'The Moon is Down' by John Steinbeck (1942)

The Moon is Down - John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck, The Moon is Down (London: Penguin Classics, 2000), 112pp


In this novel, John Steinbeck transposed his signature "empathy with the oppressed" (as it is termed in my Penguin edition's introduction) from the people of the economic depression in the United States (which made his name with books like The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men) to ordinary townspeople in Nazi-occupied Europe in World War Two. Written in 1941-2 as Allied propaganda to be disseminated to the peoples of Europe (Steinbeck was a member of the OSS), the novel is of such a fine quality and possessing of such a timeless, well-articulated message that it transcended mere propaganda. Steinbeck later called The Moon is Down a "celebration of the durability of democracy"; indeed, the book works better as an advocacy of ideas than as entertainment. The plot is linear and predictable, the language atmospheric but not exactly lyrical.

But as a message, a manifesto, it is exceptional. Steinbeck traces the fortunes of a small town in an unspecified neutral country (popular consensus is that it is Norway) from the shock and surprise of its occupation to the beginning of the end of its resistance. At first, the tone of the book is almost farcical (in a positive sense), as baffled townsfolk fret over the correct etiquette for greeting one's conquerors ("It's been so long since... anybody conquered us. I don't know what is proper." (pg. 9)). Over time, it is realised that their consciences disallow them to collaborate with the occupiers; there "is a spark in little men that can burst into flame" when wronged (pg. 106). The oppressive disdain of the populace begins to fray on the nerves of the occupying garrison - "the conqueror was surrounded, the men of the battalion alone among silent enemies, and no man might relax his guard for even a moment." (pg. 58). This "terrible spiritual siege" (pg. 60) would, of course, in 1942 have been meant as a blueprint for the peoples of Europe, showing how it can be done ("We could fight his rest, then... his sleep... his nerves and his certainties." (pg. 84)) and detailing how the conquerors "grew afraid of the conquered and their nerves wore thin and they shot at shadows in the night." (pg. 59). Steinbeck uses one poetic metaphor - "Flies conquer the flypaper." (pg. 68) - evoking images of an aggressor being unable to prosecute his war if he is constantly bogged down in the territories he has already conquered.

Unusually, and in what was a rather bold move considering this was meant as propaganda, Steinbeck does not shirk the realities of civil disobedience and resistance when the force to be resisted is as cruel as the Nazis. Steinbeck shows, through the plot, how the Germans become less cordial and more hardline in response to the citizenry's actions; Steinbeck does not gloss over the losses made to the town in the form of summary executions, but still makes a convincing case as to why the resistance must continue. Whilst it may initially seem counter-productive as propaganda, it must have been gratifying for resistance movements in occupied Europe to know that their sacrifices were not taken for granted by their de facto allies.

What is even bolder (and remember that this was written at the height of the Second World War, with a target audience comprising of the very people suffering under Nazi occupation) is the sympathetic portrayal of the German garrison. Steinbeck paints the occupiers as ordinary men who just happen to wear another uniform, an approach which is usually reserved for anti-war literature written years after the fact when hatred has subsided. The enemy soldiers talk of "things that they longed for - of meat and of hot soup and of the richness of butter, of the prettiness of girls and of their smiles and of their lips and their eyes." (pg. 70). Some are fearful, perhaps in the growing realisation that they are on the wrong side of history, believing in a fascistic system "invented by a genius so great that they never bothered to verify its results" (pg. 21), but mostly because they know they are deeply unwelcome in this foreign town. One soldier breaks, wanting to be back home among friends in a place where "I could turn my back to a man without being afraid" (pg. 67). We gain sympathy for the Germans despite themselves, especially Lieutenant Tonder in Chapter 6. It says a lot for Steinbeck's genius that this novel was still appreciated by his target audience despite this characterisation.

Above all, this is an inspiring novel, even many years after the people it was initially written to inspire are long dead. Many modern readers (hopefully) won't have to endure occupation of their country by a foreign army, but Steinbeck's words would still be relevant if they did. Steinbeck created a durable "celebration of the durability of democracy"; his assertion that "it is always the herd men that win battles and the free men that win wars" (pg. 111) shows an inspiring amount of faith in the heroism of ordinary people once they have had a taste of freedom. Once tasted, the common people will fight unendingly to safeguard it.

"They think that just because they have only one leader and one head, we are all like that. They know that ten heads lopped off will destroy them, but we are a free people; we have as many heads as we have people, and in a time of need leaders pop up among us like mushrooms." (pg. 105).