What is an example of symbolism in "Contents of a Dead Man's Pocket"?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The primary symbol in this story is the yellow paper that is so very important to Tom. It contains the development of his idea that he is so eager to submit to his boss. We are told little about his idea for "a new grocery-store display method," though it took two months to accomplish, because, as Tom comes to see, it isn't as important as his life and happiness. Tom's idea, as we come to see, is as ephemeral as the wind and thus can be destroyed by something as commonplace as the wind. We also come to see along with Tom that if he chases ideas and lets his life slip by him, his life may truly slip by him:

he watched scenes in his mind like scraps of motion-picture film--he ... saw his upper body arc outward, arms flailing. ... He saw himself falling with a terrible speed as his body revolved in the air, ... moaning softly.

This all-important "creased yellow sheet, covered with his own handwriting," which Tom wants to transfer into an Interoffice Memo to give to his boss "tomorrow," granted, contains gems of thoughts that may or may not come back to him in time if lost to the wind and heights. We can say that this paper symbolizes the two avenues of Tom's life, indeed, in a third sense, it symbolizes the sum of his life: "All they'd find in his pockets would be the yellow sheet. Contents of the dead man's pockets."

The first avenue it symbolizes is the one leading to his happiness and personal fulfillment, also symbolized by Clare (not "Claire"; a scrambled spelling of clear, as in clear-sighted). This first avenue of symbolism is a reverse one: as the yellow sheet goes scuttling along the ledge, Tom turns his back on his personal happiness and life to chase it: "He understood fully that he might actually be going to die." The second avenue is his dreams, goals and aspirations: "[when] I'm known as the Boy Wizard of Wholesale Groceries." The yellow sheet hovering above an ignoble death is his future, and he is chasing it.

This complex symbol represents (1) that which is taking him from his personal happiness and fulfillment (2) and that which may very well lead to his literal death and his spiritual death (should he survive his ideal). This complex description of this symbol is confirmed by the resolution when he takes his topcoat and hat to go join his wife at the movies:

As he saw the yellow paper, the pencil flying, scooped off the desk and, unimpeded by the glassless window, sail out into the night and out of his life, Tom Benecke burst into laughter and then closed the door behind him.

The questions raised are, does this scenario and symbolism still apply to and is it acceptable to today's culture? After all, men's hats are no longer required; maybe these distinctions are no longer required, acceptable, appreciable or even possible as the world's economic situation plummets further downward.

Then, glancing at the desk across the living room, [Clare] said, "You work too much, though, Tom--and too hard."

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

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