Irony in The Grapes of Wrath: Examples & Quotes

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In this lesson, we will examine the three types of irony that are included in John Steinbeck's 'The Grapes of Wrath.' The author uses irony to keep the reader engaged in this tale of survival during the Great Depression.

Background Information

Think about a time when, despite your best plans, everything seemed to go wrong. What kept you going? In John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, members of the Joad family survive incarceration, losing their family farm, the loss of several beloved family members, and traveling cross-country to find limited opportunities. Despite all of their setbacks, they keep going and never forget to think of other people. In a depressing story like this, it would be easy for a less-talented writer to lose the reader's attention, but Steinbeck's use of figurative language keeps the reader engaged. Let's look at some examples of verbal, dramatic, and situational irony from this novel.

Verbal Irony

Verbal irony is when what a character says does not reflect his meaning. Frequently, verbal irony presents as sarcasm. One example of verbal irony from The Grapes of Wrath occurs when the Joad's meet Floyd Knowles at the tent camp near Bakersfield. After telling Tom about the low wages for work, Floyd says, 'You stay out here a little while, an' if you smell any roses, you come let me smell, too.'

What he really means is that conditions are poor and that they will have a hard time finding anything good in California. Floyd's sardonic attitude and statement express his level of frustration at not seeing a means for improving his life because of the way the employers and police are working together to make things hard for the workers.

Dramatic Irony

Dramatic irony is when a character acts the opposite of the way they should because of their lack of awareness of the whole story. Casy has figured out that the only way to drive up wages is if the workers come together. He leads a strike to force employers to pay fair wages, but as a result, his fellow workers turn on him. When they track him down, Casy says, 'You fellas don' know what you're doin'. You're helpin' to starve kids.' In response, one of the men strikes Casy on the head and kills him. If the workers understood what Casy was accomplishing for them, they would have glorified him.

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