What are the two settings in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket"?

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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There are two contrasting settings in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket": the warm interior of the cozy, brightly lighted apartment, and the cold exterior of the building where the protagonist seems to be clinging to the brick wall like a human fly, not daring to look down at the street eleven floors below, not daring to think about what a crazy situation he has put himself in. The contrasting settings are appropriate to the story. Tom Benecke has risked life and love, symbolized by the warm interior setting, for a fantasy of success, symbolized by the cold, indifferent city  below him.

The German philosopher Schopenhauer writes that pain and unhappiness are unavoidable, while happiness is rare:

Merck, the friend of Goethe's youth, recognized this truth for he wrote: 'Everything in this world is ruined by the excessive pretension to happiness and indeed in a measure that corresponds to our dreams.  Whoever is able to get rid of this and desires nothing but what he has in hand can get along in the world.'  Accordingly, it is advisable to reduce to very moderate proportions our claims to pleasures, possessions, rank, honour, and so on, just because it is this striving and struggling for happiness, brilliance, and pleasure that entail great misfortunes. 

It is ironic that Tom opened the window because the apartment was too warm. It was the draft caused by opening the window that made his precious sheet of yellow paper move across the room and slide out into the night. It is also ironic that now he is out in the cold darkness and is looking into his apartment realizing how safe and comfortable and happy he had been there.

The story concerns only one person, and he is alone. Yet it is told in the third person, probably to keep the reader in suspense. Throughout the time that Tom is on the ledge outside the building, the reader, like Tom himself, doesn't know whether he is going to live or die. If the story were told in the first person the reader would understand that the protagonist was going to live. Vladimir Nabokov quotes a rhyme as follows:

The "I" in the story
Cannot die in the story.

In other words, if the protagonist is telling what happened to him, then he must still be alive in order to be able to relate it. The title, "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" is deliberately calculated to make the reader think that Tom may die and that he, the reader, will find that out when he gets to the end. What the title suggests is that Tom's body was found on the sidewalk eleven stories below and the yellow sheet of paper that cost him his life was the only thing found in his pocket.

Contents of the dead man's pockets,he thought with sudden fierce anger, a wasted life.

Although the story is told in the third person, the reader identifies with Tom from beginning to end because everything is told from his point of view. The reader identifies with Tom's ambition when he is in the interior setting, then with his terror when he is in the exterior setting, and finally with his relief when he manages to break the window and get back into the interior setting which he now sees as a haven of contentment.

The description in this story is excellent, most notably in the paragraph that begins with the following sentence:

He saw, in this 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.

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