Nevil Shute Norway Foundation

Book Review

On the Beach

An Optimistic tragedy
A Review by: Nikolay Fedorov

On the Beach is probably one of the most famous and successful novels of Nevil Shute. But at the same time it seems in some ways untypical for the writer. Characters of N. Shute, ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, overcome obstacles and get success through their will. They can recreate cities, as Henry Warren or Jean Paget. They can, as Peter Marshall, land an airplane, which is supposed to be unable to land at all. Books of Shute are full of faith in men and their possibilities. There is another situation in the novel On the Beach. Characters of this book seem to entirely depend on the fate in the appearance of inevitably coming deadly radiation. They aren't able to resist it.

But why did Shute condemn mankind to the extinction in his book? At first he wanted to say that a nuclear war would be a war without winners. Shute however could propose nothing real for warning nuclear Apocalypse. But what could he do? Nuclear menace was inherent factor of the Cold War. Sometimes only threat of self-destruction might prevent the global conflict between the superpowers. But there was a danger of developing of a local conflict into the Third World War. The writer in his novel drew a chain of escalation of the conflict - Albanian atom bomb, dropped upon Naples; interference of the USA and Britain in an Arab-Israeli war; raid of Egyptian Soviet-made bombers on Washington and London. It provoked a war between Russia and Western powers with following intervention of China. Nevil Shute blamed the war on small "irresponsible" states, which got too much nuclear weapons. Shute didn't stand for prohibition of nuclear weapons, he warned of menace of convert use of an atom bomb in a local conflict. The writer saw the problem not in the weapons, but in politics and people. He didn't find an effective solution of problem and simply told us what might be a result of a nuclear war and how this war might begin. But the war plays part of background for the novel. Main thing for Shute is psychology and conduct of the South Hemisphere people, who have to die less in than a year. What can the last generation undertake in the rest of the time?

The scientist John Osborne observes coming end of the world philosophically and even with light cynicism. He clearly realizes that death of him and all others is inevitable and uses last months of life quite appropriate, if it can be said. He completes the dream of his life - he takes part in the car racing and wins the Grand Prix of Australia. Captain Dwight Towers found his consolation and salvation in special form of religion. He believes that he'll come back to the United States, to his family. Past for him turned into future. Towers continues to serve destroyed America and be faithful to his dead wife. He could make strong impact upon Moira Davidson, whose life before the meeting with him at whole consisted of double brandies and incessant parties. She lived fast life, trying to forget of coming end. Strong character of Dwight and his high moral principles influenced her very much. Moira changed herself under his influence. She loves Dwight, but he doesn't want to betray his wife Sharon. She understands him and takes his rules. He became for her ideal man, who need to be worshipped almost as a deity. Their Platonic love seems to be similar to religious devotion. But impossibility of physical love between them is one of the most sorrow episodes of the novel. It's the most striking sign of the Apocalypse. No love - no life on the Earth. Many others characters, like Peter Holmes for example, do their common duties. But under the atmosphere of coming end these duties get new special nuances. Planting of flowers, that will flourish only after gardener's death seems more terrible than a nuclear strike. People do not escape from reality, they despise death. In Russian language, there is suitable proverb:

Umirat sobiraysya, a ogorod sey.

In English it might be poetically translated:

Going to die - sow rye.

To hide from reality try such people as Mary Holmes, Peter's wife, who doesn't believe in inevitability of death. But it only enhanced the bitterness at the end. Sense of the novel - keeping dignity, the best humane qualities in the most horrible conditions. A man must be a man even in the face of death. Philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote, that a man in the modern society could achieve true being only before death when self-delusion and vanity disappear. I can't argue with it after having read On the beach.

Nevil Shute could create in the novel an atmosphere of the death, but at the same time he depicted struggle for life, that transfers itself to a reader. For example, I've read the novel four times with subconscious hope that Dwight, Moira, Peter and other people can survive. That's why On the beach can be called a book of death that teaches to live.