man's feet dangling above a window outside a building

Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket

by Jack Finney

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Tom values something the most in the beginning of "Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets," but these values change at the end of the story. Why do Tom's experiences on the ledge change his values?

Finney's story is built on a situation that must have happened to him when he was working on some freelance assignment. The idea of the story came to him like a revelation, but no doubt he worried away at it until he had developed the basic plot and characters. He thought long and hard about the setting, until he realized that New York City was the perfect place for his story. He took his time with his revisions, and then just before sending off the final draft, he probably noticed that all his thoughts led to one single point: "The most important thing in life is staying alive."

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The protagonist of "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket " has two insights because of his experiences out on that ledge. The first insight, or "revelation," has nothing to do with his wife. (She may be very important to him, but she is only a minor character who is...

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The protagonist of "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" has two insights because of his experiences out on that ledge. The first insight, or "revelation," has nothing to do with his wife. (She may be very important to him, but she is only a minor character who is mostly absent.) He realizes that he is doing a crazy thing and therefore that he must have been going crazy with his obsession on achieving success in the business world. He was so crazy that he thought what he was doing was a rational thing to do. The reader must have known this all along. The reader probably would never have gone out on that ledge in the first place; but since he is in Tom Benecke's point of view he has to go out there with him, see what he sees and feel what he feels. Both the protagonist and the reader realize that excessive ambition can drive a person crazy. New York City itself can drive a person crazy.

Then when the protagonist, still out on the ledge, realizes he was crazy, he starts thinking rationally. In doing so, it is natural for him to think about his real value, his real goal, his real purpose--which is to stay alive and get back to his wife, who represents sanity, security, and life itself. Perhaps the most significant passage in the story is the following:

He understood fully that he might actually be going to die; his arms, maintaining his balance on the ledge, were trembling steadily now. And it occurred to him then with all the force of a revelation that, if he fell, all he was ever going to have out of life he would then, abruptly, have had. Nothing, then, could ever be changed; and nothing more--no least experience or pleasure--could ever be added to his life. He wished, then, that he had not allowed his wife to go off by herself tonight--and on similar nights. He thought of all the evenings he had spent away from her, working; and he regretted them. He thought wonderingly of his fierce ambition and of the direction his life had taken; he thought of the hours he'd spent by himself, filling the yellow sheet that had brought him out here. Contents of the dead man's pockets, he thought with sudden fierce anger, a wasted life.

"Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" is a terrifying story. It must be the terror that has the greatest effect on the protagonist (since the terror has the greatest effect on the reader). Benecke's fear makes him realize that he had been crazy enough to risk losing what was most precious for something that was frivolous, if not worthless. As a matter of fact, if he had been crazy, how could he tell whether his business proposal wasn't crazy? Maybe the scribblings on that piece of yellow paper were only meaningless hieroglyphics. And maybe the protagonist's superiors would see that the ideas were full of holes and reject them.

Jack Finney was a professional writer. He probably got the idea for his story from something that really happened to him while he was working on a freelance story. No doubt he had scribbled a first draft in his own handwriting on a yellow "second sheet" and it had blown out his window. He could have written the story with the hero being a writer rather than a businessman. It is very common for creative writers to get great ideas and to scribble them down in a hurry to keep from forgetting them. Sir Francis Bacon offers very good advice when he says:

Write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come unsought for are commonly the most valuable.

Such ideas, which usually come from the unconscious, are elusive and often irrecoverable, very much like dreams. But as a professional, Finney probably realized that a story of a writer writing about a writer writing was apt to sound too specific, too limited, too convoluted, too introverted--and, to editors, too much like the work of a hungry freelance writer.

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A story that was first published in 1956, "Contents of a Dead Man's Pocket" presents an extreme scenario from the life of one of the many young men of post World War II's growing economy that aspired to financial greatness. So focused upon his ingenious plan to improve the profits of the grocery chain for which he works is Tom Benecke that he neglects his wife and puts aside even his common sense. His yellow sheet with facts and figures, a sheet representative of long hours of research, takes precedence over all other values and considerations.

But, when he rashly goes out onto the ledge of his eleventh-floor apartment after the yellow sheet that has blow outside when his wife departs, and, later when the window slams shut, Tom experiences an epiphany as he confronts the possibility of death. In his mind, he imagines himself:

Eyes squeezed shut, he watched scenes in his mind like scraps of motion-picture film--he could not stop them....He saw himself falling with a terrible speed as his body revolved in air, knees clutched tight to his chest, eyes squeezed shut, moaning softly....he could feel the terrible strength of the pent-up horror on just the other side....

Tom has to forcibly hold himself together in order to try to break the glass of the window that has slammed shut. In fact, it is not Tom's self interest that keeps him steady; it is the love of his wife, the true value of which he suddenly recognizes in this moment of crisis. He screams her name as he breaks through into the apartment. 

Acknowledging that Clare has saved him and is the most valuable being in his world, Tom hurries to be able to meet his wife at the cinema. When the sheet blows back out the broken window as he creates a draft by opening the door, Tom throws his head back and laughs at the existential absurdity of his having placed so much value upon monetary success. He now closes the door and heads to the woman he loves.

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