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The Grapes of Wrath

by John Steinbeck

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Jim Rawley's priorities and strengths in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath


Jim Rawley's priorities in The Grapes of Wrath include ensuring the well-being and dignity of the migrant workers at the government camp. His strengths lie in his compassion, leadership, and ability to create a sense of community and fairness, which significantly improve the lives of the camp's residents.

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In The Grapes of Wrath, who is Jim Rawley and what is his strength's primary source?

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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In John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, what is most important to Jim Rawley?

In Chapter Twenty-One of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, Jim Rawley manages a federally funded camp where the Joads stop and stay for a while during their Depression-era trek across the country. Rawley stops by to introduce himself and make sure that the Joads have everything they need.

Ma Joad is at first suspicious of Rawley’s apparent kindness. Rawley explains that he was sleeping when the Joads arrived the night before. He is glad that the camp had a place for them to stay. Ma soon begins to trust him. When she asks him if he is the “boss” of the camp, he replies that no boss is necessary because the people who live in the camp are hard-working and creative without being forced to behave in those ways.

When Ma indicates that she feels unclean because she and her family have been traveling, Rawley says that he knows how she feels. He also immediately, and shrewdly, changes the subject, praising the smell of the coffee Ma is brewing and implying that he might like a cup. He thereby gives Ma an opportunity to show what she can do for him rather than allowing her to dwell on thoughts of what the camp is doing for her and her family. In other words, Rawley gives Ma a chance to feel renewed self-respect. Indeed, when inviting him to share breakfast with them, Ma says,

“We’d be proud to have ya . . . We ain’t got much that’s nice, but you’re welcome.”

Rawley now shows his thoughtfulness once more. Rather than consuming any of the family’s food, he explains that he has already had his breakfast, and so he merely takes a cup of coffee.

When Ma ponders his motives, she sees “nothing but friendliness.” He is so consistently kind, in fact, that Ma feels like crying as he leaves.

Rawley, then, seems to be motivated chiefly by friendship, concern, compassion, and respect for other human beings. In all these ways, he differs from a number of the other characters in the novel, especially some of those with money and power and authority. Indeed, the fact that Rawley is a sort of authority figure makes his genuine kindness all the more remarkable and impressive.  Rather than abusing his authority, or showing off, or lording it over the people who come to him in need, he treats them with the sort of camaraderie that Steinbeck felt was the basis of any truly civil and progressive society.

Somehow this question was originally placed in the wrong category (dealing with Margaret Truman'sThe President's House), which does not seem to have a character named Jim Rawley.  Searches of the internet revealed, however, that Rawley is a notable character in John Steinbeck's famous novelThe Grapes of Wrath. I have already answered the question in connection with Steinbeck (see link below), but allow me to elaborate upon that answer here.

Rawley seems to represent the ideal government bureaucrat as imagined during the "New Deal" -- a series of programs formulated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to help Americans cope with the Great Depression of the 1930s. Rawley, then, is just one of many ways in which Steinbeck tries to make a case, in his novel, for the New Deal. In that sense, Rawley is an "occasional" figure in the novel -- a figure designed, in large part, to be relevant to the particular time period of the literary work. Rather than being a "universal" figure in the way that Ma Joad is (she is almost a living, breathing emobodiment of the Strong Mother archetype), Rawley seems designed to show that government bureaucrats can be (and should be):

  • thoughtful
  • kind
  • compassionate
  • respectful
  • hard-working
  • modest
  • generous
  • and never over-bearing

However, it is also possible to see Rawley as an example of varios other archetypal figures who regularly appear in literatture, including

  • the good neighbor
  • the decent boss
  • the thoughtful friend
  • the generous and helpful stranger

Rawley typifies all these positive traits and archtypes when he says, for instance,

"I'm Jim Rawley. I'm camp manager. Just dropped by to see if everything's all right. Got everything you need?"

Most of us, of course, would be very thankful to have persons like Jim Rawley in our lives, and so it is no surprise that Ma is grateful to meet him.

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