The fascist military in The Moon is Down tries to give the impression that it operates according to rules of civility, hoping to convince the townspeople that this wartime invasion is a simple political matter and not a violent assault on freedom and democracy. Colonel Lanser even tells Mayor Orden that the occupation of the town is “‘more like a business venture than anything else.’” In doing so, he tries to ease his own conscience regarding his role in the war while simultaneously ensuring that the people he must subordinate stay calm and even unaware of the true significance of what’s happening. His logic is clear: if he and his soldiers appear to be civil, he hopes the villagers will not recognize their freedom being taken away from them and refrain from retaliating—like frogs in boiling water. As such, it becomes evident that appearances are of great importance during wartime. While the invaders carefully monitor their comportment so as not to upset the delicate balance of things (despite having already disturbed it beyond measure), the mayor and other townspeople pay close attention to what is happening beneath the thin veneer of civility.
From the very beginning of the invasion, the townspeople weigh the importance of treating the invading military amicably. As Mayor Orden and Doctor Winter prepare to meet with Colonel Lanser for the first time, Madame Orden asks if they should offer the colonel a glass of wine when he arrives. “‘I don’t know,’” says Doctor Winter. “‘It’s been so long since we conquered anybody or anybody conquered us. I don’t know what is proper.’” That Winter uses the word “proper” indicates that he perceives invasion and conquest as a somewhat ritualized process that calls for specific behavior. The mayor, for his part, objects to the idea of offering the enemy a glass of wine, and his wife replies by saying that the rest of the townspeople are in the central square listening to the invaders’ bands play triumphant music. “‘If they can do that,’” she says, “why shouldn’t we keep civilized procedure alive?’” It’s noteworthy that this “civilized procedure” Madame Orden references has thus far been put into practice—rather strategically—by the invaders themselves, who are trying to placate the villagers with friendly music. Indeed, Mayor Orden implies that the military’s supposedly “civil” behavior only appears to be friendly by reminding Doctor Winter and Madame that “‘Six town boys were murdered this morning.’” When he says this, Winter and his wife are forced to recognize that the appearance of civility in times of war is no more than that: an appearance.
In addition to the clear contradictions inherent in notions of civility during wartime, it becomes overwhelmingly apparent that Colonel Lanser’s insistence on amicability is first and foremost a tactical move. He says as much when he tells Mayor Orden during their first meeting, “‘We want to get along as well as we can.’” He then continues by saying—as previously mentioned—that the invasion is something of a “business venture,” justifying this statement by explaining, “‘We need the coal mine here and the fishing. We will try to get along with just as little friction as possible.’” By framing the military occupation of the town as a “business venture” in which the soldiers will try to “get along with just as little friction as possible,” Lanser tries to coax Orden into a mindset of comfort and complacency, changing the nature of their relationship from wartime enemies to simple businessmen. This is a strategic way of manipulating the enemy, a testament to how the guise of civility can be used to bring about blatantly uncivilized circumstances—namely, the total domination and oppression of helpless civilians with the aim of extracting their resources to support a hostile war effort.
Although Colonel Lanser uses an air of civility to try to manipulate Orden and the townspeople, he also does so because he understands how brutal and unfortunate war can be, and he wants to avoid such barbarity for as long as he can. This is not the case for Captain Loft, who is deeply invested in the idea of keeping up certain militaristic appearances. The first description of him in the novella nicely outlines his tendency to obsess over small details: “He knew every kind of military courtesy and insisted on using it all.” Steinbeck often uses Loft to insert a certain amount of comedic relief into The Moon is Down, but he also utilizes the nitpicky captain to illustrate what it might look like for a soldier to commit himself fully to the notion that “military courtesy” can be a source of power. Indeed, the narrator notes that even Loft’s superiors sometimes feel threatened by his strict cultivation of his military image, and that “Generals were afraid of him because he knew more about the deportment of a soldier than they did.” Unlike Colonel Lanser, then, Loft is dedicated to behaving like a soldier as an end in and of itself. While Lanser recognizes that civility and military “courtesies” can sometimes prove effective when it comes to matters of conquest, Loft lives and breathes military protocol simply because it reaffirms his own identity and the power structure it exists within.
