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 17, 2021, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Contents-of-the-Dead-Mans-Pocket/.

Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket | Themes

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Priorities and the Dangers of Overambitiousness

"Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets" is above all a meditation on life's priorities. Tom Benecke has an adequate job, a decent home, and a loving marriage. While his role as breadwinner justifies a desire to improve his and Clare's lives, he lacks a sense of proportion in how to go about it. His obsession with success at his job causes him to neglect his relationship with his wife and forego simple pleasures such as going to the movies. Instead, he lets his drive for material gain override all else, placing himself in peril by going out onto the ledge to retrieve his "valuable" notes. By the end of the story, after nearly losing his life prompts him to look at what is important in it, Tom has come to the realization that while material comfort is important, there are intangible aspects to life that must be tended to as well.

Nature of Happiness

Jack Finney portrays Tom as a decent man in a loving marriage with a lack of awareness of what leads to happiness that cripples his capacity to enjoy what he has. Tom sees being happy only in terms of material security—which he already possesses to a reasonable degree while failing to appreciate it—and he fails to understand that happiness comes more from one's approach to life than from the things one has. His wife, Clare, has a better understanding of the idea, pointing out to him that he works too much and too hard. She seems reluctant to pursue the matter to the point of conflict, however, and relents when Tom insists on pursuing his own approach. Clare understands that mostly simple things bring true happiness and compromises by going to the movies alone when she would rather Tom accompany her. By the story's end, Tom realizes that Clare's viewpoint is the correct one. Crying out her name as he punches his way through the apartment window to safety, he immediately goes to find her at the movie theater. The reader can assume that it will be the first of many evenings the two of them spend together.

Mortality

The possibility of Tom's imminent, sudden demise forces him to view his life through the lens of his own mortality. His awareness of death begins when he steps out onto the ledge, heightens when the window closes, and reaches an apex when he decides to try to smash the window (an action that he knows will either save him or cause him to fall 11 stories).

While on the ledge, Tom's sudden reminder of life's impermanence motivates him to realign his views about what is important. When, at the story's end, he is faced a second time with the same situation that just prompted him to endanger himself—the yellow paper going out the window—he laughs it off and goes to find his wife. His perceptions of what is important have been rearranged by his near miss. It can be inferred from Jack Finney's presentation of Tom as an Everyman that Finney intends the reader to similarly entertain thoughts of their own mortality and perhaps examine their own priorities.

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