Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket cover image

Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket

by Jack Finney
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What is the plot for "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket," with reference to chronology, flashback and flash-forward?

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The plot is the trajectory of a story to a resolved ending. Temporal elements of chronological events are details of the plot. The temporal elements of flashback and flash-forward interrupt the chronological order to tell what has happened and what may happen (or, in a complex structure, what did happen in a future time). Chronology returns to the expected order following a flashback or flash-forward.

For this story, the simplest statement of the plot is that Tom makes a bad decision that has an accidental adverse consequence that sends him out onto the danger of a New York apartment building ledge on a cold dark night to retrieve an all-important yellow sheet of paper. While there, and in the face of terror, cold and exhaustion, Tom comes to understand the value of a crumpled sheet of yellow paper in a pocket: "the yellow sheet that had brought him out here. Contents of the dead man's pockets, he thought with sudden fierce anger, a wasted life." After forcing himself to act when courage had fled, Tom finds more obstacles that prevent his safe return. In a desperate effort to gather all his remaining strength, Tom thinks of his wife Clare and punches his hand through the glass window that is keeping him out in the cold. Tom returns to safety with his epiphany secured in his understanding, and Clare his one thought, only to discover the hall wind once again sends his valuable yellow paper out the smashed window.

Chronological elements of flashbacks and flash-forwards provide backstory and explanations as well as psychological meaning to the story. This story begins in present time and progresses in normal chronological order. A flashback occurs when the narrator explains how Tom had stood watching customers, done research at the library, painstakingly examined trade journals all to find support for his independent project about a new merchandise display.

A flash-forward occurs when, while watching the yellow paper skip along the ledge, Tom imagines how he will retrieve it when the wind blows it loose: Tom pictures to himself how he will watch where it falls to the sidewalk below, hurry down in the elevator, then run out to retrieve it before it is gone. A more important flash-forward occurs later when he imagines himself falling, knees clutched to chest, moaning softly.

He saw himself falling with a terrible speed as his body revolved in the air, knees clutched tight to his chest, eyes squeezed shut, moaning softly.

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