What do we find out about the yellow paper? Why was it important to Tom?

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The author Jack Finney takes special pains to explain the importance of the sheet of yellow paper before Tom Benecke ever steps out onto the ledge. Here is the pertinent paragraph:

It was hard for him to understand that he actually had to abandon it--it was ridiculous--and he began to curse. Of all the papers on his desk, why did it have to be this one in particular? On four long Saturday afternoons he had stood in supermarkets counting the people who passed certain displays, and the results were scribbled on that yellow sheet. From stacks of trade publications, gone over page by page in snatched half-hours at work and during evenings at home, he had copied facts, quotations, and figures onto that sheet. And he had carried it with him to the Public Library on Fifth Avenue, where he'd spent a dozen lunch hours and early evenings adding more. All were needed to support and lend authority to his idea for a new grocery-store display method; without them his idea was a mere opinion. And there they all lay in his improvised shorthand--countless hours of work--out there on the ledge.

The yellow sheet is important to Tom because he put so much work into it. He has three choices. He can let the sheet go and forget about his idea for a new grocery-store display method which might have earned him a raise or a promotion or both. He can do the work all over again and create another document to back up his proposal. Or he can climb out on the ledge and retrieve that precious sheet of cheap yellow paper. The author increases the importance of the paper by mentioning at the end of the paragraph that it was all written in Tom's "improvised shorthand." So the one sheet would actually amount to several sheets if the shorthand were transposed into longhand. 

Tom can't forget about the yellow sheet because it is laying outside the window practically under his nose. If it had simply blown away into open space he could have accepted its loss. But it is tantalizingly close.

He thought about the poker from the fireplace, then the broom, then the mop--discarding each thought as it occurred to him. There was nothing in the apartment long enough to reach that paper.

The paper must be very close to his window if he could almost--but not quite--reach it with a broom. But even if he could reach it with a broom, there was a strong possibility that he would only detach it from its stable position "between a projection of the convoluted corner ornament and the ledge." In that case it would really blow away.

Tom seems to know that he is going to step out onto that ledge and to be slowly talking himself into doing it. The paper symbolizes many hours of work, and almost all of those hours were stolen from his own leisure time and from the time he could have been spending with his wife. He either has to retrieve the paper, which he tells himself would only take two minutes, or else go back over the same identical work that led to its creation. If his wife were at home she would never let him climb out of that eleventh-floor window--but he sent her to the movies by herself so that he could concentrate on typing up the office memo.

The title of the story, "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket," leads the reader to believe that Tom is doomed from the moment he climbs out onto that ledge. We naturally assume that he is going to fall and that he is going to be found dead on the street below. We identify with him because of his motivation to succeed and also because we are held firmly in his point of view. And after reading the story we probably end up feeling, as Tom Benecke did, that maybe we ought to reevaluate our goals and values.

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