The Moon is Down


John Steinbeck

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The Moon is Down: Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Months go by, and the houses in the villages stoop underneath the weight of snow. As for the coal mining operation, it progresses very slowly, since the miners make mistakes and the machinery frequently breaks. Worst of all for the invaders, the townspeople look upon them with intense scorn, hating them and waiting to take revenge. Death, it seems, is “in the air,” as accidents befall the railroad project and British forces occasionally bomb the mine from above. The invaders try to control the food supply but find it impossible to starve the miners into submission, since the men need sustenance to work efficiently. Under these conditions, the soldiers must stay constantly vigilant, since the townspeople are eager to take advantage of any perceptible weakness. Indeed, if a military man drinks, he disappears, and if he goes “alone to a woman,” “some snowdrift receive[s] his body.”
At this point in The Moon Is Down, Steinbeck shifts his attention to the failing fascist effort to oppress the townspeople. The hostility of the environment in which the soldiers are forced to live is the natural result of their attempts to subordinate the villagers, and the constant setbacks are seemingly unavoidable as a result. This suggests that total conquest is a much more complicated task than any of the invading forces may have thought. Indeed, Tonder’s desire to settle in the town after war now seems even more naïve and unlikely than before.
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In these tense conditions, the officers seek refuge in the mayoral palace. One night, Prackle, Tonder, and Hunter sit in the darkness, the room lit only by lanterns because the town’s dynamo has been damaged, leaving them with no power. Finally, after some gloomy talk, the power is restored, and Tonder starts speaking about how badly he wants to go home. Prackle pokes fun at him, taunting him for having originally said he wanted to settle down in the town forever. This remark works Tonder into a fit, and he doesn’t calm down until saying, “There’s a girl in this town, a pretty girl. I see her all the time. She has blond hair. […] I want that girl.” Prackle replies, “Watch yourself. Watch your nerves,” just before the power goes out again.
What Tonder seems to lack most acutely in this moment is human connection. He finds that even Prackle—a fellow lieutenant—is reluctant to empathize with him, instead telling him to “watch [his] nerves.” Unfortunately, his loneliness inspires in him a certain greediness. He says he “wants” a certain girl in town, implying by his word choice that he thinks he can have or own her. Even though he’s suffering from the loneliness created by his fascist regime, he bases his conception of love on an authoritarian model of power and ownership, meaning that he only perpetuates the same ideals that have left him lonely and disenchanted in the first place.
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Tonder continues voicing his aggravations, which revolve around loneliness and a feeling that the war isn’t going as well as their government says. Captain Loft enters, and Tonder asks if he hears news from home very often. Loft faithfully recites the optimistic news the government propagates (that they’re winning the war), and Tonder asks if he really believes this. Tonder presses harder, growing increasingly skeptical and pessimistic until finally saying, “Captain, is this place conquered?” When Loft says, “Of course,” Tonder replies in a wild voice, “Conquered and we’re afraid; conquered and we’re surrounded.” Prackle interjects, pleading with Loft to silence Tonder, but the crazed lieutenant Tonder goes on, laughing, “Conquest after conquest, deeper and deeper into molasses. […] Flies conquer the flypaper. Flies capture two hundred miles of new flypaper!” Loft slaps Tonder, ordering him to stop. Defeated, Tonder slumps to the table, mumbling, “I want to go home.”
Tonder’s metaphor of flies conquering flypaper nicely highlights the fascist regime’s flawed thinking when it comes to conquest. When he says, “Flies capture two hundred miles of new flypaper!” he emphasizes the absurdity inherent in believing that a military presence is equal to victory and total subordination. Indeed, his metaphor calls into question the very nature of military occupation, showing that just because a town has been invaded doesn’t mean it’s actually conquered. With soldiers disappearing, bombs dropping, and the railroad constantly breaking, it’s easy to see that the conquerors have very little control over the townspeople. Furthermore, whatever power they do have is purely superficial, and soldiers like Tonder are the ones who are truly trapped and disempowered by the military occupation.
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