In Jack Finney's short story Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets, there are two principal settings, the apartment and the ledge outside the window.  How is each of these settings associated with...

In Jack Finney's short story Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets, there are two principal settings, the apartment and the ledge outside the window.  How is each of these settings associated with a distinctive atmosphere or mood in the story?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Jack Finney’s 1956 story Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets takes place inside the apartment of Tom and Clare Benecke, and on the ledge outside of their window.  Descriptions provided by Finney indicate that it is a small apartment – “the little living-room desk,” the “short hallway,” the “little hallway” – located on the eleventh floor of a high-rise building lacking decent ventilation:

“Hot in here,” he muttered to himself.”

While it is cool outside (Tom helps Clare with her coat), the heat inside prompts Tom to open a window, precipitating the chain of events that follow.  Before he can open the window, however, he has to force it, as it is typically stuck (“as usual, the window didn’t budge”).  The Benecke’s are not wealthy, but neither are they poor.  They appear to be lower-middle class, as indicative of an exchange that occurs before Clare departs for the movie theater while Tom remains behind to finish a report for his job.  Clare expresses her disappointment that Tom has decided to forego the movie in deference to his desire to finish his report, which is an expression of his ambition to move up in the world:

"You won’t mind though, will you, when the money comes rolling in and I’m known as the Boy Wizard of Wholesale Groceries?”

Finney’s description indicates socioeconomic status as a factor in his story.  The couple, especially Tom, hope for better things; it is even noted that they “paid seven and a half less dollars rent than their neighbors” in exchange for a slightly inferior unit.  Their status  provides the basis for the developments that follow: the absence of decent ventilation causes Tom to force open the window, causing an important piece of paper to be blown outside, where it settles onto the ledge.  So important is that paper that Tom decides to risk his life to retrieve it.

Descriptions of the ledge similarly indicate a high-rise building that has aged and for which its best days lay behind it: “the ornamental ledge,” “the ornate corner ornament of the ledge.”  It is late evening – Clare left in time to make the seven o’clock show – and darkness has descended: “. . . he knew he was going out there in the darkness, after the yellow sheet fifteen feet beyond his reach.”  The width of the ledge is of crucial importance, as it speaks directly to the level of risk Tom is about to take to retrieve his notes:

“The ledge, he saw, measuring it with his eye, was about as wide as the length of his shoe, and perfectly flat.  And every fifth row of brick in the face of the building, he remembered – leaning out, he verified this – was indented half an inch, enough for the tips of his fingers, enough to maintain balance easily.”

The danger in which Tom has placed himself is firmly established with the following description:

“Now, balanced easily and firmly, he stood on the ledge outside in the slight, chill breeze, eleven stories above the street, staring into his own lighted apartment, odd and different-seeming now.”

The mood established in the author’s descriptions of the apartment and the ledge suggest the physical peril to which Tom Benecke subjects himself out of a misbegotten drive to propel himself upward in the corporation that employs him.  This project “would gradually mark him out of from the score of other young men in his company.”  And, for that, he risks his life.  

Read the study guide:
Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket

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