Alex Garland, The Beach

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Utopia and Rational Thinking on The Beach


The word "Utopia" was first used by Sir Thomas More in 1516, and is now generally thought of as an imagined perfect place or state. The characters of Alex Garland's The Beach delude themselves that utopia is attainable and subvert the principles of rational thinking on which their utopia is built.

The physical environment

The physical environment of The Beach is considered a paradise by the characters. In the early stages of the novel there are "good times" and little misfortune, affecting the way the characters view their situation. They are unwilling to think ahead to any type of emergency situation and manage to ignore the negative aspects of their surroundings. As events take a turn for the worse, the main characters begin to see that they are effectively trapped on the beach, with patrolling "drug lords" on the one side, and inhospitable nature on the other. Up until the shark attack, which is a pivotal moment in the story, seem to view nature and particularly the ocean as innocent and harmless, there to look pretty and provide food. Despite realising the more sinister aspects of their circumstances, the characters easily slip back to their "normal" state of mind after the attack, as the character of Jed points out: "They've been playing football [. . .] None of them thinking to check up on Christo!" (Garland 332). This self-delusion in favour of the sense of purpose the beach community provides them can be seen in the dystopic science fiction of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale ; "Where I am is not a prison but a privilege, as Aunt Lydia said, who was in love with either/or" (Atwood 18 ). The inhabitants of the beach do feel they are privileged to participate, to "stop the world and restart life" (Garland 133). The characters are willing to ignore the oppressive elements of their surroundings, and this is aided by their continual drug use, one of their only forms of "escape" from the community they are part of, which is supposed to be close to perfect.

Failure of the Utopia is inevitable

Most Utopian fiction carries the underlying message of the impossibility of achieving the ideal state. In The Beach , one of the forms this idea takes is that of the map main character Richard drew for some American travellers before reaching the island. This implies a countdown to the time when the island will be discovered and the beach community destroyed. The map creates suspense in the story, as the guilt Richard feels over the map underlies his every move. The cultural narrative of the "happy ending," namely that humans worry more than necessary because the situation is never as bad as they had imagined, can be seen in Richard's reaction to the news that the Americans had reached the opposite island. He thought it to be "'The worst case scenario'" (Garland 232) because he might be expelled the island. The resulting murders of the American travellers and general chaos of the climax are far worse than Richard had imagined. Richard deludes himself over his own actions, also demonstrating the inevitability of the failure of the Utopian community.

The deterioration of the Utopian community can also be attributed to the role of media in the lives of the characters. They construct and make sense of their lives through media and fiction narratives. The characters grew up in a world saturated by media, where the principal human activity is the consumption of fiction represented through some kind of media. This shared cultural meaning system allows the characters to understand and predict one another's behaviour according to the cultural they all instinctively know. This can be seen when Richard manipulates Keaty for the reaction he wants in the chapter entitled "Show, Don't Tell" (Garland, 397). The phrase "show, don't tell" is a common piece of advise given to writers, as "showing" a situation will have more of an impact, and the message will be received sooner. Also, the characters do not consume any new media at all, because they do not create any. Without new ideas to occupy them and help them make sense of their lives, the characters can only dwell on their past media experiences, and with Richard, this contributes to his hallucinations, which are also a form of self-delusion and help in the downfall of the beach community.

This construction through media also affects the communication on the island. When Richard first arrived on the beach he was told very little about the social structure of the community, despite his direct questions. Throughout the novel, the only method of discovering the power structure is through indirect conversation, through a media representation. This is evident by the Warner Bros cartoon nick-names that the founders (and leaders) have: Bugs, Sylvester [Sal] and Daffy (Garland 136). Also it can be seen when Richard decides to test his place in the social hierarchy by beginning the "'Night John-Boy" ritual (Garland 131) which is derived from a television programme. This poor and artificial communication, reminicent of the slang used in Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange , leads to the factioning of the people on the island, and rumours of a secret police (in the form of Richard).

The characters of The Beach feel that they are living in as close to a utopia as humanly possible. The society they formed they based, apparently without discussion, on certain cultural assumptions and principles. First, they have decided that they are answerable only to themselves, and not to any people outside the beach or any higher being. Also, that all individuals are equal, that society as a whole takes precedence over the individual and that human beings are fundamentally co-operative. The nature of power is assumed, and although it is never discussed, they seem to have a system of voluntary co-operation between individuals for their own mutual benefit (socialist-anarchism), with the only supervising authority of Sal.

The character of Sal subverts these principles to justify selfish short-term actions As has often been pointed out - for example, in the well-known Prisoner's Dilemma problem - to work against the common good for short term benefits can cause one's own downfall. To work against the common good for short term benefits can cause one's own downfall. This is the principle the co-operation depends on. After the shark attack, the characters debate whether to take the injured Christo and "insane" Karl back to the other islands for treatment. It is Sal who wants to hold on to her island paradise for as long as possible, and so she instructs the other members to make a "fresh start" (Garland 319), and thereby boost morale among the community. This is under the principle of "for the good of the group" but actually ignores the needs of the group for the short-term goal of hanging on to the island a little longer. In the long term, sacrificing the life of Christo would hasten the end of the island community, as Jed points out, " 'If they [the Americans] make it to the beach, " he said. 'They'll see Christo die. Everything here will fall apart' " (Garland 335). Other effects of this short-term thinking are that the beach would eventually become uninhabitable, as many would not be able to live with such brutality, and also the community would have no means of dealing with another shark attack, should one ever occur again. Sal subverts the basic rational principle by which the characters live, persuading them to go along instead with her selfish plans to keep the island community going.

In trying to protect the beach from the tourist masses which the characters of Sal and Richard feel would destroy "their" beach, they justify their own destructive behaviour. Sal allows Christo to die, and orders Richard to kill Karl. Richard allows the American travellers to be murdered. They both see this as the only way to protect their Utopia, but by doing so they destoy it, and make it oppressive and uninhabitable. The delusion that they could live in such a cut-off and lawless society is exposed by the way they have to twist their own principles to make the society work, and even then it falls apart.

Although most Utopian fiction demonstrates the impossibility of obtaining that state, this is not to say that current societies cannot be improved and more co-operation achieved. However, more co-operation between nations at present is indicative only of globalisation, and some would argue that the individual is less and less important, as in the warnings issued in Utopian and dystopian fictions.


Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid's Tale. [place]. Vintage, 1986.

Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. [place]. Penguin, 1962.

Du Gay, Paul, et al. Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman. London: Sage-The Open University, 1997.

Garland, Alex. The Beach. [place]. Penguin, 1997.

Serendipity; Lear. Prisoner's Dilemma . H2G2. 20 March 2001.

St Emily Ultramarine, la Reine des Poissons Rouges, DoG. The Dystopian Novel .H2G2. 24 January 2001.

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