man's feet dangling above a window outside a building

Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket

by Jack Finney
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Like many stories, Jack Finney's short story "Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets" is built on choices made by the main charactor. What choice has Tom already made when the story opens, and why does he choose to risk his life to retrieve the paper?

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Jack Finney’s short story “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets” tells of a man you has already made a fateful decision when the story begins.  Tom Benecke and his wife Clara had planned to the movies together, but Tom has changed his mind and decided to stay home to work on a project for his job, a project that he hopes will facilitate his upward movement with the company.  As he and Clara prepare to separate for the evening, it is clear that Clara is not enamored with Tom’s decision:

She nodded, accepting this. Then, glancing at the desk across the living room, she said, "You work too much, though, Tom--and too hard."

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

"I guess not." She smiled and turned back toward the bedroom.

Tom’s decision to remain at home to work on a project that he hopes will help him rise up the corporate ladder has already been made when “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets” begins.  That decision precipitates a chain of events that end with Tom convinced that he needs to make some fundamental changes in how he views all that is important to him – his marriage and his job.

Tom has been accumulating data for an independent project that he hoped to present to his superiors the next day.  He could have waited and done it the next week, but he was anxious and wanted his bosses to spend the weekend contemplating his personal initiative and the brilliance of his proposal.  And all of the data he had painstakingly accumulated was on one particular yellow sheet of paper.  When a breeze that blows through the window he has opened to his apartment in a high-rise building, he can’t let the paper get away.  It represents too much work and too much potential to elevate him above his colleagues.  His thought process was described by Finney as such:

"It was hard for him to understand that he actually had to abandon it. . . 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 own improvised shorthand--countless hours of work--out there on the ledge."

Contemplating the prospects of successfully retrieving the paper that now sits precariously outside his window and debating with himself the risk-reward ratio, Tom decides to risk his life to retrieve that yellow sheet of paper.  Tom makes a choice to risk his life retrieving the piece of paper, only to later, after coming perilously close to falling to his death with only that sheet of paper in his pocket, conclude that the effort at not been worth the risk, and that a better choice would to place the sanctity of his marriage to Clara above his professional ambitions – if only for a night.

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