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Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket | Study Guide

Jack Finney

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Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket | Symbols


Notes on the Yellow Sheet of Paper

In "Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets," Tom's sheet of yellow, note-covered paper is a physical symbol of a possible promotion and raise, increased professional and social status, and a materially better life. At the story's beginning, these are the things he values above all else. The paper is a common object made unique not only by the particular information it contains but by the fact that only Tom can read the information—to anyone else, the notes would be gibberish. When the paper blows out the window, Tom finds the potential loss so unimaginable that risking his life to save it seems rational.

The Apartment, the Ledge, and the Window

Tom and Clare's apartment represents stability and security. Although they leave it as needed to interact with the outside world (e.g., Clare goes to the movies, Tom goes to work), it serves as the base for everything that ultimately matters in their lives. As such, it has great value just as it is. At the beginning of "Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets," Clare has an instinctive understanding of this. Tom, however, does not.

The departure of his yellow sheet of paper through the open apartment window lures Tom from their protected space. The window symbolizes the dividing line between the security of the Beneckes' lives and an indifferent, if not dangerous, outside world. Placing an unreasonable degree of importance on his notes causes Tom to ill-advisedly cross that line to the apartment building's ledge. Going out on a building's ledge is generally associated with a desire to seek death, and Tom's disregard of this places him in an outside world that is not only indifferent, it is dangerous.

After Tom retrieves the paper and seems to be almost home free, the open window slams shut while he is still outside. This takes Tom from a dangerous situation to one of grave peril. It also gives him, through the window's glass, a view of what he may lose because of his foolhardy actions. The image Finney creates here clearly illustrates Tom's misplaced priorities—the story's prime theme—and the position he inhabits in them. Only by breaking the barrier (window) between his shallow materialism and what is worthwhile in his life does Tom save himself.

Contents of Tom Benecke's Pockets

The contents of Tom's pockets—the letters, the coins, and the yellow sheet of notepaper—have a symbolic significance of their own. The three crumpled letters represent interactions with others that were so unimportant that they were crammed into a pocket and forgotten. His insignificance to the teeming masses below is evident as Tom sets each letter on fire in a futile effort to arouse someone's—anyone's—interest in his predicament. This fits with an interpretation of the ledge as symbolic of the dangerous, uncaring world that exists outside the Beneckes' apartment.

He also drops coins onto the sidewalk 11 stories below him. This is an action that might harm those walking below. Although there is no indication that it does so, it does indicate a willingness on Tom's part to risk harm to others for the sake of saving himself. As such, readers might interpret it as a sign of the desperation to which his poor choices have driven him. The uselessness of the coins may be a metaphor for the inadequacy of money—the pursuit of which is Tom's obsession—in meeting all of life's needs. Similarly, his letting go of the coins might symbolize his "letting go" of the idea that money is the be-all and end-all of life.

Lastly, the yellow sheet of paper, which Tom has at this point retrieved and put in his pocket, comes to symbolize, as explained in the text itself, a life poorly lived. Tom realizes that should he fall to his death, the thing upon which he has placed such a high value will be seen by those who find his body as the worthless gibberish it actually is.

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