When we first meet Jim Nolan, there's not much left of him. He's just gone through the most dehumanizing period of his life: he's spent 30 days in jail on a bum vagrancy charge, and he's dealing with the inexplicable death of his mom. Harry Nilson comments that Jim looks like a sleepwalker or a drunk man when he appears in his office to be prepped for membership in the Communist Party.
Jim tries to explain the deadness of his soul. It's a crushing sense of defeat that's been building up since he was a kid:
"All the time at home we were fighting, fighting something—hunger mostly. My old man was fighting the bosses. I was fighting at school. But we always lost. And after a long time I guess it got to be part of our mind-stuff that we always would lose...Can you see the hopelessness in that? I grew up in that hopelessness." (19)
There's actually nothing bright or good about Jim's past. But now that he's hit rock bottom, he's starting to see the light. His short stint in the clank throws him together with other poor schmoes who've been done wrong by the system. But these guys seem to have a quiet acceptance of their dehumanization. And why is that? Because they think they're being used for the greater good. These are the men of the Communist Party in America.
Jim learns to hope by watching these men who are living lives of purpose. As he later tells Mac, these men were "quiet, and they were working" (20). Jim himself starts to come alive again the moment Nilson starts talking about the kind of work he could do for the Party—and he feels positively joyful when he does something as simple as typing a letter for Mac:
"I liked doing it, Mac," he said softly. "I don't know why. It seemed a good thing to be doing. It seemed to have meaning. Nothing I ever did before had any meaning." (20)
How crummy must things be in a person's life that typing a single letter makes stuff noticeably better?
We're about to sound the depths of that.
It's not long before Mac makes the discovery that Jim is a bit peculiar for a young man. As they hop a ride on a freight train out to Torgas Valley, Jim won't even take a bit of tobacco from his mentor. It's the only comfort they have at this point—no food, no real bedding, no money. Mac observes that Jim has no vices, not even the acceptable one of girls.
This exchange is our first inkling that Jim has had most human impulses pretty well stomped out of him by his rough life. He tells Mac that his abstinence has everything to do with fear of repeating a nasty, unsatisfying life cycle:
"...well, hell, Mac, I was scared I'd get caught like my mother and my old man—two room flat and a wood stove. Christ knows I don't want luxury, but I don't want to get batted around the way all the kids I knew got it. Lunch pail in the morning with a piece of soggy pie and a thermos bottle of stale coffee." (32)
Jim's decision not to participate in the usual behavioral patterns of guys from his 'hood reveals the pain and purposelessness of the life of most working poor of the time. Jim wants to transcend this zombie-like existence to lead a life of meaning and worth.
While Jim's desire to escape from the unsatisfactory life determined by an unfair social system is admirable, his scary life experiences leave scars that shape Jim's response to the world around him. His search for personal purpose and justice for all becomes all ideology; he very rarely takes into consideration the value of human life and the validity of individual suffering.
When Mac has to beat the high school-aged, would-be sniper, it leaves the big man shaking in his boots. He knows he's violated some code of ethics by beating the kiddo in that way (the kid's defenseless). Jim coldly soothes his conscience:
"Don't think of it... It's just a little part of the whole thing. Sympathy is as bad as fear." (214)
While Jim becomes a force to be reckoned with among the leaders of the strike, he starts to lose that little touch of humanity that could make him a true leader. Even Mac notices the frightening change creeping over his protégé, and he feels a little afraid that he's got a budding monster on his hands:
"You're getting beyond me, Jim. I'm getting scared of you. I've seen men like you before. I'm scared of 'em. Jesus, Jim, I can see you changing every day. I know you're right. Cold thought to fight madness, I know all that. God Almighty, Jim, it's not human. I'm scared of you." (213)
But the problem is that the harsh conditions under which the poor workers are living totally don't make for an environment that fosters sympathy or kindness. This religious zeal (as Doc observes) to support the cause at all costs makes Jim both an ideal worker bee and a creation that will have to be destroyed over the course of time.
In the end, Jim does become a new creation. He's perfectly happy to shed the old life he's left behind, and he doesn't mind the idea of taking on a new name if need be. But who is Jim Nolan now? He's no longer the enthusiastic young sidekick who makes charming observations on his first train ride.
Even Mac, who has grown super attached to him, doesn't know what to think about Jim. He notices Jim's transformation with something like dismay. Jim tells him he shouldn't be so surprised:
"It's something that grows out of a fight like this. Suddenly you feel the great forces at work that create little troubles like this strike of ours. And the sight of those forces does something to you, picks you up and makes you act. I guess that's where the authority comes from." (218)
Jim claims to be a product of his environment, a young man who has been kicked around enough and who has seen enough suffering to stop the heart of any normal man. Doc Burton sees the tendency toward the atrocious in Jim and warns him that "... you can only build a violent thing with violence" (198). But Jim wants none of that "high falutin'" pacifism. He believes that "all great things have violent beginnings" (198).
So is Jim on track to be the next Stalin? We'll never know. Steinbeck puts an end to Jim in the most symbolic way possible, giving him a wound that effectively erases his personal identity.
Jim's death further robs him of his personal humanity, turning him into a symbol for the workers at the camp: he's now the nameless (and faceless) archetype of the worker oppressed by an inequitable system. He's not Jim Nolan anymore.
We can't exactly mourn for Jim's loss, as his own lack of sympathy for the loss of others makes that a tough one. But it does make us think with pity on the other nameless and faceless workers who continue to suffer with no end in sight.