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 message of the author in the short story "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket"?

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The protagonist of this story, Tom, is dedicated to his great plan to become "the Boy Wizard of Wholesale Groceries," which requires him to eschew leisure activities and spend all his time working towards this dream. At the beginning of the story, his "pretty wife" tells him she hates the thought of his missing a movie they had both wanted to see, but Tom is so fixated upon his dream that he says it "has to be done," at the expense of spending time with his wife. Ultimately, however, Tom realizes the folly of wasting his life striving towards a future that might never come when he almost falls out of the window of his apartment, a figurative sacrifice to work and fruitless dreams. When Tom gets back into his apartment, he changes his mind and decides to spend the evening with his wife instead. The moral of the story, then, is that we shouldn't spend all our time working in the hope of eventually "making it big"—something relatively unlikely to happen. The story could be interpreted as a criticism of the so-called "American Dream," which by the 1950s had been transformed into an unhealthy work ethic and an atmosphere that encouraged living to work, rather than working to live. Life, Tom realizes in this story, should be enjoyed: there is no benefit in continually working in the hope of achieving a nebulous profitable future if it means we don't spend quality time with the people we love.

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The main message of Jack Finney's "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" is that the most important things in life are not things.

Finney's story illustrates the absurdity of basing one's existence upon monetary sources. Originally published in 1956, a period after World War II when materialism grew because the United States enjoyed great prosperity, this story has as its theme the importance of the non-material values such as love, family, and one's health.

These values are what Tom Benecke has put aside while he pursues his career in the grocery business. Instead of going to the movies with his pretty wife, Tom remains home to continue working on his marketing project, a project on which he has already spent four long Saturday afternoons, lunch hours, and even evenings. And, because he has spent so much of his own time already, the ambitious, materialistic Tom cannot let this project go out the window of his eleventh floor apartment and not try to retrieve it, no matter how great the risk. However, once he gets out on the ledge and nearly falls to his death and the window through which he has gone slams shut, Tom becomes all too aware of the folly of his having placed his values on the wrong things.

He cries out his wife's name in his last desperate attempt to make it back into his apartment. Once inside, he hurries to catch up to his loving wife at the movies, now aware that love supersedes any grocery project. 

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