The Moon is Down


John Steinbeck

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The Moon is Down Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on John Steinbeck's The Moon is Down. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck was born in California only two years after the turn of the 20th century. He attended Stanford University in 1919, though he left without earning a degree six years later, at which point he worked as a journalist and manual laborer in New York City. During this time he tried his hand at a career in writing, but had trouble getting his work published and so returned to California to work a series of labor jobs. In 1935, Steinbeck first found literary success with Tortilla Flat, which follows the exploits of a group of Mexican-Americans in Monterey, California. In the following years, Steinbeck wrote several novels that focus on farming life and its difficulties. The most famous of these is arguably 1937’s Of Mice and Men. In 1939, Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath, which garnered him significant critical acclaim, including a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. Following his success with The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck went on to publish other notable works, including the 1952 novel, East of Eden. In 1962, Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Steinbeck, a lifelong smoker, died in New York City in 1968, at age 66.
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Historical Context of The Moon is Down

The Moon Is Down deals with the Second World War and the spread of Nazi Germany’s rule throughout Europe. In fact, it was composed in an effort to disseminate anti-fascist sentiments in German-occupied countries. At the time of its composition, Steinbeck was involved with an organization called the Office of the Coordinator of Information (COI), a government group that was a predecessor to the CIA. Working voluntarily for the COI in the early 1940s, Steinbeck and the group’s leader decided that the author should compose a piece of anti-fascist propaganda. Because Steinbeck had recently met a handful of northern European refugees who had fled their countries to escape German occupation, he resolved to write a fictional story about the relationship between military occupiers and the citizens they oppress. The result was The Moon Is Down, which slipped through the hands of German censors in Europe, making its way covertly from country to country and undergoing many translations and printings in underground presses. By the end of World War II in 1945, the book existed in French, Norwegian, Danish, Dutch, and Italian editions.

Other Books Related to The Moon is Down

The Moon Is Down was published only three years after one of Steinbeck’s most famous novels, The Grapes of Wrath, a stunning feat of American Realism that examines the horrific destitution of poor people in Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl during the country’s Great Depression. Whereas Steinbeck delivers unflinchingly honest and often unflattering portraits of his characters in The Grapes of Wrath, in The Moon Is Down he treats almost every figure with some measure of sympathy. Comparing the two books, detractors have criticized Steinbeck for this—arguing that depicting Nazi-esque characters as thoughtful, sensitive human beings was too lenient and too much of a departure from the rugged realism he displayed in The Grapes of Wrath. Consequently, The Moon Is Down occupies an interesting and somewhat controversial place in Steinbeck’s canon—a short and often satirical piece of propaganda, it is at once lighter and more politically charged than novels like The Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden. Although The Moon Is Down is of legitimate literary merit in and of itself, it falls into a category of anti-fascist storytelling used to bolster the spirits of people living in Nazi-occupied Europe. A similar book is a French novel by Jean Bruller (who went by “Vercors” during the war) called The Silence of the Sea, a slim work that, like The Moon Is Down, depicts German soldiers as human despite their deeply immoral actions. Both of these anti-fascist pieces were published in 1942 and circulated throughout Europe despite the Germans’ attempts to ban them.
Key Facts about The Moon is Down
  • Full Title: The Moon Is Down
  • When Written: 1941
  • When Published: March 1942
  • Literary Period: American Modernism
  • Genre: Propaganda, Wartime Fiction, Novella
  • Setting: An unnamed northern European country during World War II.
  • Climax: British allies drop aid packages to the townspeople containing dynamite, which the townspeople plan to use to destroy the invaders’ railroad system
  • Antagonist: Fascism and the authoritarian mindset that drives the invaders to oppress and conquer the townspeople
  • Point of View: Third person omniscient

Extra Credit for The Moon is Down

Macbeth. The title of The Moon Is Down comes from a line in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. Immediately before encountering Macbeth on his way to kill the sleeping king, Banquo asks Fleance how his night is going, and Fleance responds by saying, “The moon is down; I have not heard the clock.” Scholars have pointed out that Steinbeck borrows this line as a way of foreshadowing the imminent and unforeseen dangers the invaders face at the hands of the townspeople they attempt to subjugate.

Broadway & Big Screen. In April 1942, just a month after its publication, The Moon Is Down was adapted for the stage and appeared on Broadway. The following year it was made into a movie.