Peter and Towers, is to rid the club of all their wine, drinking all day and even taking a bottle home everytime he leaves. He seemed completely at ease and spent his last months getting ridiculously drunk and enjoying every moment of it. Him and his nephew John appeared to be the most at peace when their final moments came; perhaps it was because they were the quickest to realize their fate was inevitable, and opted to enjoy their final days on Earth.
It is interesting how many characters in the novel attempted to keep life relatively similar to how things were before the bombs were dropped. And even though the world was ending, for them, the world ended more with a whimper, rather than a bang (Nichols 46). And in August, as the radiation arrived in Melbourne, each of the main characters choses to control his or her own destiny rather than wait for death (Davis 879). They each had different ways they dealt with the struggle, but each way provided them with a feeling of comfort, distraction, or enjoyment in their final days.