Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket | Study Guide

Jack Finney

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Course Hero, "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket Study Guide," August 30, 2019, accessed October 22, 2021, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Contents-of-the-Dead-Mans-Pocket/.

Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

Work to Do

Tom Benecke sits at his desk in his downtown Manhattan apartment on a Thursday evening. He puts paper into his portable typewriter, preparing to write a memo about his new plan for displaying goods in his company's grocery stores. He will be transcribing his own notes—written in a shorthand comprehensible only to himself—from a sheet of yellow paper. He has spent months collecting and analyzing his data. As he organizes himself, he hears his wife Clare getting clothes from their bedroom closet. He feels guilty because she is about to go to the movies alone while he stays home and works. He is also warm, so he gets up, goes to the window and—with great effort—opens it a few inches to let in the cool autumn air. The sounds from the busy street drift in from 11 stories below.

Clare walks into the living room and comments that she hates for Tom to miss the movie since he wants to see it too. He works too hard, she tells him. Tom reminds her that what he is doing could result in a raise. A few moments later he walks her to their apartment's front door and helps her put on her coat, kisses her, and for a moment considers going with her—he doesn't need to do the work, he just wants to do it. She leaves. He stands in the doorway, watching her walk down the hallway. Then, as he closes the door, an air current blows in from the hall, through the living room to his desk. It carries the yellow sheet of paper—the one with his notes—out the open window.

Panic

Tom runs to the window and tries to open it wider. It is getting dark outside, but he can see the sheet of paper to his left lying on the ornamental ledge three feet below. With enormous effort, he raises the window. He kneels on the floor and leans out, but the paper lies just out of his reach. Suddenly, a breeze drifts by and Tom watches as the paper scuds down the ledge where it finally becomes plastered against a wall.

The paper is now five yards away. Tom watches, hoping it will fall down to the street where he may retrieve it. No such luck. The wind holds it fast in a corner formed by a turn in the ledge. He tries to think of something in the apartment—a fireplace poker, a broom—that he might use to recover his notes. He can't come up with something feasible, and he becomes angry. That sheet of paper represents countless hours of research on a project that could mark the beginning of his rise up the corporate ladder.

On the Ledge

Tom spends a few moments talking himself into going out onto the ledge and retrieving the sheet of paper. He puts on an old tweed jacket and slips carefully between the window's sill and frame, onto the ledge, which is about as wide as his shoes are long. Facing the building, refusing to look down, he slides slowly to his right. He reaches the place where the paper is stuck, straddles the sheet, and squats, reaching down between his knees and grabbing it by a corner.

As he does this, the busy street far below him comes into his range of vision. Terrified, he straightens himself instinctively, nearly losing his balance as he does so. His eyes squeeze shut. His entire body shudders with fright, and he concentrates on remaining conscious. After several long, deep breaths, he assures himself that he will not faint. At the same time, he cannot open his eyes or stop shaking.

Terror Sinks In

He realizes that his balance is gone. He is certain he will fall if he attempts to slide back to his apartment window. He waits for a lull in the traffic below and then yells for help. But he realizes that nobody in downtown New York is going to try to figure out where his distant cries come from. His only option is to try moving. It takes him several moments to muster the will and concentration to do so. He slides slowly to his left, picturing the comfort and safety of his apartment. His eyes are now open, as he looks in the direction he is heading in.

Suddenly, his left hand encounters emptiness. He has made his way to his apartment window, but the shift startles him. He stumbles and grabs on to the windowsill, kneeling on the ledge. The window frame falls down hard on his wrists. Through reflex he pulls his hands back. The window slides down the rest of the way, closing completely. Tom regains his balance by grabbing the window's wood edgings with his fingertips. He is now leaning forward, his forehead against the window, looking into his apartment.

He sees himself in the reflection of the glass and realizes that he is holding the yellow paper in his teeth. He removes it and stuffs it into a jacket pocket. The window has fallen too low for him to open it from the outside, and he tries unsuccessfully to break the glass with the heel of his hand. He longs for the safety of his apartment and imagines himself rolling around on his living room floor clutching the tufts of the rug, something he knows he will do if he gets back inside. He then takes a half dollar from his pocket and hits the glass as hard as he can manage. When that does nothing, he removes a shoe and pounds the glass with its heel. No luck.

