John Steinbeck's 1942 novel The Moon is Down can be interpreted as a propaganda piece, aimed at emboldening and comforting the conquered peoples of Europe during the Second World War. However, admitting this pragmatic objective of the book does not necessarily detract from the value of the arguments or themes found within. Steinbeck manages to convey a comprehensive picture of contrasting world perspectives though his depiction of a fictitious small town in Scandinavia. He takes special care to characterize the standpoints of individual German soldiers, suggesting their mentalities' representative and prevalent holds upon the nation's broader self-identity. Additionally, notable emphasis is placed upon the ordinary nature of the townsfolk. The fundamental theme that Steinbeck wishes to communicate is that the very mechanisms by which the German military extends its dominance over the conquered demand that their empire will ultimately fail: it is a consequence of the social structure that the Germans impose, and of human nature. Thus, ordinary people suddenly become heroes, symbols, and martyrs; while the Germans themselves become disenfranchised with warfare, and increasingly cruel in their dominion. In this respect, The Moon is Down is a commentary upon the Nazi approach to sociology and peace, as well as a rallying cry for those who may otherwise deign themselves hopeless.
The novel begins by mimicking the swift and confusing characteristics brought on by the German war machine. Steinbeck writes, "By ten-thirty the brass band of the invader was playing beautiful and sentimental music in the town square while the townsmen, their mouths a little open and their eyes astonished stood about listening to the music and staring at the grey-helmeted men who carried sub-machineguns in their arms." (Steinbeck, 211). He goes on to delineate the time at which the town's soldiers will killed and buried; and the time, "The town was occupied, the defenders defeated, and the war finished," and all of this taking place within fifteen minutes (Steinbeck, 211). He confronts the reader with this information immediately and unexpectedly -- just as the information befalls the town. But also, the exact times are mentioned. This reflects the notion that such important bits of information can be received and placed into their appropriate context almost immediately, while the substantive scope of the events remain far from full comprehension. This point is similarly reflected by Dr. Winter's emphasis upon the historical importance of unfolding events, but that the temporal distance of the invasion's interpretation is necessarily far-removed from the events themselves. Dr. Winter notes, "They hurry toward their destiny as if it would not wait. They push the rolling world along their shoulders." (Steinbeck, 212). In short, the book opens as the bewildered townspeople gradually come to recognize that they have become the latest victims of the German Blitzkrieg. Immediately, the contrasting analysis of the German people and their conquered subjects begins.
The mayor and his close associates quickly need to prepare to meet with the Nazi Colonel. They are all disorientated in the wake of the morning's events, and are equally confused as to how the Colonel should be received. The mayor's wife -- referred to as Madame -- briefly debates with Winter as to whether they should offer the Colonel wine; they are specifically concerned with the appropriate formalities of warfare. However, Mayor Orden stands as the voice of reason, and first assumes this position when he compares the ancient perspectives of leaders regarding warfare to a foxhunt. He concludes, "Six town boys were murdered this morning. I think there will be no hunt breakfast. The people do not fight wars for sport." (Steinbeck, 216). Hence, Orden asserts his role as both a man of the people -- not a far-removed prince or king -- and an individual who recognizes the delicate realities of modern warfare.
It is soon revealed that the Germans had a spy in Mr. Corell, and that he aided in arranging the expedient invasion of the approximately two-hundred troops. Consequently, Orden refuses to tolerate his presence when Colonel Lancer arrives; this begins Corell's perpetual alienation from both the German officers and the townsfolk. When the two representative leaders meet the striking similarities between Orden and Lancer's characters rear themselves, as well as the differing sources from which their authorities derive. Orden only holds power so long as he accommodates the wills of his people; Lancer's power, on the other hand, stems completely from his capability to enforce. Nevertheless, the two men seem to connect with one another from the start, and to easily recognize their opponent's particular position. They are each tremendously candid with one another. Lancer asserts that he is bound by his orders, and that his orders are to extract and ship coal from their mines. This objective will be brought about one way or another. Essentially, the Germans make slaves of the townspeople by forcing to mine the coal by any coercive methods necessary.
Throughout The Moon is Down the particular methodology of German occupation makes itself known. Lancer insists that the mayor maintain his position of authority, and that the German officers should occupy the same house as the local officials. He claims, "We have found that when a staff lives under the roof of local authority, there is more tranquility." (Steinbeck, 220). However, Orden quickly recognizes the trap: if he bends to the German will without the support of his people, his power will vanish and his title will mean nothing. Lancer argues, "But you are the authority," but Orden retorts, "You won't believe this, but it is true: authority is in the town." (Steinbeck, 220). It is not altogether clear whether Lancer grasps this theme initially, but by the tale's conclusion he undeniably sees the flaws inherent to forced occupation.
From this initial encounter Steinbeck shifts his attention to the German soldiers. He carefully constructs each of his characters so that they embody a particular aspect of German justifications for occupation and war in general. Within the German ranks are poets, artists, career soldiers, Aryan idealists, pragmatists, and romantics. Each looks at the war and his own personal actions through a separate lens, and this view is augmented as their experience in war fails to match their preconceptions.
Out of this fundamental framework, Steinbeck wishes to depict the escalating events that facilitate rebellion and deflate an occupational force. The igniting spark occurs when Mr. Morden refuses to work in the mine, declaring his freedom as a human being -- consequently, he kills Bentick. The only response to this insubordination that the Germans are capable of is to tighten their brutal grip upon the community. Lancer begins to become aware of his bind; he says, "We will shoot this man and make twenty new enemies. It's the only thing we know, the only thing we know." (Steinbeck, 231). By the inherent properties of the slave-driven society that the Germans created, punishments have the effect of setting-off an exponential wave of rebellion. Still, Lancer is bound by his orders, so the handed-down mechanisms of order must be followed. Morden is given a mock trial and promptly executed.
In the months that follow increased rebellion breeds increased cruelty; soldiers are murdered, so the people are starved. Steinbeck expresses the deepening hatred of the people towards their oppressors, but he also articulates the result this has upon the German soldiers. Tonder, for one, attributes the loneliness and hatred he experiences to the townsfolk. He exclaims: "These people! These horrible people! These cold people! They never look at you." (Steinbeck, 242-3). He is unable to reconcile the reports of conquest and cheering crowds he hears of the war abroad with his own experiences. Accordingly, he pins the blame of the people themselves, and their inability to discern Germany's divine goal. Tonder's loneliness drives him to seek out Molly Morden. He explains his disillusionment to her: "They told us the people would like us, would admire us. They do not. they only hate us." (Steinbeck, 250). His need for a female companion eventually results in his death -- Molly kills him and escapes the town.
Molly is not the only one to escape, however. The Anders brothers flee to England where they convey Orden's message that the civilians need covert weapons. Subsequently, allied bombers begin to pepper the countryside with packages bearing dynamite and chocolate. Again, the Germans address this problem the only way they can; they arrest those who they deem responsible and hold them as hostages in the hope of breaking the citizen's resolve. The individuals arrested are Orden and Winter.
The pair maintains their places of authority throughout the novel because they continue to address the needs of the people. Consistently, they bear the demands of the townsfolk in mind to their deaths by not pleading with them for peace. With this they invoke the philosophical notions constructed within Plato's Republic, and specifically, the "Apology" of Socrates. During the final moments of their lives they attempt to recall the exact wording of the "Apology," and to live up to…