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
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.