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

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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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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