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Activity Overview

Themes, symbols, and motifs come alive when you use a storyboard. In this activity, students will identify themes and symbols from the novel, and support their choices with details from the text.

Themes to Look For and Discuss

The Power and Importance of Resistance

The novel as a whole highlights what must be done in the face of an oppressor trying to take away the workings of a free democracy. Steinbeck wrote this novel as a way to encourage and support the various resistances around Europe under the Nazi occupations. In the novel, the defiance of the people of this tiny town cause Lanser to plead with Mayor Orden to cooperate and to calm his people down; however, Mayor Orden knows that they cannot calm down; their freedom has been violated. They continue to resist in the face of death, starvation, and the executions of their beloved leaders. Freedom and democracy are much bigger than fear for these people.

The Complexities of the Human Character

Steinbeck faced widespread criticism for his depiction of the occupying soldiers as complex human beings, with feelings, dreams, and fears of their own. While America at the time wanted to view these enemies as a sort of drone-like being, Steinbeck was actually capturing the truth about what was happening in these occupied countries: many soldiers were afraid, were paranoid, wanted to fall in love, thought they were doing what was right, etc. Many women in these occupied countries were confused about their feelings for these soldiers, much like Molly who recognizes that under different circumstances, she might have wanted to reciprocate Lieutenant Tonder’s proposition. Even Lanser, a seasoned veteran of World War I who has no illusions about the brutality of war, is somewhat tired of it all, and tired of continuing to have to make more enemies every time they execute someone. Steinbeck explores the gray areas of being human in an evil regime throughout the novel.

The Strength of the Human Spirit

In the discussion between Lanser and Orden about Alex Morden’s trial, Lanser realizes that Mayor Orden will not cooperate with him in creating a mirage of civility by participating in Alex Morden’s sentencing. Lanser realizes that maybe he will have to install Corell as mayor after all. Lanser looks at Orden and remarks, "We have taken on a job, haven’t we?" The Mayor replies, "Yes, the one impossible job in the world, the one thing that can’t be done. To break man’s spirit permanently." This is reflected in the continuing resistance of the people of the town, even in the face of threats of death. People light up the mine at night to guide the English bombers to it; they rebel in cold silence, freezing out the soldiers from any sort of human contact; they furtively locate the dynamite and begin their attacks. Meanwhile, the soldiers are rounding up people daily, executing them, and threatening to withhold food from their families. This does nothing to deter or diminish the strength of the human spirit. The townspeople’s willingness to die for their beliefs endures beyond their physical deaths; therefore, the occupying forces cannot break their collective spirit of rebelling against injustice.

Motifs, Imagery, and Symbols


The troops invade this small country as winter is moving in. Winter provides a sense of cold strength for the town, and a sense of beauty and wonder for the arriving troops. In the face of chaos, the Mayor often finds comfort in the consistency of the snow; he loves the smell, the sound, and the feel of the snow falling. For the townspeople later, it provides them a place to hide their secrets, including the soldier’s bodies that they are able to pick off when the soldiers let their guards down.

The Mine

The coal mine was an important resource before the invasion, and now it is one that the townspeople want destroyed. They figure that if they get rid of the reason for the occupation, the soldiers will leave. They arrange to light it up with lanterns when the English bombers fly over, they routinely try to sabotage the routes, and since the men are forced to work in it, they detest its existence. It gives them a way to resist.

The Dynamite

The dynamite provides hope and another way to finally fight back against the occupiers. The dynamite floats down with detailed instructions for ways to utilize it to destroy or cripple the occupier’s transportation systems, and for Colonel Lanser, the dynamite means an escalation of violent resistance. For the people, it provides them with a jubilant sense of rebellion.

Flies on Flypaper

Lieutenant Tonder utters this phrase in the middle of his emotional breakdown. He echoes the ideas of what many other soldiers were thinking: there’s no point. The more they conquer, the more problems they arise, and so this war will never be over. Tonder’s phrase soon becomes a rallying cry throughout the country; however, it also reflects the complexities of the soldier’s emotions as they are ordered to conquer, but are often in doubt of those orders.

