The Moon is Down

Setting | Character Summaries| Plot Synopsis | Critical Reception
Cultural References | Key Terms and Concepts




While volunteering his writing services to various government agencies during World War II, Steinbeck wrote The Moon Is Down (1942), a fictional story meant to boost wartime morale. The short novel, however, survives not merely as a propaganda period piece. It is another testament to Steinbeck’s celebration of the importance of the individual, an idea upon which democracy is founded. When the story opens, an unspecified town has just been conquered by invaders. The townsmen, armed with rifles, and having little experience with war, are easily conquered by the invaders, whose machine guns give them an unfair advantage over the peaceful townsmen. Though the town cannot defend itself against the better equipped and efficiently trained invaders, they have something more powerful and subversive – the democratic spirit.

Although the setting is never named in the story, it is widely believed that Steinbeck used Norway as his model, making the totalitarian invaders German Nazis. Indeed, Norwegians believed The Moon Is Down was set in their country. It was not until after the war that Steinbeck learned how important the story had been to underground resistance movements in Europe. In 1946, Norway awarded Steinbeck the Haakon VII Cross for recognition of the story’s significance to its people while under Nazi occupation. The Moon Is Down was secretly distributed in Norway, as well as in Denmark, Holland, Italy, and other countries during the war. In America, however, the book was reviewed with wildly mixed reactions. Many critics felt that Steinbeck’s depiction of the Nazis was too soft, but Steinbeck’s intention was not to demonize the Nazis and represent them as monsters. He sought instead to explore the psychological effects of occupation on both the people and their conquerors. As the story unfolds, the invaders grow nervous and paranoid living among foreign people who despise them. Despite punishing the townspeople with execution and near starvation, the soldiers ultimately cannot conquer the people. These democratic people organize an underground resistance, whereby they orchestrate escapes from the country, and accidents in the coal mine, which frequently cause the mine to slow down production, for the invaders make it clear that their interest in the town is primarily for its coal resources.

The Moon Is Down illustrates that the invaders have a Leader, and their entire movement depends on the ideology and leadership of that one person. Unlike fascism, headed in its various forms by leaders such as Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco, a democracy is not destroyed by the removal of a single person. As Dr. Winter, the most philosophical of the townspeople, remarks in The Moon Is Down, “[L]eaders pop up among us like mushrooms.” Steinbeck borrowed the title for the story from a line in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “The moon is down; I have not heard the clock.” Although Western Civilization was undergoing a dark moment in its history, its ideals of freedom and individuality would eventually prevail. Steinbeck’s belief that a free people cannot be conquered for long, that democracy, like the moon, was down only temporarily, is his message in The Moon Is Down, a much needed reminder during the bleak events of WWII.

Steinbeck first wrote The Moon Is Down as a play, and soon after adapted it into the novel described here. The play version opened on Broadway in March 1942, a month after the novel’s release.