The last clear definite function of man—muscles aching to work, minds aching to create beyond the single need—this is man. To build a wall, to build a house, a dam, and in the wall and house and dam to put something of Manself, and to Manself take back something of the wall, the house the dam; to take hard muscles from the lifting, to take the clear lines and form from conceiving. For man, unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments.
These lines exemplify the exalted and highly stylized tone found in the brief expository chapters that punctuate the story of the Joads. Linguistically, the passage adopts an almost biblical tenor in its repetition and grandeur: “To build a wall, to build a house, a dam, and in the wall and house and dam to put something of Manself.” The quotation also exhibits a moral simplicity evocative of biblical parable: man toils, and his labor builds him as a person.
In his emphasis on the spiritual necessity of work, Steinbeck makes a point that is crucial to his overarching message in the book: while the workers’ rights movement demands higher wages and fairer treatment, it does not demand an alleviation of hard work per se. Rather, the movement seeks to restore the dignity of hard work to the migrants. When the workers are respected, when expectations are high and achievement acknowledged, this is when human beings can begin to find in their labor the transcendence here described.