One From the Archive: ‘The Moon is Down’ by John Steinbeck ****

First published in May 2014.

John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down was first published in 1942.  Its title comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and on reflection, it suits the piece marvellously.  Unlike much of Steinbeck’s other work, no concrete setting has been decided upon within The Moon is Down.  Even the country in which the action happens is ambiguous, with many believing that it is set somewhere in Scandinavia.

The informative afterword to the novella, which has been written by Donald V. Coers, tells the reader that in The Moon is Down, Steinbeck ‘had decided to write a work of fiction using what he had learned about the psychological effects of enemy occupation upon the populace of conquered nations’.  In doing so, Coers goes on to say that Steinbeck ‘refused to adopt the contemporary Teutonic stereotype’ for either his setting or his protagonists.  He also believes that The Moon is Down ‘demonstrates the power of ideas’, and one can only concur with this.

The first sentence is striking, and leads on wonderfully to the main thread of the story: ‘By ten forty-five it was all over.  The town was occupied, the defenders defeated, and the war finished’.  At the beginning of the novella, six of the soldiers who have been involved in a brutal spur-of-the-moment shootout ‘became dead riddled bundles’, and three others are deemed ‘half-dead riddled bundles’.  This repetition of violence makes it all the more chilling.

Steinbeck goes on to write about the way in which, in the occupied town, ‘The days and the weeks dragged on, and the months dragged on…  The people of the conquered country setled in a slow, silent, waiting revenge’.  Steinbeck exemplifies the solidarity of the community throughout, particularly with regard to the attitudes rallied against the outsiders.    The community in question is centered around mining, and the colonel who infiltrates the town tells the Mayor that his people ‘will be in danger if they are rebellious.  We must get the coal, you see.  Our leaders do not tell us how; they order us to get it…  You must make them do the work and thus keep them safe’.  The Mayor responds that the ‘authority is the town… [and] when a direction is set, we all act together’.  The point of view of both sides has been considered throughout, a technique which works marvellously in a novella, and which makes the whole an incredibly rich read despite its deceptively short length.

John Steinbeck

As with Steinbeck’s other work, I was struck immediately by the quality of his writing and his deft skill, both at building characters and rousing compassion for them.  The scenes which he crafts are unfailingly vivid, and everything which he turns his hand to describing comes to life before the very eyes: ‘Beside the fireplace old Doctor Winter sat, beared and simple and benign, historian and physician to the town…  Doctor Winter was a man so simple that only a profound man would know him as profound’.  Joseph, the serving-man belonging to the Mayor, on the other hand, had a life ‘so complicated that only a profound man would know him to be simple’.  The divisions, like this one, which he creates between his characters have all been so marvellously realised: ‘Joseph had tried carrying Doctor Winter’s remarks below-stairs before and it had always ended the same: Annie always discovered them to be nonsense’.  Such juxtapositions, which can be found at various points throughout the novella, allow Steinbeck to make his work and his characters so distinct.  His perceptions in such matters are always intelligent.

The Moon is Down is a sage novella, written by a man who is a master at creating believable dialogue and conversational patterns between his characters.  He captures their thoughts and feelings in the most sublime of manners; it feels, in consequence, as though he knows them inside out.  The way in which he captures the foreboding which hovers above the town is stunning, and the entire novella is eminently human and thought-provoking.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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