It occurs to him that he will have to wait until Clare comes home. He imagines her return and rescue of him. But then he remembers that she had wanted to see the second feature at the theater but had left in time for the first. He consults his watch and realizes that it has only been eight minutes since she left. It will be at least four hours before her return, and he knows that he cannot keep his balance on the ledge for that long.

He looks over his shoulder at the lit windows of the apartment building across the street. People are visible through some of the windows, but nobody notices him. He fumbles an old letter and a book of matches from his coat pockets and lights the paper on fire. It catches nobody's attention. He repeats the strategy unsuccessfully with two more old letters he is carrying. Then he drops coins from his pocket onto the sidewalk below, to no apparent avail.

He is convinced that he will fall to his death very shortly. It strikes him that he has left his wallet on his dresser. All that he has with him is the yellow sheet of paper with its incomprehensible writing. Nobody will be able to identify his body from those notes. He ponders with regret the occasions he has spent away from Clare, absorbed in his work while ignoring what is truly important.

Off the Ledge

He determines that there is one last chance for him to save himself. He will pull back his fist and punch the glass as hard as he can. If his fist goes through the glass, he may injure himself but should survive the ordeal. If it does not, he will likely rebound from the blow and fall from the ledge.

He spends several moments working up the nerve to strike the window. Finally, he yells his wife's name and takes his shot. The glass shatters. He picks away the remaining shards of glass from the window frame and crawls into his apartment. Instead of rolling in triumph on the rug as he was certain he would do, Tom calmly goes to his desk, places the yellow paper on it, and weights the sheet down with a pencil. Then he retrieves his topcoat and hat from the closet and sets out to join his wife at the theater. When he opens the apartment's door, the breeze from the hallway again blows the yellow paper on his desk out the now-broken window. Laughing, he leaves.

Analysis

"Contents" as a Parable and a Cautionary Tale

Readers can classify "Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets" as a parable, a story that teaches a lesson or communicates a moral. (Parables are similar to fables, the main difference being that anthropomorphized animals rather than people populate fables.) Readers can also see "Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets" as a cautionary tale—a story that gives a warning to the reader. In this case, the reader can discern both an obvious warning against going out on window ledges and, on a more subtle level, a warning against living a life of misplaced values.

At the beginning of the story, work dominates Tom's life. He takes for granted that he has a loving wife. He resides in a decent home, which shows that he makes a good enough living; yet, he is not quite satisfied. His pursuit of money and a higher status in his career have blinded him from seeing what is most important. Not until he stands on the ledge 11 stories above Lexington Avenue does he come to realize what is important in life. Tom must literally balance on a ledge to come to understand the importance of balancing his own priorities in life. The message, or lesson, that Jack Finney hopes the reader will take away is that a fulfilled life balances work and pleasure and that when it is all said and done, it's not just the material things in life that really matter.

The "Everyman"

In "Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets," Finney presents the character of Tom Benecke as an Everyman, an average, unremarkable person with whom the reader is meant to identify. The Everyman is a time-honored archetype in literature, nearly always presented as a kind of hero pitted against—and often overcoming—extraordinary adversity. In this case, Tom battles both nature—the force of gravity threatens to pull him down 11 stories to his death—and his own faulty outlook toward life. His drive toward material gain places his life in danger, even as he brushes aside the potential for happiness presented by his home and marriage. By the end of the story, in true Everyman fashion, he conquers both.

It is worth noting that in the cultural and literary context of the 1950s, the Everyman was nearly always synonymous with the white, heterosexual, middle-class male. But while that is definitely the case here—Tom fits that description so recognizably that no part of it needs to be explicitly stated—it does not pose an obstacle to any reader's identification with the character. The internal and external conflicts with which Tom copes are universal, something with which all people can identify.

