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 main internal conflict in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket"?

In "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket," the main internal conflict is between what Tom thinks he wants, which is success at his job, and what Tom needs, which is a life not wasted.

Another internal conflict is between Tom and his fear. Out there on a window ledge, several stories high, Tom needs to keep cool and think straight if he's to get himself out of a jam. What makes matters more complicated is that he's thinking about retrieving his work, which shouldn't be his main priority.

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In this story, Tom Benecke has got himself into quite a predicament, and I would argue that the crux of the internal conflict he experiences comes down to what he values more: his job or his life.

Tom gets a huge fright when the paper containing all his research flies out the window. Given how consumed he has become by his work—so much so that he's been neglecting his wife—it's not too surprising when he risks his life to climb out onto the window ledge to get it back. Everything changes, however, when the window slams shut and locks behind him.

Being a resourceful chap, Tom has the great idea of dropping things from his pockets to get the attention of people walking below. It doesn't immediately work, however, and soon he is left with only the paper to drop. This is where the internal conflict arises: Does he drop the paper and risk never retrieving it, or does he keep it with him and continue to risk his life by standing precariously on the window ledge and hoping that someone will notice? In the end, this internal conflict leads Tom to the realization that he has had his priorities all wrong.

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Tom's got himself into a real fix. Trapped on a high window ledge several stories above the ground, he's in serious danger of falling to his death. Under these trying circumstances, Tom is forced to deal with a particularly difficult internal conflict. On the one hand, he needs to keep cool and stay focused on not falling off the building. On the other hand, he also needs to maintain a sense of urgency about his situation. Being cool is one thing; but being blasé is quite another.

To make matters just that little more complicated, Tom's concerned with retrieving the paper that flew out of the window and which led him out onto the ledge in the first place. Tom's priorities in life are all wrong. He thinks the paper's essential to his chances of promotion at work, which is why he's taken such crazy chances to get it back. In turn, this has made it more difficult for him to deal with his internal conflict between staying cool and retaining a sense of urgency concerning the preservation of his life.

It is only when Tom finally realizes how unimportant his paper is in the overall scheme of things that he is able to resolve this conflict once and for all.

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The main internal conflict in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" is Tom Benecke's ongoing struggle to remain calm and rational in spite of his perilous situation. If he succumbs to irrational panic, as could easily happen to anyone in such extreme and totally unfamiliar danger, he is sure to lose his balance and go falling backward into empty space. His struggle to keep his nerve is all the more difficult after he is finally forced to look down and he sees the dizzying view of Manhattan from eleven stories up.

Then he knew that he would not faint, but he could not stop shaking nor open his eyes. He stood where he was, breathing deeply, trying to hold back the terror of the glimpse he had had of what lay below him; and he knew he had made a mistake in not making himself stare down at the street, getting used to it and accepting it, when he had first stepped out onto the ledge.

Tom Benecke's story is similar to that of Sanger Rainsford in Richard Edward Connell's story "The Most Dangerous Game," even though one story takes place in crowded Manhattan and the other on a tropical island. Both men know that they must rely on their brains and not succumb to panic. When Rainsford is being hunted by the sadistic General Zaroff, he tells himself:

"I will not lose my nerve. I will not."

The alternative to losing their nerve is either to succumb to irrational panic or else just to give up. The title of the story "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" is designed to make the reader expect Tom Benecke to end up dead on the street far below. This makes his inner conflict seem all the more difficult. The reader senses that this is a story like Jack London's "To Build a Fire," in which the protagonist tries desperately to save himself but finally gives up the hopeless struggle and succumbs to death and oblivion. Even when Tom Benecke makes it back to the window of his apartment, the reader does not feel assured that there will not be a final ironic twist and Tom will never regain the warmth and comfort of his home or the arms of his loving wife. The reader's doubts about Tom's ability to save himself correspond to Tom's own doubts and fears, negative factors he must fight against with his reason if he is to have any chance of surviving.

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The main internal conflict of "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" is Tom's desire to get ahead in his job at the grocery store. Tom is driven by a desire to "get to the top" at his job. This means that he is always trying to figure out ways to improve the store, usually on his own initiative. The story turns on one such project: Tom has spent months collecting data on customer behavior and hopes to use this research to prove that a new kind of display he has designed will generate more sales. However, he is less interested in the project itself than in what he hopes it will bring him— recognition from his boss, a way to stand out from the other men. In other words, Tom's concept of self is tied up with being successful at work. It is because he wants to become this "other" person that he decides to stay at home and work rather than take his wife to the movies.

This is why, when the paper that has all his research on it is blown out onto the ledge, Tom is compelled to go out after it. He is after more than just the paper: the paper represents that future self he so desperately wants to become. When he realizes, after he is out on the ledge, that there is nothing in that paper that says anything about him, Tom has a change of heart. He understands that it is his love for his wife that fulfills him, not the countless hours spent working in the hopes of getting a promotion.

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