In"Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket," what choice has Tom already made when the story opens? Why does he choose to risk his life to retrieve the paper? 

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At the beginning of this short story, Tom is clearly presented as a man who is driven by a relentless desire to show himself as being best of the best in his company. Although he is young, he is obsessed with a determination to make his way to the very top of his company, and he is willing to put in any extra hours and effort to be noticed by his superiors and identified as a young, up-and-coming individual. What the sheet of paper that has just blown out of the window represents is hours of hard, extra and unpaid work that Tom has put into his job in the hope of gaining just that kind of recognition, and this is why, even before the paper has blown out of the window, it is clear that Tom will risk his life to get the paper:

But just the same, and he couldn't escape the thought, this and other independent projects, some already done and others planned for the future, would gradually mark him out from the score of other young men in his company. They were the way to change from a name on the payroll to a name in the minds of the company officials. They were the beginning of the long, long climb to where he was determined to be, at the very top. And he knew he was going out there in the darkness, after the yellow sheet fifteen feet beyond his reach.

In a sense, the decision that Tom makes before the story opens to not accompany his young beautiful wife, whom he clearly loves, to the movies, foreshadows this later decision. It marks him out as a man who is so fixated on success that he will sacrifice and risk anything in order to "climb to where he was determined to be." He is risking his marriage and alienating his wife from him in order to achieve this, so in a sense, it is an easy decision for him to make when he decides to risk his life as well. Finney therefore in the character of Tom presents a character who is meant to be a parody of the American Dream: a man who is willing to risk everything in order to achieve success, and who misses out on life in the present as a result. It is therefore highly ironic that at the end of the story Tom is happy to watch the sheet of paper he has just risked his life for blow out of the window with nothing more than laughter. Through the process of risking his life, and nearly losing it, he has been forced to re-examine his priorities and has a more balanced perspective as a result, as demonstrated through is decision to join his wife for the movie.  

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

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