How does Jack Finney use symbolism in his short story "Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets"?

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lhc eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Symbols can be very powerful tools in the hands of the right authors of literature, although they can also cause frustration among student readers who wonder why something has to stand for something else all the time!  In the case of Finney's short story, the main character, an ambitious young man living on an upscale avenue in New York City, has neglected his wife yet again when he sends her to the movies alone while he stays home to work.  As luck would have it, the paper that has been the object of his labors for two months, floats out the window in the evening breeze and plants itself on the ledge of a neighbor's apartment.  Tom is desperate to get the paper, and edges his way out onto the ledge to retrieve it--realizing, after he's out there and there's no turning back, how high he is above the street below. Frightened, he begins to empty his pockets, hoping to find something that he can light on fire or otherwise flag down attention from below; he is unsuccessful, however, and he realizes the last thing in his pocket, the paper, is the thing that has nearly cost him his life.

And so, the paper symbolizes the ambitions Tom has been chasing to the detriment and neglect of everything and everyone else.  As he contemplates his probable death from eleven stories up, he very well might have been thinking about the proverbial phrase "No one on their deathbed ever wishes they'd spent more time at the office".  Realizing he has risked his life for a sheet of paper symbolic of priorities that have been out of order for a very long time, Tom manages to get himself safely back in the apartment, discards the paper on a desk and goes to find his wife. 

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

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