One Sunday morning a group of invaders storms an unnamed town. The local policeman and postman, who are out at sea on a rowboat they borrowed from Mr. Corell, a popular storekeeper, watch the enemies fly toward the village. As they make haste toward land, the plane discharges parachutists, who find the town mostly empty, since the twelve local soldiers are six miles into the woods participating in a shooting competition organized by Mr. Corell. By the time the local military men arrive to defend their beloved town from the invaders, it’s already too late—six are killed, three are taken hostage, and three flee into the mountains.
Steinbeck immediately establishes The Moon Is Down as a tale of conquest by showcasing the policeman and the postman’s complete helplessness as they watch enemy invaders storm their town. That these two men are government officials is significant, as it foreshadows the clash between the village’s local officials and the invaders’ much broader network of power.
The invaders quickly take over the town, playing loud triumphant music in the central square, where the citizens gather to observe the spectacle with looks of surprise and confusion. Meanwhile, the enemy soldiers take up residence in Mr. Corell’s large warehouse and send word to Mayor Orden, the town’s top official, that their commander, Colonel Lanser, will be visiting the mayoral palace.
The fact that the conquerors play music in the central square for all to see illustrates their desire to appear civil and friendly even during a time of war and violence. In addition, they send the same kind message of feigned civility by courteously alerting Mayor Orden of Lanser’s imminent visit, a gesture that can almost be construed as polite, since it gives the mayor time to prepare as if he were about to entertain dinner guests.
Inside the palace’s drawing room, the mayor’s servant, Joseph, frets over the placement of the chairs, worrying about their exact orientations while the town’s local historian and physician, Doctor Winter, sits by the fireplace. Winter reminds Joseph that the invaders are a “time-minded people,” saying that they will most likely be punctual. “They hurry toward their destiny as though it would not wait,” he tells the anxious young man. “They push the rolling world along with their shoulders.” Joseph agrees, though he dislikes the conversation because it won’t help him in formulating a clear opinion about the town’s current circumstances.
Joseph’s obsessive placement of the chairs serves as the novella’s first instance of meticulous attention to order and control. Rendered helpless by the fact that his town has been invaded by enemies, Joseph seeks to hold onto a sense of agency and order by perfectly arranging the furniture. Likewise, he yearns to have an “opinion” about what’s going on so that he can be involved in the situation and, thus, have some modicum of control. Doctor Winter, on the other hand, accepts that he’s powerless against the invaders, as evidenced by his remark that the conquerors seem to push the entire world with their military might.
Doctor Winter asks Joseph where Mayor Orden is, and Joseph says the mayor’s wife, Madame Orden, is currently trimming his ear hairs in preparation for Colonel Lanser’s visit. Winter stands up, and Joseph takes the opportunity to put his chair exactly where it should be. Just then, a helmeted man appears outside the door. Joseph and Doctor Winter let him in, thinking he is the colonel, but the man tells them his name is Captain Bentick and that he has arrived in anticipation of the colonel in order to carry out various “military regulations,” such as searching the premises and residents for weapons. “I hope you will pardon us,” he says sheepishly to Doctor Winter as another sergeant pats down the physician’s pockets.
Once again, civility comes to the forefront, as Bentick absurdly asks for Winter to “pardon” him and his comrade for patting them down. It’s clear from the outset that this regime wants desperately to maintain an appearance of politeness, despite the fact that they are conquerors who are forcing themselves on the town. Of course, the other side also seems to consider appearances, as evidenced by Madame’s insistence that Mayor Orden have his ear hairs trimmed. Both sides, then, clearly want to make a positive impression in the other’s eyes.
“I believe there are some firearms here?” Captain Bentick asks, opening a notebook in reference. When Doctor Winter expresses his surprise at how much Captain Bentick already knows about the town, Bentick says, “Yes, our local man has been working here for some time.” He then tells Winter that Mr. Corell is an informant for the military, a fact that deeply surprises the doctor because of how well-regarded Corell is in the town.
Though it comes as no surprise to readers that Corell is the informant—since he sent the entire population away at precisely the right time for the conquerors to arrive unchallenged—Winter’s shock once more speaks to how much importance characters in The Moon Is Down place on appearances. Indeed, the doctor is baffled by the revelation because of Corell’s sterling reputation, a testament to how a person can manipulate his or her appearance to deceive others. This, perhaps, is precisely what the invaders are trying to do by behaving with such civility.
Mayor Orden finally emerges from having his ear hairs trimmed, wiggling a stubby finger into his right ear while the bright white hair atop his head fights to stand up after having been combed. Captain Bentick introduces himself and then goes to collect the two guns Mayor Orden owns. When he leaves, Doctor Winter talks to Mayor Orden and Madame Orden about how to appropriately receive Colonel Lanser. Madame asks whether they should serve tea or wine, and Doctor Winter replies, “I don’t know. It’s been so long since we conquered anybody or anybody conquered us. I don’t know what is proper.” Mayor Orden, for his part, expresses that he thinks they shouldn’t offer anything, because he doesn’t want to drink with the conquerors. “Didn’t people in the old days—the leaders, that is—compliment each other and take a glass of wine?” his wife asks.
