Martin Ernst

On the beach, being one of Nevil Shute’s latest novels, points out the failure of mankind by means of an atomic war. In the story it is clearly pointed out how far this failure shows its impact to the very personal actions of the people.

In the late 1950’s the USS atomic submarine Scorpion is patrolling between Kiska and Midway near Manila when several atomic explosions take place. It is the Russo-NATO War.

Commander Dwight L. Towers is in charge to start a longer journey in order to find out whether there is still life on Earth and where people may have survived. During this journey, which lasts 1 ½ years, he measures of the level of radioactivity at different points on Earth and he has to keep the crew going in spite of their states of mind which are caused by depressions.

In a very dry language that is reduced to telling the actions of the people and which is neither describing their sentiments nor their feelings, Shute describes the long journey of the USS Scorpion and her crew, but not do it is often the case in mythology, with an end that is marked by finding, but here with an end that is so unspectacular that it indicates the end of mankind “with a whimper” as T.S. Eliot wrote.

The main characters are Commander Towers of the USS Scorpion, being a quiet soft spoken man of 35 years, who is often described of showing an expressionless face. He is a man of few words who is extremely duty-orientated. He is a real patriot.

Than there is Moira Davidson who is an Australian farmer’s daughter living with her parents at a small farm. She is a family character full of duty and responsibility. Moira is both strong and weak, she is strong when she is confronted with death and she is weak at the same time when she needs a bottle of brandy to face it.

The characters in Nevil Shute’s novel remain reduced to the momentary situation. There is no variety of personal aspects, no development. The relationships between the persons slowly fall apart as is doing the surrounding radioactivity, too.

The structure in which Nevil Shute has organized “ON THE BEACH” is a good means to point out the unspectacular end of mankind as a result of atomic threatening.

In the beginning we learn about Commander Towers and some bureaucratic and technical aspects of his job. Then we are given the information about the Russo-NATO War. This is followed by the long journey of the USS Scorpion, being left alone. In the end, the focus is upon the persons but we don’t learn anything about their deeper feelings. In this regard, Shute has anticipated their death. In the very end it is only duty that lasts. In a final action Dwight decides to flood the Scorpion, and is accepting in this way a death marked by solitude, while Moira has to face a voluntary and lonely death at the same time, sitting in her big car. Even her Lord’s Prayer stands solitary and secluded.

The most fascinating aspect of this novel is how Nevil Shute manages to combine the formal aspects of style with the contents of what he writes, it is the frank and open language and the pure description of the action that can be seen as a mirror of the situation after the atomic explosions when everything is reduced to basic deeds.

This reduction comes out very clearly in chapter 6. Here, Shute describes how the rational, logical and consequent aspect of social behavior is rendered obsolete when the navel officers decide to offer the man on the beach no helping hand, being afraid of getting contaminated. In the end, they are all confronted with death without having acted in a compassionate way they are reduced to duty and patriotism.

In the 21st century “ON THE BEACH” can be deeply recommended, because the threatening of atomic war still remains existent. Where as in the 1950’s in this fictional novel the Russo-NATO War brakes out, there is now atomic threatening coming from the area India-Pakistan. May be human behavior could be the same as in the novel so “ON THE BEACH” is more up to date than ever. The main groups to recommend the book are certainly adolescents interested in the human aspect behind war techniques, as well as young engineers working unit.

The inescapable conclusion way of Nevil Shute’s fictive novel “ON THE BEACH” is that we are to learn that by an atomic war the vivid variety of life in general and more concretely of human behavior, is reduced to a few basic and representative actions in which we do not find neither the values nor the ethics necessary for the whole variety of life on Earth. When mankind is reduced to itself this can lead but to failure. While “ON THE BEACH” is a popular novel with an implying social criticism, there is no political dimension in the book, no spiritual one and no ethical one. The story is strongly influenced by a state of mind that has grown in a mainly technical (aeronautical) based career of the writer. His writing could be seen as a windfall product of an aircraft engineer and secret service officer who turned out to become a passionate and important writer. In front of this background Nevil Shute gives the reader a feeling of a lead-colored sadness where there is no hope

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