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Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket

by Jack Finney
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Stories are built on conflict. In "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket," does Tom experience internal conflict, external conflict, or both? Which is more compelling to you as a reader? Explain. 

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Tom Benecke experiences both internal and external conflicts. His internal conflict is more serious, more complex, more universally significant, and therefore more compelling to the reader.

Tom's external conflict involves the logistical problem of side-stepping along a narrow ledge for a distance of approximately five yards, picking up a sheet of paper, and then returning to the window of his apartment. He doesn't expect the purely ornamental ledge to be so narrow; it is not even as wide as his shoes. When he gets to the paper he can't bend over far enough to pick it up because he is hugging the brick wall of the building and can't turn sideways because the ledge is too narrow. He has to lower his body awkwardly while facing the wall--but that, of course, means bending his knees. The effect of pressing both knees against the wall is to force his back and hips out over the precipice, nearly making him lose his precarious balance and topple over backwards into space.

When he finally manages to get his fingers on the sheet of paper, he has to look down for the first time, and the sight unnerves him.

He saw, in that instant, the Loew's theater sign, blocks ahead past Fiftieth Street; the miles of traffic signals, all green now; the lights of cars and street lamps; countless neon signs; and the moving black dots of people. And a violent instantaneous explosion of absolute terror roared through him.

Thus begins the worst of his internal conflict. He is frozen in place. He can't make his legs behave. They feel rubbery. His brain and his entire nervous system are flooded with terror. He knows that his fear of falling is exactly what will make him fall.

It was impossible to walk back. He simply could not do it. He couldn't bring himself to make the slightest movement. The strength was gone from his legs; his shivering hands--numb, cold, and desperately rigid--had lost all deftness; his easy ability to move and balance was gone. Within a step or two, if he tried to move, he knew that he would stumble and fall.

Tom needs help. This causes him to think about his wife--who is attending a double-feature and won't be home for about four hours. Thinking about his wife, how important she is and how he has been neglecting her, helps to give him the courage and resolution to start creeping back along the ledge towards his lighted window.

The near-death experience has taught him an important lesson. He is a changed man by the time he makes it back to safety. He will appreciate the things he has got and not risk losing them on the gamble of getting something better.

"Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" resembles Guy De Maupassant's famous story "The Necklace." Mathilde Loisel has a home, security, and a devoted husband, but she wants something more. What she wants might be described as the same thing that Tom Benecke wants, which is upward mobility. She not only loses her beauty when she loses the phony necklace, but she even loses the modest social position she had and becomes financially and psychologically a member of the urban poor.

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