Mayoral Chain of Office

The Mayoral Chain of Office represents the enduring ideals of democracy and freedom. Mayor Orden wears it proudly each day, but he knows that it’s not as much about him as it is the trust that the people put into a position which they freely elect. While Mayor Orden is threatened with death, he takes comfort in the fact that the office cannot be arrested or killed; it is an entity separate from him, created and maintained by free people.

Colonel Lanser’s Staff

Colonel Lanser’s staff represents the complexities of the human character. Major Hunter sees this mission as an engineering one, not one of war; Captain Bentick lacks ambition and actually enjoys everything English, the same people who are their supposed enemy; Captain Loft is ambitious and a military man; Lieutenants Tonder and Prackle are emotional and want to fall in love with the right girl. These are not cold-blooded drones; they are men, too.

Lesson Plan Reference

Grade Level 9-10

Difficulty Level 3 (Developing to Mastery)

Type of Assignment Individual or Partner

Type of Activity: Themes, Symbols & Motifs

Common Core Standards
  • [ELA-Literacy/RL/9-10/3] Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme
  • [ELA-Literacy/RL/9-10/5] Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it (e.g., parallel plots), and manipulate time (e.g., pacing, flashbacks) create such effects as mystery, tension, or surprise
  • [ELA-Literacy/SL/9-10/2] Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source

Template and Class Instructions

(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Use This Assignment With My Students", update the instructions on the Edit Tab of the assignment.)

Student Instructions

Create a storyboard illustrating themes in The Moon is Down.

  1. Use the template provided by your teacher.
  2. Identify important themes, symbols, and motifs from the novel.
  3. Describe an example of the theme.
  4. Illustrate each example with appropriate characters, scenes, and items.
  5. Save and submit your storyboard.


(You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)

Themes, Symbols, and Motifs (Grades 9-12)
Create a storyboard that identifies recurring themes, symbols, and/or motifs in the story. Illustrate instances of each and write a short description that explains the example's significance.
Proficient Emerging Beginning Needs Improvement
Identification of Theme(s), Symbol(s), and/or Motif(s)
All themes are correctly identified as important recurring topics or messages in the story. Symbols are correctly identified as objects that represent something else at a higher level in the story. Motifs are correctly identified as important recurring features or ideas in the story.
Most themes are correctly identified, but others are missing or incomplete. Most symbols are correctly identified, but some objects are missing or incomplete. Some motifs are correctly identified, but others are missing or incomplete.
Most themes are missing, incomplete, or incorrect. Most symbols are missing, incomplete, or incorrect. Most motifs are missing, incomplete, or incorrect.
No themes, symbols, or motifs are correctly identified.
Examples and Descriptions
Quotes and examples are accurate to the theme(s), symbol(s), and/or motif(s) that are being identified. Descriptions accurately explain the theme(s), symbol(s), and/or motif(s) and highlight their significance to the story.
Most quotes and examples are accurate to the theme(s), symbol(s), and/or motifs that are being identified. Descriptions mostly accurately explain the theme(s), symbol(s), and/or motif(s), and highlight their significance to the story.
Most quotes and examples are minimal, incorrect, or unrelated to the theme(s), symbol(s), and/or motif(s) that are being identified. Descriptions contain inaccuracies in their explanations, or do not highlight their significance to the story.
Examples and descriptions are missing or too minimal to score.
Depictions chosen for theme(s), symbol(s), and/or motif(s) are accurate to the story and reflect time, effort, thought, and care with regard to placement and creation of the scenes.
Depictions chosen for theme(s), symbol(s), and/or motif(s) are mostly accurate to the story. They reflect time and effort put into placement and creation of the scenes.
Depictions chosen for theme(s), symbol(s), and/or motif(s) are inaccurate to the story. The depictions may be rushed or show minimal effort, time, and care put into placement and creation of the scenes.
Most depictions are missing too many elements or are too minimal to score. Little time or effort has been put into placement and creation of the scenes.
English Conventions
There are no errors in spelling, grammar, or mechanics throughout the storyboard. All writing portions reflect careful proofreading and accuracy to the story.
There are a few errors in spelling, grammar, and mechanics throughout the storyboard. All writing portions show accuracy to the story and some proofreading.
There are several errors in spelling, grammar, and mechanics throughout the storyboard. Most writing portions do not reflect proofreading or accuracy to the story.
Errors in spelling, grammar, and mechanics in writing portions of the storyboard seriously interfere with communication.

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