Doctor Winter perfectly represents the confused role of civility in wartime when he says he doesn’t know what is “proper” in times of conquest. This word implies that there are rules of behavior one must call upon when dealing with enemies, a sentiment echoed by Madame’s reference to “the old days.” Unlike his wife, though, Mayor Orden seems comfortable forgoing these outdated traditions, breaking with expectations and rejecting the notion that one must remain civil in such times. Even his hair communicates this resistance to superficial appearances as it tries to stand up after having been combed. In this way, he embodies resistance, subversion, and strong will—even if only when it comes to putting on false appearances.
Despite his wife’s insistence that they offer the colonel something to drink, Mayor Orden and Doctor Winter determine that the townspeople might not like it if their leader drank with the invader. Madame protests, saying that the villagers are calmly listening to the invaders’ music in the square—“If they can do that, why shouldn’t we keep civilized procedure alive?” she asks. Nonetheless, Mayor Orden doesn’t change his opinion, reminding her that the invaders killed six townspeople that very morning and that, though the villagers might be “confused” right now about how to act, they elected him to not be confused and, because of this, he will not drink wine with the enemy.
Orden’s rejection of Madame’s notions regarding “civilized procedure” calls upon the town’s structure of democracy, emphasizing his responsibility to do what’s best for his people. By reminding his wife that the invaders killed six people that very morning, he also reminds others that the enemy’s civility is merely an act. Although it’s true they are going through the motions of “civilized procedure,” Orden sees that it is only a performance, and that he—as a democratic leader—must keep this in mind as he moves forward in his dealings with these manipulative conquerors.
When Colonel Lanser arrives, a helmeted man announces his presence and steps to the side, revealing the colonel and a man in a black suit, who Mayor Orden and Doctor Winter recognize as Mr. Corell. Lanser asks if Winter is an official, and Mayor Orden assures him that although his friend is not technically affiliated with the government he is writing a local history and deserves to be present. Colonel Lanser accepts this, saying that perhaps Winter will be including the invasion in his history. He then introduces the men to Mr. Corell, though they already know who he is. This is when Mayor Orden discovers that it was his friend the storekeeper who sold out the town. Orden is beside himself, saying: “George, this isn’t true! You have sat at my table, you have drunk port with me. Why, you helped me plan the hospital! This isn’t true!”
Once again, Mayor Orden is reminded that the appearance of civility often allows a person to manipulate others. When he says, “You have sat at my table,” he underlines the fact that closeness and politesse are, apparently, poor indicators of a person’s true trustworthiness and morality. On another note, Doctor Winter’s role as the local historian places him in an interesting position, since he will be recording the events, an act that imposes a certain kind of order on a town’s history by organizing it into a narrative. Indeed, Lanser seems aware of the power inherent in this task, and his acknowledgement that the invasion will make it into Winter’s records indicates a possible uneasiness regarding the fact that he—Lanser—is on the wrong side of history.
Mr. Corell justifies his actions to Mayor Orden, saying, “I work for what I believe in! That is an honorable thing.” Nevertheless, Orden is furious and refuses to speak with Colonel Lanser until Corell leaves. When Corell argues that he deserves to be present for this meeting, Lanser orders him to leave. Finally, Corell obeys, since he doesn’t outrank the colonel.
In this moment, Colonel Lanser relies upon military hierarchy to convince Corell to leave. Interestingly enough, he does so at the request of Mayor Orden, an act that possibly indicates a small amount of empathy for the mayor, though it’s also arguable that Lanser only tells Corell to leave because he sees it will be easier to deal with Orden if the man isn’t angry about having to speak in front of somebody who betrayed him.
Not long after Corell leaves, Mayor Orden and Colonel Lanser’s conversation is interrupted by the palace’s cook, Annie, who complains to the mayor and his wife that there is a group of soldiers on the back porch and that they keep looking through the kitchen window at her. Lanser assures her that this is only “military procedure” and that they won’t bother her. When she leaves, he turns his attention to Orden, saying, “We want to get along as well as we can. You see, sir, this is more like a business venture than anything else. We need the coal mine here and the fishing. We will try to get along with just as little friction as possible.”
Yet again, the word “procedure” appears in the text, once more illustrating that the characters in The Moon Is Down cling to notions of order in a time of general upheaval. Of course, a military invasion isn’t merely a “procedure,” but Lanser is eager to frame his fascist, oppressive military campaign as a mere “business venture” in a meager effort to soften its impact. It is worth noting that getting along “with just as little friction as possible” would primarily benefit the conquerors, making their job infinitely easier. As such, a civil relationship with the townspeople will ultimately help the invaders maintain their power and get what they want.
