Satire in The Grapes of Wrath: Meaning & Examples

Instructor: SCARLETT BROOKS

Scarlett has a Ph.D. in English and has taught literature and composition for both high school and college.

In this lesson, we will analyze John Steinbeck's use of satire in ''The Grapes of Wrath''. At the end of this lesson, you will be able to define satire and analyze how it creates humor and develops Steinbeck's purpose for writing the novel.

What is Satire?

Have you ever enjoyed a show of comedic sketches like Saturday Night Live (SNL) or a cartoon like South Park? If so, you're in a great position to understand satire!

Satire is a form of comedy in which a person's distinctive or unflattering qualities are exaggerated to the point of ridiculousness, with the goal of both criticizing the object of satire and making the audience laugh.

Politicians are frequent targets for satire on SNL, as are small-town habits of mind on South Park. By its nature, satire can be offensive, so a satirist has to be very careful with it. He or she must know the audience well and have in mind a clear purpose for poking fun at someone.

John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath for a literate audience with the capacity to care about the plight of the less fortunate. His goal was to raise awareness about the suffering of migrant workers and provoke his audience's pity.

In order to do this, he exaggerates to ridiculousness character traits that are inappropriate for the real conditions the characters face. Through satire, Steinbeck emphasizes his characters' simplicity and naivete--their near-total lack of preparation to be successful in the modern economy.

Target #1: Dialect

A major target of Steinbeck's satire is the Joads' simplicity, which he portrays partly through the way they talk. The literary term for the way Steinbeck writes dialogue is dialect, non-standard English used among sub-groups in a larger population.

Dialect usually shows that the speaker is from a region of the country where a peculiar way of speaking has developed. It can also signal that a character is a member of a low social class.

Two brief examples of dialect in the novel are the recurring use of the word 'fambly' to mean 'family' and 'Rosasharn' to mean 'Rose of Sharon'. As when Ma speaks emotionally about the 'fambly' or gives 'Rosasharn' some stern advice, dialect can bring a comical dimension to an otherwise serious subject.

Target #2: Bad Taste

Steinbeck also demonstrates the Joads' simplicity through their bad taste. The Joads are not formally educated and have not been in a position to develop what more privileged classes would call 'good taste'.

One great example of this is the Christmas card Granma Joad sent Tom while he was in prison. The card read, ''Merry Christmas, purty child, / Jesus meek an' Jesus mild, / Underneath the Christmas tree / There's a gif' for you from me''.

Steinbeck signals to the audience that this card is laughable by conveying to us, through Tom, that the other inmates ''near died laughin'''. But what, exactly, is the joke?

The short answer is that the card is poorly written and in bad taste.

The detailed answer is that the card sacrifices clarity for sentimentality, a word that means 'overly emotional'. Clearly whoever wrote the poem prioritized rhyme scheme and emotionally loaded imagery over grammatical accuracy and overall coherence; the ideas are disconnected and don't make much sense.

Is the 'purty child' the baby Jesus or the recipient of the card, Tom Joad, who is actually a grown man? Is Jesus ''underneath the Christmas tree'', or are the gifts? If the gifts, why would there be presents under the tree for Tom, who won't be home for Christmas?

Although Tom suspects that Granma didn't even read the card, but chose it for ''the shiny stuff on it'', Steinbeck wants to highlight her simplicity, which shows through her bad taste: in selecting the card, she prioritized her emotional response to it over the fact that it doesn't make sense and is inappropriate for Tom.

Target #3: Naivete

Another major target of Steinbeck's satire is characters' naivete about the future. Rose of Sharon's unwavering belief in Connie's ability to create a middle class life for her and their unborn child illustrates this idea.

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