In The Moon is Down, John Steinbeck celebrates the power of democracy by examining the ways in which a society built upon the principles of equality and fair governmental representation is capable of resisting the power of authoritarianism. Written with the intention of giving hope to Nazi-occupied European nations toward the end of the Second World War, Steinbeck’s novella suggests that fascist invaders underestimate the power of democratic unity. For example, when Colonel Lanser and his troops (the book’s Nazi equivalents) invade the unnamed town where the story takes place, they fail to understand that brute force won’t guarantee successful conquest. Mayor Orden, on the other hand, knows that the invaders will never be able to fully control his town because they haven’t won the faith and support of the townspeople. “‘The people don’t like to be conquered, sir, and so they will not be,’” he explains to Colonel Lanser. “‘Free men cannot start a war, but once it is started, they can fight on in defeat. Herd men, followers of a leader, cannot do that, and so it is always the herd men who win battles and the free men who win wars.’” In this way, Steinbeck argues that democracy—which gives power to all people, not just to a ruler or ruling class—acts as a bulwark against total subjugation. The novella has a clear and hopeful message that true conquest and defeat are impossible in free-thinking nations with democratic leadership.
Mayor Orden himself is a living manifestation of a purely democratic leader. He won’t act or make decisions without first understanding what the people he represents want from him. In their first meeting after the town has been invaded, Colonel Lanser asks Orden if he will cooperate. “‘I don’t know,’” Orden answers honestly. “When the town makes up its mind what it wants to do, I’ll probably do that.’” This approach to leadership baffles Colonel Lanser, who comes from a governmental system that revolves around authoritative rule. With this in mind, he says, “‘But you are the authority,’” to which Mayor Orden responds: “‘You won’t believe this, but it is true: authority is in the town. I don’t know how or why, but it is so. This means we cannot act as quickly as you can, but when a direction is set, we all act together.’” This approach to governance is deeply democratic, since Mayor Orden appears willing to follow through with whatever his people decide. When Orden says “you won’t believe this,” he picks up on the fact that Colonel Lanser operates within an entirely different system of government, one in which the nuances of democratic rule are all but unfathomable—and he also seems to acknowledge that true democracy such as this is a rare and fragile thing. This ultimately highlights the difference between Lanser and Orden’s two styles of governance: one prizes democracy while the other prizes conquest and authoritarianism.
Perhaps some of Orden’s willingness to accept whatever his people decide comes from his understanding of the democratic process, wherein an official comes to power not by forcing him- or herself to the top, but rather by getting elected to office by the town’s (or country’s) population. This approach underlines the fact that whatever power governmental officials possess depends on the support of their constituents. In turn, Mayor Orden recognizes that he is nothing more than an elevated citizen himself, an idea he expresses to Lanser when he says, “‘I am of this people […]. Some people accept appointed leaders and obey them. But my people have elected me. They made me and they can unmake me. Perhaps they will if they think I have gone over to you.’” By saying that his people might “unmake” him if he aligns with the invaders, Orden cunningly finds a way to avoid helping Colonel Lanser control the townspeople. In doing so, he shows Lanser that it will be difficult to conquer these villagers because they have the ability to make and “unmake” powerful people.
It is clear from Colonel Lanser and Mayor Orden’s conversation that the idea of consensus is important when it comes to matters of conquest. In fact, both the invaders and the invaded people believe it’s crucial to have some sort of unifying governance. The difference, however, is that the conquerors’ idea of unity is based on an authoritarian, top-down model of power that strips citizens of their agency. Mayor Orden and his constituents, on the other hand, believe in banding together as one political body. In other words, because the invaders attempt to force consensus onto the town by repeatedly threatening the mayor, they render the very idea of unity impossible, instead creating an atmosphere of subjugation that ultimately only serves to bolster the townspeople’s will to resist. At the same time, Colonel Lanser understands that a government can’t invade a town and simply expect the inhabitants to instantly accept new leaders. This is why he tries to manipulate Mayor Orden’s democratic influence, a tactic he explains in conversation with Corell, the man who organized the invasion. Lanser tells Corell: “‘Mayor Orden is more than a mayor. He is his people. He knows what they are doing, thinking, without asking, because he will think what they think. By watching him I will know them.’” Unfortunately for Lanser, trying to extort an elected official’s political influence is an inherently authoritarian tactic, and Orden recognizes this—ultimately choosing to sacrifice his life rather than allow himself to be manipulated in the service of authoritarian rule.
In addition to demonstrating that authoritarianism is ineffective against true democracy, Steinbeck also shows that conquest leads to different forms of alienation. Figures like Lieutenant Tonder and Lieutenant Prackle, for example, arrived in the town with the naïve impression that the villagers would both accept their authority and allow them to integrate socially, but they both find themselves unable to have meaningful interactions with the townspeople. Tonder even says, “‘[…] it’s a nice country, nice people. Our men—some of them—might even settle here,’” a statement that reveals his unrealistic hope that he will get along with the very people he’s trying to subordinate. Later, when this proves impossible, he understands that a force larger than himself—the force of fascism—has rendered him unable to relate to the villagers.
Lieutenant Tonder recognizes that his country has only conquered the town on the most superficial level, and that the more he and his comrades fight to subjugate the villagers, the more the villagers will resist both ideologically and physically. These thoughts cause him to doubt whether his country has truly succeeded in their invasion of enemy land. “‘Captain, is this place conquered?’” he pessimistically asks Captain Loft. Loft says yes, and Tonder eventually voices his skepticism, saying, “‘Conquest after conquest, deeper and deeper into molasses. […] Maybe the Leader is crazy. Flies conquer the flypaper. Flies capture two hundred miles of new flypaper!’” Tonder’s “flypaper” metaphor speaks to the idea that conquest in democratic lands is futile, for it is seemingly impossible to stamp out resistance in nations where free-thinking rules the day. In this case, the invaders are the “flies” that flock to the sticky “flypaper,” foolishly thinking that occupying new territories leads to successful conquest. In reality, this is not the case, and the invaders find themselves ensnared in long, complicated wars, equivalent to being stuck to a strip of “flypaper.” In this way, Steinbeck shows that the soldiers’ occupation of the town does not mean they’ve successfully conquered its people.