After Colonel Lanser explains to Orden that the rest of the country has also been invaded, the mayor asks if there has been any resistance. The colonel admits there has been, but says any retaliations have been easily resolved by the invaders. Still, Orden takes a pleasure in knowing that civilians have resisted. At this point, Lanser asks if Orden plans to cooperate, explaining that he himself is “more engineer than soldier” and saying the bottom line is simply that he and his soldiers must extract coal from the town’s mine. Orden points out that it’s possible the villagers won’t want to cooperate, asking the colonel what will happen if this is the case. “They must,” Lanser says, “They are an orderly people. They don’t want trouble. Is that not so, sir?” To this, Orden truthfully says he does not know.
Given Lanser’s eagerness to maintain a civil relationship with Orden and the townspeople, it comes as no great shock that he tries to coax the mayor into acknowledging that the villagers are “an orderly people.” When he asks, “Is that not so, sir?” it’s clear he’s trying to manipulate Orden. After all, if he convinces Orden that the villagers are “orderly” and therefore “don’t want trouble,” then the mayor will perhaps agree to go along with Lanser’s guise of civility, cooperating in the name of preserving this supposed “order.”
Continuing their discussion regarding whether or not the village will cooperate with the invaders, Colonel Lanser says that his government hopes to keep Orden as the town’s mayor. In fact, Lanser says that Orden is to “give the orders” and penalize people when necessary. Arguing that this system won’t work, Orden says the only power he has is to represent the needs and wishes of the people. “Some people accept appointed leaders and obey them,” he explains. “But my people elected me. They made me and they can unmake me. Perhaps they will if they think I have gone over to you. I just don’t know.” He elaborates on this point by saying that the villagers don’t like it when other people think for them.
As Lanser tries to trick Orden into helping the invaders by framing the process as a matter of “order,” the mayor reminds Lanser of the impressive ability of a democracy to resist authoritarian rule. He highlights this point when he affirms that the “people” can unmake him just as well as they “made” him in the first place. It is this democratic process, he shows the colonel, that enables and encourages freedom of thought. While Lanser is interested primarily in a forced sense of “order,” Orden is interested only in serving a public body that bases itself on notions of equality, fair representation, and independence.
Interrupting Colonel Lanser and Mayor Orden’s conversation, Joseph comes into the room and reports that Annie is growing increasingly agitated about the soldiers on the back porch. Madame tells him to calm her down, and discussion turns back to more immediate matters as Lanser asks Orden if the higher ranking invaders can stay in his palace. He explains that when the military lives with the “local authority,” it sets a precedent of collaboration for the townspeople. “Am I permitted to refuse this honor?” asks Orden. “I’m sorry,” Lanser says. “No. These are the orders of my leader.”
Once more, Lanser invests himself in creating an atmosphere that communicates a certain message to the public, thereby putting his confidence in the utility of keeping up certain appearances—as if the invasion is as much a theater performance as it is a military campaign. In keeping with his general skepticism, Orden yet again exposes the superficiality of these appearances by asking whether or not he is “permitted to refuse” the “honor” of hosting the officers. This statement forces Lanser to admit that their relationship isn’t predicated on an equal balance of power—a fact that destroys any pretense of civility.
A loud scream issues from the kitchen, and Joseph bursts through the door. He announces that Annie has thrown boiling water out the window and onto the soldiers on the back porch. A soldier comes in and asks if he should arrest her, since she scalded several men and bit another. Lanser thinks for a moment before ordering the soldier to let Annie go and to tell the rest of the men to leave the porch. Turning to Mayor Orden, he points out that he could have Annie shot or imprisoned, but then he focuses again on more logistical matters, telling the mayor that it is of the utmost importance that the invaders and the townspeople get along so that the military can export the village’s coal with ease.
That Colonel Lanser orders the soldiers to leave the porch shows that he has an interest in keeping tensions down for as long as possible, even in the face of outright insubordination—after all, it’s true that he could execute Annie if he wanted. Whether this display of mercy is genuine or calculated, however, is unclear, and the fact that he immediately turns his attention back to the exportation of coal suggests that he is less concerned about the soldiers’ relationship with the townspeople than he is about efficiently carrying out his duties.
Before leaving the mayoral palace, Colonel Lanser asks Orden again whether or not he intends to cooperate with the invaders. Orden explains that he won’t know what he will do until he learns what the townspeople want from him. “But you are the authority,” Lanser points out. “You won’t believe this,” Orden says in reply, “but it is true: authority is in the town. I don’t know how or why, but it is so.” He repeats that he doesn’t know what he will do yet.
Yet again, Mayor Orden emphasizes the fact that his town is built upon a democratic model of governance. Unlike Lanser’s fascist conception of “authority” as absolute and singular, the village acts as a unified whole capable of negotiating with itself until it reaches a decision. As such, Orden is bound to whatever the villagers decide, and will not use his voice to drown out his constituents.