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

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The main problem in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" is simply that the protagonist wants to retrieve a sheet of paper that is of great value to him. In order to retrieve it he has to climb out of his apartment window on the eleventh floor and creep along a narrow ledge for a distance of about five yards, then pick up the paper and creep back along the ledge to his window. The problem is created by the protagonist's motivation. Motivation is the most important element in any story. Somebody has to want something and must try to get it. The motivation in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" is simple and obvious because there is really only one character in the story.

Jack Finney devotes a fairly long paragraph to explaining why the sheet of paper that blew out the window is of such importance to his hero.

It was hard for him to understand that he actually had to abandon it--it was ridiculous--and he began to curse. Of all the papers on his desk, why did it have to be this one in particular! On four long Saturday afternoons he had stood in supermarkets counting the people who passed certain displays, and the results were scribbled on that yellow sheet. From stacks of trade publications, gone over page by page in snatched half-hours at work and during evenings at home, he had copied facts, quotations, and figures onto that sheet. And he had carried it with him to the Public Library on Fifth Avenue, where he'd spent a dozen lunch hours and early evenings adding more. All were needed to support and lend authority to his idea for a new grocery-store display method; without them his idea was a mere opinion. And there they all lay in his own improvised shorthand--countless hours of work--out there on the ledge.

Finney was a good fiction writer. He knew it was of the utmost importance to make the reader believe that Tom would do such a wild and crazy thing as to climb out of his window and creep along a narrow ledge eleven stories above the street. Some people can't even stand to look down from such a height. Even Tom doesn't want to look down or think about where he is at. He keeps the side of his face pressed against the brick wall until he gets to his yellow memo sheet. But then he finds he has to look down in order to get his fingers on it. He also has to bend his knees, which is extremely awkward while standing on such a narrow ledge. Most of his body is extended out over empty space. And the sight of the lighted city far below makes him dizzy.

...a violent instantaneous explosion of absolute terror roared through him.

The title of the story contributes to making the reader believe that Tom is going to die by falling backwards and screaming with terror until he squashes against the pavement eleven floors below.

"Contents of the Dead Man's" pocket may be described as a "slick" story--that is, one that is written for publication in a magazine with slick pages as opposed to cheap pulp paper. It was published in two of the foremost slick magazines, Good Housekeeping and Collier's, in 1956. Unlike most slick, commercial stories, it has survived because it illustrates important truths about human nature. A man risks his life to satisfy his ambition. His experience makes him realize that a simple, modest life and a warm relationship with a loved one are more important than the most grandiose success. Tom Benecke, standing on a narrow ledge high above the streets of cold, indifferent city, symbolizes the futility of human aspirations.

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