Tom Benecke's Transformation

"Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets" depicts two characters: Tom and Clare Benecke. They are a childless, middle-class married couple. As was pretty much the middle-class ideal during the 1950s, Tom is a breadwinner and Clare a homemaker.

Finney presents the Beneckes' marriage as an affectionate one, although Tom's preoccupation with his job hangs over the story from its onset. Clare, a kind and supportive spouse, takes gentle issue with the amount of time Tom spends absorbed in his job. She frames her objections lovingly; rather than complain about his lack of attentiveness to her, she points out Tom's self-denial of simple pleasures, such as going to the movies. And even though she acquiesces to his insistence that his success will benefit them both, Finney's mention of Tom's "guilty conscience" indicates that Tom himself does not feel entirely comfortable with the situation.

Finney quickly establishes the yellow sheet of notepaper as a symbol of Tom's obsession with his career. It alone contains the information he needs for the presentation he hopes will advance him at work. The fact that it is covered in a shorthand only he can read underscores the isolating nature of his obsessiveness. The paper's content has assumed such importance for Tom that when it floats out his living room window, he feels unable to imagine working without it. Placing his life in danger to retrieve it, therefore, seems rational to him.

Once trapped on the ledge, however, his outlook changes. While he has on some level sensed all along that he has misplaced his values, his precarious situation places that realization front and center. He realizes that he not only thoughtlessly brushes aside everything in his life that represents security—a safe home, a loving spouse—but that he has now put his very existence at risk for the sake of something he has been living without.

His unanswered cries for help drive home the fact that the world at large feels indifferent to him. The letters he burns come presumably from people of little significance to his life. His fruitless effort to save himself by dropping coins on the sidewalk symbolically highlights the fact that money in and of itself does not solve all of life's problems. His observations of others in their apartments enjoying the security he has trivialized—until now, as he ponders his own death— highlight further what his ambition has put in jeopardy.

When he finally, and barely, returns to safety, he is transformed. No longer is making money his prime motivation. Finney communicates the change to the reader in two ways: Tom goes out immediately to find his wife, and he laughs when the wind again blows his precious yellow paper out the window.

Suspense

"Contents of a Dead Man's Pockets" proves Jack Finney as a master of suspense in that he keeps the reader on the edge of their seat wanting to know what happens next. Finney knows that to get a reader to keep on reading, the story must be suspenseful from the get-go. The title alone creates suspense because it has the reader wonder from the very start if Tom will actually die and, if so, how.

Finney carries the suspense throughout the story in various ways. By leaving Tom home alone, the reader can anticipate what terrible event may happen next. Maybe Tom will fight until the death against an intruder. Or maybe pressures brought on by his work or his mounting guilt for not joining his wife will push him to the edge. The suspense thickens when Tom goes out on the ledge. The reader becomes sure that a fall from the ledge could be what will cause Tom's demise. He loses his balance several times. He plays out grim scenarios in his mind. The window slams shut. He knows that he cannot stand on the ledge for the hours that Clare is away—he will surely become tired and fall off. These actions and thoughts of the main character keep the reader on the edge of their seat.

The final bit of suspense comes in the climax when Tom must take a chance and punch his fist through the apartment window to break the glass. He knows that the action can end in one of two ways: he may break the glass and crawl through the window to safety, or he will lose his balance swinging his arm back and fall to certain death. The reader anticipates the outcome throughout Tom's full swing behind him and then forward through the glass. As he pushes the shards of glass into the apartment window, the reader can take a deep breath knowing that Tom will be okay.

Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction

Introduction

1 Tom Benecke begins preparing a presentation for work.

Rising Action

2 Tom's wife Clare goes to a movie alone.

3 A yellow paper blows out the window onto the ledge.

4 Tom steps out onto the ledge to retrieve his notes.

5 The window closes, trapping Tom on the ledge.

6 Tom attempts to call attention to his situation.

7 Tom becomes convinced he will fall to his death.

8 Tom decides tries to save himself.

Climax

9 Tom shatters his apartment window with his fist.

Falling Action

10 Tom reenters his apartment.

11 Tom decides to join his wife at the movies.

Resolution

12 Tom laughs when the yellow paper blows out the window again.

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