man's feet dangling above a window outside a building

Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket

by Jack Finney
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What is the external conflict in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" by Jack Finney?

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The external conflict looks relatively simple and one-sided at first. All Tom Benecke has to do is to walk a very short distance along a narrow ledge, pick up a single sheet of paper, and then walk back to his open apartment window and climb through. But the external conflict...

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The external conflict looks relatively simple and one-sided at first. All Tom Benecke has to do is to walk a very short distance along a narrow ledge, pick up a single sheet of paper, and then walk back to his open apartment window and climb through. But the external conflict becomes more complicated during his little adventure. The story is somewhat similar to Jack London's well-known "To Build a Fire," although the settings are entirely different. In London's story the man only has to walk from point A to point B through a snow-covered landscape. Point B is a cabin where there will be a roaring fire and food and companionship. The external conflict gets more complicated, however. The protagonist falls through a snow covering into icy water and he must build a fire to keep from freezing to death. But he builds the fire in the wrong place and it gets extinguished by snow falling off the tree branches. Then his hands freeze and he can't light his matches. The external conflict becomes a matter of life-and-death, and he loses.

Tom Benecke's external conflict grows more ominous when he realizes that the ledge is not as wide as he thought it would be.

He moved on the balls of his feet, heels lifted slightly; the ledge was not quite as wide as he'd expected. But leaning slightly inward toward the face of the building and pressed against it, he could feel his balance firm and secure...

The reader (who is out there with Tom in his imagination) can understand how such an unnatural position could become more and more of a strain, especially on the leg muscles, until they became torture. Tom might not feel the strain at first, but it would become more and more painful the longer he stayed out there in the cold. It is also very awkward for him to have to keep his face pressed against a brick wall.

Tom knows that his greatest danger is in losing his nerve. This might be said to be true in any external conflict. If we lose our nerve we will probably lose the conflict--whatever it might be. But he reasons that he won't lose his nerve as long as he doesn't allow himself to think about his situation and as long as he doesn't look down.We know this makes good sense. Don't look down!!! When he reaches that precious piece of paper, however, he finds that in his awkward position with his face pressed against the bricks he can't get his fingers on the paper without looking down at least for an instant.

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

Jack Finney's description of Tom's vision of nighttime Manhattan from eleven stories up is brilliant.

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.

The rest of the story is much more of an internal conflict. Tom Benecke has become thoroughly unnerved by the feeling that he is like a fly clinging to a wall. He feels certain that he is going to succumb to vertigo and fall eleven floors to his death. He can't force himself to move his feet on that narrow ledge. To make matters worse, he inadvertently closes the old-fashioned double-pane window when he does finally manage to get to it and can't get it open again. (This would be part of the external conflict, wouldn't it?)

The fact that this story includes both a strong external conflict and a strong internal conflict is what makes it so gripping. Jack London's protagonist only had an external conflict, but he was a simpler type of man. Tom Benecke is a smart, urbane, articulate, imaginative sort of man, and that makes his problem much more acute.

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There is actually more than one external conflict in this story. The primary external conflict Tom faces is the battle for his life on the ledge. He battles the external factors of cold, "eleven stories" of height, the "half-inch indentation in the bricks" that are his finger-grips, the ledge "as wide as the length of his shoe," and the dark night as he tries to attain his quest to retrieve the yellow sheet of paper and save his life.

External conflicts are battles against anything that is not the character him- or herself. So a battle against wind, snow, stampedes, a cat, a butterfly, a death-ray, would all be external conflicts, as would climbing a mountain, beating a foe (perhaps in Narnia ...), crossing a desert, chasing a convict, stopping a war-game playing computer before it blows up the world. These are all types of external conflicts.

A second external conflict Tom battles is against the yellow sheet of paper: he must reach, capture and safely return that all-important yellow piece of paper that he poured so much of himself into.

On four long Saturday afternoons he had stood in supermarkets counting the people ... trade publications [were] gone over page by page in snatched half-hours at work ... he had carried it with him to the Public Library [and] spent a dozen lunch hours and early evenings ....

A tertiary (i.e., third) external conflict is against the apartment door and the overly heated building hallway ("'Hot in here,' he muttered to himself."). This is the external conflict that begins his troubles. The in-rushing breeze of the hall's warm air into the apartment's cool air, which intensifies in force as Tom narrows the open space by closing the door against this forceful hall wind, is the culprit that tosses white papers to the floor and the yellow paper to the open window. Ironically, and as a final dramatization of Finney's thematic point, when Tom leaves the apartment to go find Clare at Loew's theater at the end, the hall wind invites Tom into another battle as it lifts the yellow paper from under the ineffectual pencil and tosses it through the window.

A minor but critical fourth external conflict is with the living room window. First, Tom has to open it because of the hall heat penetrating the apartment walls making it hot inside. Second, he has to overcome the window because it is old and opens only after much exertion; Clare can never open it and has to call for Tom. This small external conflict allows for the plot to develop.

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