Although the invaders in The Moon is Down are the book’s antagonists, Steinbeck invites readers to empathize—at least on some level—with the fact that the invaders have been tasked with the seemingly impossible mission of controlling a resilient community that automatically hates them and everything they stand for. Steinbeck does this by devoting significant portions of the novella to conversations between invading military officials, many of whom express doubts about what they’re doing in the town and whether it’s working. By showing readers that soldiers like Lieutenant Tonder, Lieutenant Prackle, and even Colonel Lanser question their own actions, Steinbeck allows otherwise irredeemable characters a certain amount of humanity—something for which Steinbeck was criticized when The Moon is Down came out because people claimed that this was akin to was portraying Nazis in a sympathetic light. Although this may be the case, it’s worth noting that characters like Colonel Lanser ultimately fail to successfully carry out their orders. And although these soldiers may be portrayed as complex—rather than purely evil—characters, they’re still unable to transcend or disavow their loyalty to a fascist country, meaning that they’re ultimately tragically stranded in their own delusions, unable to connect with the townspeople or even to one another. The result is a book in which every character—even those with the most inhumane views—is nevertheless vividly and richly humanized by Steinbeck.
Steinbeck uses Colonel Lanser to show that commitment to a fascist regime short-circuits a person’s empathetic capabilities. Strangely enough, Lanser respects Mayor Orden and his people, despite his duty to subdue them. After one of the town’s coal miners kills Captain Bentick, Colonel Lanser asks Mayor Orden to sentence the man to death, thinking that it would be best if the sentencing came from the town’s mayor. When Orden argues against this, Lanser says, “‘Personally, I have respect for you and your office, […] you see, what I think, sir, I, a man of 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.’” In this passage, Lanser comes close to saying that he is of the same mind as Mayor Orden when it comes to the useless cruelty of sentencing the coal miner to death. However, his ability to sympathize with Orden remains purely hypothetical: Lanser says he might agree with Orden—if, that is, he were allowed to think for himself instead of having to operate in a rigid military system that has “invariable” policies and practices. In this way, Lanser allows his role as a colonel in a fascist military to overshadow his capacity to show human empathy and compassion for the inhabitants of Mayor Orden’s town. Indeed, he fails to see his wretched duty as anything but inescapable.
This kind of commitment to the fascist regime wears on the invading soldiers throughout The Moon is Down—a fact that speaks to how unnatural it is to behave with such a lack of compassion for fellow human beings. The strongest example of the harmfulness of this attitude comes when Lieutenant Tonder—driven mad by his feeling that successful conquest is impossible—sneaks out in the middle of the night to visit Molly Morden. Molly is the executed coal miner’s widow, but this isn’t why Tonder seeks her out (he isn’t even aware of her relation at first). Rather, he comes to her house because he’s desperate for human connection. He says, “‘Just for a little while, can’t we forget this war? Just for a little while. Just for a little while, can’t we talk together like people—together?’” What he says here is important because it implies that he and Molly can’t “talk together like people” so long as the war continues—therefore, he asks her if they can “forget” the war for “a little while.” In the same way that Colonel Lanser can’t exercise his empathetic faculties because of the demands his military and country have put on him, Tonder can’t connect with Molly without blocking-out the reality of the war. Unfortunately for him, it is too much to ask the wife of a man who was executed by the military to simply “forget” about the war, and she stabs the lieutenant to death with a pair of scissors. Therefore, Steinbeck implies that—despite his desire to connect with Molly—Tonder is unable to escape the consequences of his affiliation with the fascist regime.
Not only are the invaders unable to connect with the townspeople, they also have trouble relating to one another. This is because each official approaches the war and the invasion in his own way: Colonel Lanser accepts and carries out his orders pessimistically, knowing from past experiences how hard it is to win a war; Captain Loft applies an overzealous and idealistic vigor to his duties; Lieutenants Prackle and Tonder,—though they start off starry-eyed and hopeful about the possibility of military success, grow more and more dispirited with the war effort and more and more dysfunctional as a result. Tonder and Prackle’s relationship is particularly interesting because they both experience the same kind of disenchantment, but at different times. When Tonder first starts complaining about the war, saying that trying to conquer a democratic nation is like “flies [trying to] conquer the flypaper,” Prackle cuts him off, imploring Captain Loft to stop Tonder from speaking so dispiritedly: “‘I wish you’d make him shut up. I wish you would shut him up. Make him stop it,’” he says. This is because Prackle has the same reservations as Tonder, but hasn’t yet resigned himself to this attitude. Rather than bonding with his comrade over their shared misgivings, Prackle sees it as his patriotic duty to “shut him up.” Thus, he renders any empathy or fellow-feeling off limits. It isn’t until later—after Tonder has been killed—that Prackle dares speak up about his own discontent, telling Colonel Lanser, “‘I don’t like it here, sir.’” It’s a shame that he didn’t tell this to Tonder, who desperately needed somebody to relate to. Whereas a conversation with Tonder about the hopelessness of their mission may have soothed both men, Prackle’s statement to Lanser only elicits a reprimand, as Lanser says, “‘You’re not a man any more. You are a soldier.” This statement, too, shuts down any possibility of human connection, since Lanser explicitly denies Prackle’s humanity. This lack of compassion and empathy, Steinbeck shows, is intertwined with fascist ideology, and is one of the qualities that alienates the invaders from one another and the townspeople, ultimately dooming them to fail in their mission.
Empathy and the Effects of Fascism ThemeTracker
Empathy and the Effects of Fascism Quotes in The Moon is Down
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.”
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?”
“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.”