In keeping with the overarching idea that democratic nations are capable of resisting fascism long after they’ve been invaded, Mayor Orden puts his faith in his people to commit themselves first and foremost to the health and strength of their democratic union instead of surrendering simply because he—the mayor—has been arrested. Orden voices this idea in response to Colonel Lanser’s last-ditch effort to break the townspeople’s spirits by arresting Mayor Orden and threatening him with death—a move the colonel hopes will discourage further resistance: “‘They can’t arrest the Mayor,’” Orden explains. “‘The Mayor is an idea conceived by free men. It will escape arrest.’” By saying this, Orden reveals that the true power of a democracy is its devotion to a set of ideals, not to a particular man. As such, it is naïve of the invaders to think that they can break apart a democratic body by executing its leader. This kind of thinking is modeled on their own authoritarian concepts of governance, meaning that they have once again failed to grasp how a truly egalitarian society operates. Although the novel ends before the occupying military forces are defeated, Steinbeck suggests that nothing can squash the spirit of democracy in this town—and that, even after Mayor Orden is gone, the townspeople will carry on fighting until they are victorious.
Democracy and Conquest ThemeTracker
Democracy and Conquest 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.”
And Orden said, “Yes, that’s clear enough. But suppose the people do not want to work the mine?”
The colonel said, “I hope they will want to, because they must. We must have the coal.”
“But if they don’t?”
“They must. They are an orderly people. They don’t want trouble.” He waited for the Mayor’s reply and none came. “Is that not so, sir?”
Mayor Orden twisted his chain. “I don’t know, sir. They are orderly under their own government. I don’t know how they would be under yours. It is untouched ground, you see. We have built our government over four hundred years.”
Lanser had been in Belgium and France twenty years before and he tried not to think what he knew—that war is treachery and hatred, the muddling of incompetent generals, the torture and killing and sickness and tiredness, until at last it is over and nothing has changed except for new weariness and new hatreds. Lanser told himself he was a soldier, given orders to carry out. He was not expected to question or to think, but only to carry out orders; and he tried to put aside the sick memories of the other war and the certainty that this would be the same. This one will be different, he said to himself fifty times a day; this one will be very different.
In marching, in mobs, in football games, and in war, outlines become vague; real things become unreal and a fog creeps over the mind. Tension and excitement, weariness, movement—all merge in one great gray dream, so that when it is over, it is hard to remember how it was when you killed men or ordered them to be killed. Then other people who were not there tell you what it was like and you say vaguely, “Yes, I guess that’s how it was.”
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.”
Tonder got out his handkerchief and blew his nose, and he spoke a little like a man out of his head. He laughed embarrassedly. He said, “I had a funny dream. I guess it was a dream. Maybe it was a thought. Maybe a thought or a dream.”
Prackle said, “Make him stop, Captain!”
Tonder said, “Captain, is this place conquered?”
“Of course,” said Loft.
A little note of hysteria crept into Tonder’s laughter. He said, “Conquered and we’re afraid; conquered and we’re surrounded.” His laughter grew shrill. “I had a dream—or a thought—out in the snow with the black shadows and the faces in the doorways, the cold faces behind curtains. I had a thought or a dream.”
Prackle said, “Make him stop!”
Tonder said, “I dreamed the Leader was crazy.” […]
And Tonder went on laughing. “Conquest after conquest, deeper and deeper into molasses.” His laughter choked him and he coughed into his handkerchief. “Maybe the Leader is crazy. Flies conquer the flypaper. Flies capture two hundred miles of new flypaper!” His laughter was growing more hysterical now.
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?”
“Good. Now I’ll tell you, and I hope you’ll understand it. You’re not a man any more. You are a soldier. Your comfort is of no importance and, Lieutenant, your life isn’t of much importance. If you live, you will have memories. That’s about all you will have. Meanwhile you must take orders and carry them out. Most of the orders will be unpleasant, but that’s not your business. I will not lie to you, Lieutenant. They should have trained you for this, and not for flower-strewn streets. They should have built your soul with truth, not led along with lies.”
You know, Doctor, I am a little man and this is a little town, but there must be a spark in little men that can burst into flame. I am afraid, I am terribly afraid, and I thought of all the things I might do to save my own life, and then that went away, and sometimes now I feel a kind of exultation, as though I were bigger and better than I am, and do you know what I have been thinking, Doctor? […] Do you remember in school, in the Apology? Do you remember Socrates says, “Someone will say, ‘And are you not ashamed, Socrates, of a course of life which is likely to bring you to an untimely end?’ To him I may fairly answer, ‘There you are mistaken: a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether he is doing right or wrong.’”
Orden fingered his gold medallion. He said quietly, “You see, sir, nothing can change it. You will be destroyed and driven out.” His voice was very soft. “The people don’t like to be conquered, sir, and so they will not be. Free men cannot start a war, but once it is started, they can fight on in defeat. Herd men, followers of a leader, cannot do that, and so it is always the herd men who win battles and the free men who win wars. You will find that it is so, sir.”
[…] Madame broke in plaintively, “I wish you would tell me what all this nonsense is.”
“It is nonsense, dear.”
“But they can’t arrest the Mayor,” she explained to him.
Orden smiled at her. “No,” he said, “they can’t arrest the Mayor. The Mayor is an idea conceived by free men. It will escape arrest.”