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The idea that I could outgrow a book surprises me. My tastes are liberal, encompassing everything from nineteenth century classics to the latest graphic novel, and I can largely separate personal taste from artistic sensibility. Yet, sadly, that is what has happened with Nevil Shute’s On the Beach.

I first read On the Beach as a young teenager. Its years as a bestseller were about a decade in the past, but it seemed to me a bridge between mainstream and science fiction – something I was making a conscious effort to find, since examples were few in number. I read it two or three times, finding myself haunted by its depiction of the last humans waiting their unavoidable death from radiation poisoning after a nuclear war.

The book survived all my moves, yet somehow in the intervening decades, I never took it off the shelf to read again until yesterday. Something of the effectiveness of the setting remained, but I found it a clumsy, almost unreadable book. Part of what bothered me was Shute’s fondness for telling rather than showing, and his painfully obvious red herrings, but what bothered me most was the shallow characterization of the two main female characters.

Not, you understand, that Shute depicted his male characters with any skill. The first is Dwight Towers, the captain of the last American submarine. He is dull as most characters defined by their dedication to duty are. He might generate a little pathos in his continued devotion to his deceased family, but since that devotion makes him reject any but the most Platonic relationship with the Australian woman he loves – despite their impending fate – he comes across as a cad instead. Still, he comes off better than Peter Holmes, the Australian liaison officer with the submarine, who has no observable personality beyond being a newly married man with a young baby.

The men, however, are masterpieces of Shakespearean subtlety compared to the women in their lives. Moira Davidson, the woman Towers spends time with when he is off duty, is a hard-drinking party-goer in her mid-twenties, with a reputation – apparently undeserved – for being a loose woman that is based mostly on her risque talk. Influenced by Towers, she responds to his nobility by discovering her own.

In ordinary circumstances, she confides to the other woman, she would do all she could to seduce him away from his wife. “’It’d be worth doing her dirt if it meant having Dwight for good, and children, and a home, and full life,’” Davidson says. “’But to do her dirt just for three month’s pleasure and nothing at the end of it – that’s another thing.’” I may be a loose woman, but I don’t know that I’m all that loose.’” Instead, she supports his doublethink about his family still being alive, and follows his suggestion that she take secretarial classes to give purpose to her life in the brief time that remains.

As for Mary Holmes, an examination of her mental competence would have no sure outcome. Her only interest is her new baby and her home, and, while some allowance must be made for denial she makes no effort to understand what is happening. Her stupidity gives her husband Peter an excuse to lecture the readers through her, but she is genuinely surprised when the radiation arrives, and wonders if cough drops would protect her from it. “’I’m glad we haven’t got newspapers now,’” she says shortly before they die. “’It’s been much nicer without them.’” She is humored by her husband, and, needless to say, no help at all when the family commits suicide to avoid suffering the lingering death through radiation. Instead, she follows her husband’s lead, and only in her last moments shows any understanding of what is happening.

These female characters are despicable in themselves. But what is worse is that, despite their very different attitudes, they have no trouble confiding in each other for no better reason than the fact that their men are at sea. In reality, two such women would despise each other. Yet Shute assumes that because they are women, they want the same thing, which allows them to become confidants.

Even worse, Shute seems to consider Mary Holmes an example for Davidson. Despite Davidson’s greater intelligence, she ends up much the same, following her man into death without a thought of her own.

Naturally, it would be wrong to blame Shute for setting On the Beach in a time when gender roles – especially for women – were so limited. But I do blame him, very much, for accepting those roles without any question, and being unable to see past them and depict the women in his novel as individuals. A more talented writer would have had Davidson resisting the transformation into a good woman, perhaps even tempting Dwight unsuccessfully and uncertain whether to be angry at him.

Similarly, Mary would be more human if she showed more awareness, and a scene or two revealed that she was playing the role she thought necessary for her husband’s well-being, or wished she had more time for herself. The gender atmosphere of the novel might still have been uncomfortable for a reader today, but at least it wouldn’t have seemed so much the result of an impoverished imagination.

I dislike discarding a book; it always feels close to censorship. But I found On the Beach so distasteful that I know that I’ve read it for the last time.

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