In "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket," at what moment in the plot is the suspense greatest?

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The plot of "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" is very well constructed. The protagonist is extremely reluctant to climb out on the ledge to retrieve his precious memorandum. The author devotes five entire paragraphs to describing what is going on in Tom Benecke's mind before he decides to take the risk. Then:

On a sudden impulse, he got to his feet, walked to the front closet, and took out an old tweed jacket; it would be cold outside.

By this time the reader is thoroughly identified with Tom and can feel what it would be like to be out on a narrow ledge eleven floors above the street with everything down there miniaturized by the perspective.

Tom keeps his chest, stomach, and the left side of his face pressed against the building.

He simply did not permit himself to look down, though the compulsion to do so never left him; nor did he allow himself actually to think.

Tom is well aware that if he looks down he could be overwhelmed by vertigo. Some people when they are up in a tall building or on the brink of a cliff even experience a crazy temptation to jump. When he finally edges his way to where the sheet of paper is "pressed firmly against the ornate corner ornament of the ledge by the cold breeze," he tries to get hold of it without looking down.

He couldn't quite touch it, and his knees now were pressed against the wall; he could bend them no farther. But by ducking his head another inch lower, the top of his head now pressed against the bricks, he lowered his right shoulder and his fingers had the paper by the corner, pulling it loose. At the same instant he saw, between his legs and far below, Lexington Avenue stretched out for miles ahead.

This is the moment in the plot when the suspense is greatest. The author has been carefully building up the suspense to the point where Tom will have to look down. The sight unnerves him. He realizes what a crazy thing he is doing--climbing out on a narrow ledge without a soul to call on for help.

Jack Finney builds on this moment of suspense with a skillful description of Lexington Avenue from Tom's point of view.

He saw, in that instant, the Loew's theater sign, blocks ahead past Fiftieth Street, the miles of traffic signals, all green now; the lights of cars and street lamps, countless neon signs; and the moving black dots of people. And a violent instantaneous explosion of absolute terror roared through him.

After seeing this awful sight, Tom is a different man. He is totally demoralized, almost dehumanized. He finds it impossible to walk back. He is frozen in place. But at the same time he realizes that he can't stay there indefinitely. He has to crawl back to the window of his apartment, whether he wants to move or not.

The reader feels shaken too. It was bad enough before, when Tom had resisted the temptation to look down. But now the reader feels the same panic, the weakness and trembling of the legs which always seems to accompany extreme terror. It seems impossible to get back to the safety of that little apartment, but there is no other choice. Everything changes when the protagonist and the reader have to look down.

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