What does the yellow sheet of paper symbolize in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" by Jack Finney?
In the opening paragraph of the story, the protagonist, Tom Benecke, glances at "a creased yellow sheet, covered with his own handwriting." Upon seeing the yellow sheet, Benecke says, to himself, "Hot in here." At the end of the paragraph, having just recalled his wife, he says, "Hot, no - guilty conscience." From this first paragraph then, the yellow sheet of paper seems to symbolize the protagonist's guilt. We subsequently discover that Benecke feels guilty for spending so much time away from his wife.
A little later in the story, the yellow sheet of paper is blown by a gust of wind out of the apartment window. Benecke panics because he has written onto the yellow sheet of paper "facts, quotations, and figures" pertaining to his "idea for a new grocery-store display method." The information written on the yellow sheet of paper represents the evidence he needs to make his idea credible. The yellow sheet of paper also represents "countless hours" of hard work, and, more to the point, the possible futility of that hard work.
At the end of the story, Benecke finds himself on a window ledge, eleven stories up, and with the window to his apartment having closed behind him. He has the yellow sheet of paper in his hand, but no way to get back to the safety of his apartment. He tries to drop the contents of his pockets so that the people below might look up and see him. The final item he is left with is the yellow sheet of paper. At this point he realizes that the yellow sheet of paper symbolizes all of the hours that he has spent away from his wife, for the sake of a "fierce ambition" to progress at work. The yellow sheet of paper symbolizes, as he himself puts it, "a wasted life."
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The yellow sheet of paper symbolizes Tom's internal conflict of personal happiness versus ambition. Tom is faced with the drive to climb to the top of his corporation through innovative thinking and forward-projecting projects. At the same time, Tom has a lovely wife whom he admires and enjoys; so far, there is no disharmony between them, though Clare recognizes, like the clear voice of reason, that Tom works too hard. The yellow paper importantly symbolizes what might be Tom's wasted life:
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 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.
The color yellow itself symbolizes many things in many cultures. In this story, yellow symbolizes both sides of the internal conflict facing Tom. Yellow's versatile color symbology represents both (1) danger and death and (2) joy and wisdom. Each represents half of Tom's internal conflict: danger and (near potential) death is what ambition gets him while joy and wisdom is what pursuing true happiness gets him.
That the "creased yellow sheet" goes out the window symbolizes the divide Tom's internal conflict is creating between him and his true happiness embodied in Clare. With Clare, Tom is safe and warm, making breathe patterns on the interior side of the glass. While pursuing the yellow sheet and holding it between his teeth (like a dog with a bone), Tom is locked out of his home, looking in from the cold with "his forehead pressed to the glass of the closed window." The yellow sheet symbolizes this divide (as does the window).
suddenly, the strain slackened and ended, his chest touching the window sill, and he was kneeling on the ledge, his forehead pressed to the glass of the closed window. ... he stared into his living room--at the red-brown davenport across the room, and a magazine he had left there; ... and at his papers, typewriter, and desk, not two feet from his nose.
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