Colonel Lanser’s decision to frame the invasion as a simple “business procedure” is not the only tactical move he makes when it comes to how he cultivates the military’s outward appearance. Indeed, his whole method of leadership is based on how the town perceives certain actions, and these actions aren’t always meant to communicate harmlessness or amicability. Rather, he sometimes adopts an exaggeratedly authoritarian model of leadership, doing so precisely because it will intimidate the villagers. He admits this approach to Mayor Orden while trying to convince him to sentence Alexander Morden—a miner who killed Captain Bentick—to death. “‘You know as well as I that punishment is largely for the purpose of deterring the potential criminal,’” he says to Orden. “‘Thus, since punishment is for others than the punished, it must be publicized. It must even be dramatized.’” His assertion that punishment must be “dramatized” emphasizes the extent to which he believes his power and claim to leadership depend on the message he sends to the town. Simply put, then, punishment becomes nothing more than a matter of performance. In the same way that the civility Colonel Lanser shows to Mayor Orden is merely a tactical move, his manner of “dramatizing” punishment is a manipulative way of giving the townspeople the impression that the fascist regime is powerful and poses a danger to their own lives. By presenting punishment as a performance, Lanser inadvertently implies that he is only acting like a cruel military leader. In this way, Steinbeck portrays him as a spineless man only capable of effecting various airs, but incapable of behaving in a way that reflects what he actually believes in. Given the fact that Lanser is pessimistic about the war, it would be reasonable to suggest that he might even secretly sympathize with Mayor Orden and the townspeople—and that it is perhaps precisely because of these feelings that he devotes so much of his energy to cultivating the appearance of loyalty to his own regime. Unfortunately, this performance of loyalty keeps him from acting like a moral human being, and no amount of feigned civility can change this. Consequently, the novella implies that focusing on appearances can stand in the way of leading an ethical life.
Appearances and Civility ThemeTracker
Appearances and Civility Quotes in The Moon is Down
The Mayor looked steadily at her for a moment and his voice was sharp. “Madame, I think with your permission we will not have wine. The people are confused now. They have lived at peace so long that they do not quite believe in war. They will learn and then they will not be confused any more. They elected me not to be confused. Six town boys were murdered this morning. I think we will have no hunt breakfast. The people do not fight wars for sport.”
Then Corell said insinuatingly, “Are you afraid, Colonel? Should the commander of this occupation be afraid?”
Lanser sat down heavily and said, “Maybe that’s it.” And he said disgustedly, “I’m tired of people who have not been at war who know all about it.” He held his chin in his hand and said, “I remember a little old woman in Brussels—sweet face, white hair; she was only four feet eleven; delicate old hands. You could see the veins almost black against her skin. And her black shawl and her blue-white hair. She used to sing our national songs to us in a quivering, sweet voice. She always knew where to find a cigarette or a virgin.” He dropped his hand from his chin, and he caught himself as though he had been asleep. “We didn’t know her son had been executed,” he said. “When we finally shot her, she had killed twelve men with a long, black hatpin. I have it yet at home. It was an enamel button with a bird over it, red and blue.”
Corell said, “But you shot her?”
“Of course we shot her.”
“And the murders stopped?” asked Corell.
“No, the murders did not stop.”
Winter said, “I would guess it is for the show. There’s an idea about it: if you go through the form of a thing, you have it, and sometimes people are satisfied with the form of a thing. We had an army—soldiers with guns—but it wasn’t an army, you see. The invaders will have a trial and hope to convince the people that there is justice involved. Alex did the captain, you know.”
At last Orden answered, “Why didn’t you shoot him then? That was the time to do it.”
Lanser shook his head. “If I agreed with you, it would make no difference. You know as well as I that punishment is largely for the purpose of deterring the potential criminal. Thus, since punishment is for others than the punished, it must be publicized. It must even be dramatized.” He thrust a finger in back of his belt and flipped his little dagger.
Lanser said, “No; it is true whether you believe it or not: personally, I have respect for you and your office, and”—he put his forehead in his hand for a moment—“you see, what I think, sir, I, a man of a certain age and certain memories, is of no importance. I might agree with you, but that would change nothing. The military, the political pattern I work in has certain tendencies and practices which are invariable.”
Orden said, “And these tendencies and practices have been proven wrong in every single case since the beginning of the world.”
Lanser laughed bitterly, “I, an individual man with certain memoires, might agree with you, might even add that one of the tendencies of the military mind and pattern is an inability to learn, an inability to see beyond the killing which is its job. But I am not a man subject to memories. The coal miner must be shot publicly, because the theory is that others will then restrain themselves from killing our men.”
He sat down. “I’m sorry.” After a moment he said, “I wish I could do something. I’ll have the snow pushed off the roof.”
“No,” said Molly, “no.”
“Because the people would think I had joined with you. They would expel me. I don’t want to be expelled.”
Tonder said, “Yes, I see how that would be. You all hate us. But I’ll take care of you if you’ll let me.”
Now Molly knew she was in control, and her eyes narrowed a little cruelly and she said, “Why do you ask? You are the conqueror. Your men don’t have to ask. They take what they want.”
“That’s not what I want,” Tonder said. “That’s not the way I want it.”
And Molly laughed, still a little cruelly. “You want me to like you, don’t you, Lieutenant?”