Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket cover image

Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket

by Jack Finney
Start Free Trial

What is the effect of Tom Benecke's decision to go after the paper?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The effects of Tom Benecke’s decision to go after the sheet of paper were to reaffirm his love for his wife Clare and to help him to prioritize his life.

Jack Finney’s short story “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets” is about a young executive attempting to climb his way up a corporate ladder. Tom aspires to be, as he jokingly states in his exchange with Clare, “the Boy Wizard of Wholesale Groceries.” Tom decides that preparing a memo for his superiors—a memo that he hopes will facilitate his upward advancement—is more important than spending the evening with his young spouse. Clare departs to go to the movies without her husband, who she laments works too much and too hard. Tom’s paper, of course, is blown out the window of their high-rise apartment, and Finney’s narrative is about his physical efforts at retrieving the paper and his contemplation of life. As he discovers when he climbs out onto the ledge, however, he is actually risking his life for that sheet of paper, and he also realizes that his life may be worth more than what that sheet of paper represents.

As “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets” reaches its conclusion, Tom has rescued himself from a perilous situation, but loses the paper anyway when it once again is blown out the window. He laughs because his life-threatening predicament had resulted from misplaced priorities. When considering the effects of his decision to stay home and work rather than spend the evening with Clare, Tom has discovered that his life and his marriage are more important than the memo that he hoped would catapult him up the corporate ranks. Finney describes the scene as follows:

“He understood fully that he might actually be going to die . . . 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.”

The effect of his decision to work on the memo and to try to retrieve it after it is swept outside his apartment window are to help him to prioritize what is really important in his life, and it is not career advancement.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The protagonist of "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" attains maturity as a result of his terrifying experience out on the narrow ledge eleven dizzying floors above the street. What motivated him to climb out there in the first place was his dreams of glory. Like many young men he had unrealistic ambitions and fantasies. He was only one of the worker-bees in the gigantic bee hive called Manhattan. But he had to go through a life-threatening ordeal in order to find out how small he really was.

The turning point in Tom Benecke's fantastic experience comes when he is forced to open his eyes and look down. He has cautioned himself not to do that for fear that the dazzling, dizzying spectacle of the swarming street far below would give him vertigo and cause him to fall to his death. But once he had gotten to the precious piece of paper, he found that he could not get his fingers on it without opening his eyes at least for a moment and looking down at it:

At that instant he saw, between his legs and far below, Lexington Avenue stretched out for miles ahead. 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.

Benecke realizes in that moment how big and cold and indifferent the world is, and at the same time how small and insignificant he is himself. He could fall to his death and it would not matter to anyone except his wife—who would probably wonder how it could have happened and possibly suspect he had committed suicide. He is a nobody. He understands his place in the universe. He is figuratively and literally standing on a tiny foothold clinging to a brick wall. He has risked what happiness he enjoyed for the sake of a pat on the back and a word of praise.

The Roman historian Tacitus (56-177 A.D.) wrote an observation which has often been quoted in various languages ever since:

Etiam sapientibus cupido gloriae novissima exuitur.
(“The thirst for fame is the last thing of all to be laid aside by wise men.”)

Milton, paraphrasing Tacitus in English iambic pentameter, calls the desire for glory "The last infirmity of noble mind." The implication is that a mature man will realize his limitations and be content with a modest existence. Oftentimes we lose what we have in striving to get more.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial