32 pages 1 hour read

John Steinbeck

The Moon Is Down

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1942

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Summary and Study Guide


Published in March 1942 and inspired by Steinbeck’s work during the World Wars, The Moon is Down explores the psychological, moral, and ethical implications of a town occupied during wartime. The novel focuses on the struggle of an authoritarian occupier, Colonel Lanser, to subdue the democratic revolt of the people in an unnamed northern European town.

John Steinbeck is a prominent figure of American contemporary fiction and is the author of 33 completed works, including the novels East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath, and the novella Of Mice and Men. The Moon is Down was published soon after The Grapes of Wrath, which won Steinbeck a Pulitzer Prize. This summary reflects the 1995 reprinted Penguin edition.

Plot Summary

The Moon is Down opens with Colonel Lanser’s occupation of a small, unnamed northern European town in an unnamed country during an unnamed war. The town is located near a waterway with access to railroads, and its main export is coal from the local mines. Lanser has been instructed to occupy the town and improve its rail system so that coal can be transported from the town to the front lines of the war.

Mayor Orden and Doctor Winter act as the town’s primary leadership. Colonel Lanser attempts to convince Orden to cooperate, but Orden resists on the basis that he represents a democratic office and cannot cooperate or resist Lanser until he better understands the townspeople’s wishes. Colonel Lanser sets up his command post in Orden’s house. His close staff, comprising five men with little wartime experience relative to his own, likewise live in Mayor Orden’s house.

Lanser’s soldiers begin their occupation of the town with the idealistic image of heroes their military recruiters and leaders convinced them they would be. As the coal mine is the town’s most important asset, Lanser orders his men to force the miners to continue their work and restrict food access when necessary. Alex Morden, a worker at the mine, refuses to continue working. In the ensuing fight, he hits and kills Captain Bentick of Lanser’s staff. Lanser holds a dummy trial for Alex at the Mayor’s house, then executes Alex via a firing squad led by Lieutenant Tonder.

Alex’s act convinces Mayor Orden that the town wishes to fight against their invaders and secure their freedom. He becomes involved in the townspeople’s attacks and attempts an escape with the help of his household staff, Joseph and Annie. As the winter intensifies, Lanser’s soldiers quickly lose their morale and idealism. The townspeople attack and kill soldiers they find walking alone at night and combat the soldier’s need for comfort by remaining cold and unfriendly towards them. Lieutenant Tonder is particularly affected by this as he starts to question their military’s leadership, the psychological effects of war, and the moral implications of their occupation.

One night, Annie visits Alex Morden’s widow Molly, announcing that Mayor Orden and the Anders brothers will visit her prior to the brothers’ fleeing to England. While Annie is gone, Lieutenant Tonder visits Molly. Tonder does not know that Molly is Alex’s widow and attempts to convince her to show him love and affection. Molly treats him derisively, claiming that her affection can be bought for the price of two sausages to supplement her rations. Tonder leaves just as Annie returns with the mayor and the Anders brothers. Together, the group settles on a plan for the Anders brothers to request small weapons of destruction or poison from the English to be dropped by plane near the town and allow the townspeople to fight against Lanser’s forces. Tonder returns, and Molly hurries the mayor’s group out of the backdoor. She hides knitting shears in her dress and kills Tonder that night.

The Anders brothers successfully reach England. Soon, the English send planes to deploy small packages with parachutes that contain simple explosives and directions to use these explosives to destroy the rail lines. The townspeople begin to collect these explosives and blow up the rail lines as well as other key points in the town. Per his instructions, Lanser must place Mayor Orden and Doctor Winter under house arrest. He hesitates to execute them, but he is forced to do so when the townspeople continue to use weapons against his soldiers. Mayor Orden reflects on the nature of his office prior to his death, and his belief that the town does not need his leadership because the democratic cause of freedom is strong enough to withstand the loss of a leader.