John Steinbeck first conceived the idea for The Moon Is Down in the summer of 1941 while working for the newly organized U.S. Office of the Coordinator of Information. He intended the work he did for the novel to be propaganda in support of the Allied cause. The original setting of the novel, a fictitious town in the United States, was not acceptable to those in charge of wartime propaganda, who felt that an American setting would be bad for American morale. Steinbeck changed the setting to an unnamed country, thought by most readers to be Norway; the work was then published by Viking Press in 1942. Its title comes from a scene in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (pr. 1606, pb. 1623), in which Banquo and his son meet Macbeth as he is going to murder Duncan. Banquo asks his son, “How goes the night, boy?” to which his son replies, “The moon is down; I have not heard the clock,” suggesting the dark events that lie ahead.
To Steinbeck’s surprise, the critical response to the novel in the United States was a mix of praise and disparagement. While some reviewers wrote favorably of the work, others were troubled by its sympathetic depiction of the enemy, especially Colonel Lanser, the head of the occupying force. In Europe, however, the response was considerably more positive, especially in countries under Nazi occupation. The novel was quickly translated into Norwegian, Danish, Dutch, and French, and was secretly distributed in those countries at the height of World War II. Today the work is generally seen as a powerful parable of the inner workings of resistance and the ultimate triumph of democratic government. The sympathetic depiction of the invaders is now considered to enhance the novel’s stature by giving it a deeper sense of realism.
The work’s central characters, Mayor Orden and Colonel Lanser, in many ways counterbalance each other. In the beginning the mayor is a kind of bumbling buffoon whose wife fusses over him to make sure he is appropriately dressed; she even ensures that the hairs in his ears are trimmed prior to his first meeting with the colonel. By the end of the novel, however, the mayor has new stature and a sense of purpose, having faced up to the invaders. In the end, he applies the ennobling words of Socrates to himself, as he, like the Greek philosopher two millennia earlier, prepares for his own death because of an injustice. The colonel, on the other hand, is world-weary and well-experienced in the effects of war. He follows the orders he has been given, even as he knows the ultimate course that events will take. In his interactions with the mayor, he gains a sense of respect and understanding for him; likewise with the mayor. Thus, the book’s message is deeply felt, far more so than if the depiction of the enemy leader had been entirely negative and superficial.
Another major theme of the work is the growth of resistance among the townspeople...
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