Study Guide

Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket

by Jack Finney

Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket Summary

Introduction

Jack Finney’s short story “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket” was originally published in the magazines Good Housekeeping and Collier’s in 1956. Although not as highly regarded as Finney's The Body Snatchers or Time and Again, "Contents" still exhibits the author's concern with time and the struggle to escape from its grip. The story's protagonist, Tom Benecke, illustrates the delicate balance between what people tend to prioritize in life and spend the most time on versus what ends up arguably being the more worthwhile investment of that time. Benecke has tremendously invested himself, including all of his leisure time, in completing research to gain a higher position at the grocery store where he is employed. In the process of working so hard, Benecke neglects his wife, Clare, and his life outside of his job. It takes a near-death experience for Benecke to realize that he has been wasting valuable portions of his life that he could have spent with his wife. Faced with the prospect of not ever having those opportunities again, Benecke mourns the death he created—the death of time—and resolves to save his life by valuing the time he is given.

The story begins with Benecke tied up in his work while his wife is getting ready to attend a movie. Insisting that he must finish the work that he has spent a month compiling, Benecke allows his wife to leave alone. Upon her exit, a gust of wind blows the one page with his work out the window of his eleventh-story apartment above Lexington Avenue. The paper lands too far beyond his reach, and because Benecke cannot conceive of abandoning all of the work he has completed, he climbs onto the narrow ledge, beginning what becomes a physically dangerous and emotionally agonizing journey to retrieve the paper.

Finney delves into Benecke’s thoughts as the character fearfully edges along the ledge and comes close at one point to losing his footing when forced to look down. Thoughts rush through Benecke’s mind of everything that he will not have a chance to do and how this may be the very last moment of his life. To make the situation worse, Benecke’s window falls shut when he finally manages to get back to it with his paper. Attempting to gain the attention of anyone on the street below or in another apartment building, Benecke begins slowly emptying his pockets. When he has nothing but his yellow work paper left, Benecke realizes that the one thing he risked his entire life for would say absolutely nothing about him if he were to fall to his death.

The detail with which Finney presents Tom Benecke’s torment creates strong suspense and allows a firsthand experience of the woe with which Benecke realizes what he has made of his life and what he should have done with that time instead.

Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket Synopsis

Published in Collier's Magazine and Good Housekeeping in 1956, "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" is a short story by Jack Finney that depicts the terror that can enter everyday life.

Clare and Tom Benecke are a young married couple residing in an eleventh-story apartment on Lexington Avenue in New York. An ambitious ad man, Tom is still working on a grocery-store project that will earn him either a promotion or raise, so he sends his wife to the movies without him, promising to meet her later. As Clare leaves, a draft sends Tom's fact sheet of yellow paper out the opened window as the door closes. Running to the window, Tom sees the sheet lying a yard away on the ledge:

It was hard for him to understand that he actually had to abandon it—it was ridiculous—and he began to curse.

After working two months on this data sheet, Tom determines to retrieve it, calculating that he can be back to the window in less than two minutes.  Impulsively, he steps out onto the ledge, edging his way to the corner where another apartment that juts out holds the sheet. Tom lowers his body, but he cannot quite reach it, so he must duck his head an inch lower. With the top of his head and his knees pressed against the brick, he lowers his right shoulder so his fingers can pull loose the paper. But, in so doing, Tom sees the street below and "a violent instantaneous explosion of absolute terror" runs through him.

Paralyzed with the fear of death, it became impossible for Tom to walk back.  As seconds pass, Tom yells "Help!" but no one hears.  Out of "utter necessity" Tom forces his feet to move. In slow, sidling steps he inches his way, then stumbles, smashing his right foot into his left ankle; he staggers and almost falls. With his fingers pressed onto the edging of his window and the full weight of his staggering body, the window slams shut. For an...

(The entire section is 723 words.)

Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket Overview

First published in Collier’s Magazine (October 26, 1956), “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket” by Jack Finney is a modern American short story set in New York City. Through the story’s protagonist, Tom Benecke, Finny examines the concept of personal success in relation to the American business culture of the 1950s. In addition to Tom Benecke, the story features only one other character, Tom’s wife, Clare.

Tom and Clare are an attractive young married couple who live in a small apartment high above Lexington Avenue. As the story begins, Clare is dressing to go to the movies, but Tom has chosen to stay home to complete a marketing project to display grocery store products in a new way. He is driven to finish his work, hoping that his efforts will impress his boss and lead to professional advancement. Tom is ambitious and career-oriented. He wants to succeed, and he defines success as having money “rolling in.” Tom wants to go out with his wife, but he is obsessed with his work. When Clare leaves, alone, Tom feels guilty but turns immediately to his paperwork laid out on his desk near the window he had opened moments before.

After closing the door behind Clare, Tom is horrified to see a single sheet of yellow paper fly out the open window. This is the page containing all of his project research notes, gathered through hours and hours of extra work on many nights and weekends. Tom watches the paper slide along the building’s ledge three feet below his window, finally becoming lodged five feet away in a corner where the exterior wall of the adjacent apartment projects farther into space over the avenue far below. Tom’s mind races as he stares at the yellow paper—a symbol of his hard work, sacrifice, and future success.

Even though he tries, Tom cannot accept its loss; ignoring his better judgment, he climbs through the open window and stands on the narrow ledge, eleven stories above the street, on a cold and windy autumn night. He intends to retrieve the paper. With his face and body pressed against the brick building, he will hold on to the bricks with his finger tips and shuffle sideways to the corner, get the paper, and shuffle back to his window. As Tom moves away from his warm, lighted apartment into the darkness, he undertakes what turns out to be a truly terrifying journey.

The story describes Tom’s ordeal in vivid, specific chronological detail. After finally working his way to the paper and bending to pick it up, Tom pulls it loose; then he sees Lexington Avenue many stories below. The sudden realization of his tenuous physical position on the ledge terrorizes him. Jerking upright and shuddering violently, he almost falls to his death. He struggles to overcome his fear, breathes deeply, and gets control. Calmer but unable to move, Tom...

(The entire section is 1152 words.)