In the story, Tom finds himself on the ledge after a piece of paper documenting his research on grocery-store displays flies out the window. As he balances himself on the ledge, Tom contemplates his absurd and precarious position. In his mind, it is absolutely imperative that he retrieves the piece of paper. If he abandons his efforts, he knows that he will need at least two months to duplicate the results of his extensive fieldwork.
Although the prospect of any sort of promotion isn't promised, Tom bargains that his research will set him apart from the other young men in his company. With great resolve, he is determined to rise to the top of his profession, regardless of the challenges ahead. At the beginning of the story, Tom strikes us as a very conscientious young man; despite his desire to see a much-awaited movie with his wife, Clare, he chooses to sacrifice his free time for his work. Although Clare is visibly disappointed with his decision, she refrains from quarreling with him. It is apparent that both believe on some level that the sacrifice may be necessary.
From all indications, the young couple live in a substandard apartment. The window does not open easily, and the door needs an extra push to shut. Only Tom can open the troublesome window; Clare always has to ask for Tom's assistance to get the window open. So, from Tom and Clare's perspective, their desires must take a back seat to work if the hope for financial gain is to be realized.
However, when Tom finds himself on the verge of falling to his death, his perspective changes. Despite his frantic actions to alert any passersby to his predicament, no one notices Tom on the ledge. He lights at least four pieces of paper on fire with matches and waves the papers side to side. Tom even drops coins from his pocket, but no one seems the wiser. After a while, he comes to the dreaded realization that, even if he fell to his death, no one would know the real reasons for his demise.
His life would end with no possibility of adding any further pleasure or happiness to it. With death staring him in the eyes, Tom comes to understand the folly of wasting his life on material ambitions and dreams. He begins to realize how much he really cherishes his relationship with Clare. If he dies, Clare will be left a widow with little to show for all his busywork. This realization gives Tom the necessary courage to survive. With all the strength he can muster, Tom decides to smash through the window with his fists. For added emphasis, as if his will to live has been inspired by Clare, Tom shouts out his wife's name as he shatters the window with his bare fists.
As he falls forward into the living room, Tom grins triumphantly. He is grateful for life and knows how close he came to dying that day. As he leaves to go and join Clare at the cinema, the yellow paper flies out the window again when he closes the door. This time, Tom merely laughs in response. As a result of his ordeal on the ledge, he is no longer the same man he was. Tom has become a new man, a husband who understands the importance of intimacy, love, and life. He will no longer let material ambitions cloud his judgement or dictate his happiness in life.
In this story, the ordeal on the ledge (and what happens after Tom gets to safety) changes Tom's life by making him realize what is truly important.
At the beginning of the story, Tom thinks that work is the most important thing in the world. He is willing to essentially ignore his wife so he can get work done. But his ordeal on the ledge changes that. He realizes that his work really doesn't matter. What really matters is the people in our lives and our relationships with them.
By coming close to death, Tom realizes what is truly important in life.