Explain the appropriateness of the title of the story."Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets" by Jack Finney

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mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In Jack Finney's story, the main character, Tom Benecke has invested all his leisure time lately on a project he hopes will earn him a big raise.  But, after his yellow sheet with all the data in which he has invested this time blows out of his high-rise apartment window, Tom, in an obsessive move, goes out on the ledge to retrieve it.  When his window closes, locking him out, he empties his pockets and drops the coins, hoping someone will look up from the pavement far below.  But no one does.

there was nothing left but the yellow sheet.  It occurred to him irrelevantly that his death on the sidewalk below would be an eternal mystery; the window closed--why, how, and from where could he have fallen?  No one would be able to identify his body for a time...Contents of the ded man's pockets, he thought, one sheet of paper bearing penciled notations--incomprehensible.

Then, Tom imagines how the police report would read.  As he does so, he ponders,

Contents of the dead man's pockets, he though with sudden, fierce anger, a wasted life.

This phrase that is the title is also the moment of truth for Tom Benecke.  For, he realizes that he has been so caught up in climbing the corporate ladder that he has neglected his wife; tonight he even sent her on to the movies alone.  After this moment, Tom sets his priorities on having a happy marriage and living--something much more important than the yellow sheet.

This realization that there would be no explanation for his death, a senseless death, is the lever for Tom's change of priorities.  It is, therefore, fitting that this phrase be the title of Jack Finney's short story.

pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In my opinion, the title is appropriate for the story because it refers to a line in the story that pretty much sums up the point of the story.

In that line, Tom is thinking how he has nothing in his pockets to identify him.  He thinks no one will know who he is or how he came to fall to his death.

To me, this is emphasizing how futile his life is at this point.  He is so wrapped up in his work that he lets his wife go off without him and he practically gets himself killed for the sake of his work.  Because all he cares about is his work, he is sort of a nobody and the contents of his pockets would reflect that.

So the title points to the idea that Tom's life was empty and meaningless and that he needed to learn that so he could become a better person.

billdelaney's profile pic

William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The title of the story, "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket," is intentionally misleading but "appropriate" because it helps to enhance the intense emotions experienced by the protagonist--and experienced vicariously by the reader. The title deliberately makes the reader think that Tom Benecke is dead and that the story we are reading is an elaborate explanation of how and why he died. It is not until late in the story that the author suggests an alternative reason for the choice of the title.

He understood fully that he might actually be going to die; his arms, maintaining his balance on the ledge, were trembling steadily now. And it occurred to him then with all the force of a revelation that, if he fell, all he was ever going to have out of life he would then, abruptly, have had. Nothing, then, could ever be changed; and nothing more--no least experience or pleasure--could ever be added to his life. He wished, then, that he had not allowed his wife to go off by herself tonight--and on similar nights. He thought of all the evenings he had spent away from her, working; and he regretted them. He thought wonderingly of his fierce ambition and of the direction his life had taken; he thought of the hours he'd spent by himself, filling the yellow sheet that had brought him out here. Contents of the dead man's pockets, he thought with sudden fierce anger, a wasted life.

The protagonist is still in extreme danger. At the same time, however, the reader realizes that it is not a certainty that he is going to die. In a sense, we are no longer reading what sounds like an extended flashback, but we are now brought into the present. The title "Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets" does not necessarily mean that Tom Benecke is already dead and that we are reading about his last moments on earth. He still has a chance. The title therefore has at least a double meaning. It forecasts the protagonist's death unreliably and deceptively, and it also symbolizes the emptiness of his life. The contents of his pockets would be nothing but an undecipherable sheet of shorthand writing. It would be given to his wife, but she would not be able to make heads or tails of it.

Tom has nothing more in his pockets because he only expected to be away from his apartment for a few minutes. He had left his wallet on the dresser when he'd changed clothes. Evidently he was in the habit, like a lot of clerical workers, of changing out of his suit and dress shirt and necktie into more comfortable leisure clothes when he arrived at home. He undoubtedly wishes he had something to identify himself, because his wife might not learn about his death for days. How do the police go about identifying a dead man? No doubt they would assume he had fallen or jumped from the apartment directly above his body, and eventually they would go around inside the tall building asking questions. Poor Clare would have to go down and identify the corpse at the morgue, and it would not be a pretty sight after having fallen eleven floors.


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