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In Chapter Twenty-One of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, Jim Rawley is the manager of a federal relief camp set up to help travelers during the Great Depression. The Joad family stop at the camp on their trip west, and Rawley comes to greet them the next morning and see if they have any unmet needs.
During the course of his discussion with Ma Joad, Rawley reveals a number of strengths, both as a person and as a literary character. Rawley’s strengths as a person include the following:
- He is courteous, as when he greets Ma.
- He is respectful, as when he addresses Ma as “Mrs. Joad.”
- He is thoughtful and concerned, as when he asks Ma if the Joads have everything they need.
- He appreciates beauty and a sense of community, as when he praises the singing of the women who worked together while washing.
- He is modest, as when he denies being the “boss” of the camp.
- He is generous in his praise, as when he extols the hard work of the camp’s inhabitants:
They keep the camp clean, they keep order, they do everything. I never saw such people.
- He is subtly aware of the needs of others, as when he asks Ma for a cup of coffee so that she can show him her own courtesy and demonstrate her own kindness toward others.
- He is accommodating, as when claims that he always drinks his coffee without sugar. (Ma has no sugar and is apologetic.)
- He is attentive and available, as when he tells Ma (but not in a boastful way) that he is in his office all the time.
- In short, the source of Jim Rawley’s general strength is his concern for others.
As a literary character, Rawley is strong for some additional reasons, including the following:
- He is plain-spoken.
- He seems to be the kind of “boss” or neighbor whom almost anyone would like to have.
- He is an effective foil to some of the other, less attractive characters Steinbeck has presented.
If Rawley has any flaw as a literary character, it may be, perhaps, that he seems almost too good to be true. He is obviously a character designed to illustrate various virtues, and he is so entirely virtuous that he runs the risk of seem stereotypical and lacking in full human complexity. He runs the risk of seeming a stick figure, a plastic saint. Fortunately, his appearance in the novel is brief. Otherwise he might seem too saccharine a figure – too “sugary.”
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