What is the setting of the story "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket"?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" was published in 1956. The setting is a tall apartment building in Manhattan. The building was made of brick and was already fairly old. By this time it would have been torn down and replaced by a much taller building. A young man like Tom Benecke could hardly afford to live in Manhattan these days. He would probably be living in New Jersey or Brooklyn, where rentals were lower. But in 1956 it was still conceivable for Benecke and his wife to live in a good part of Manhattan, although the building is obviously being neglected in the expectation that it will be torn down. When Benecke gets out on the ledge, we see that the windows are deteriorating and that the building is made of bricks. Nowadays high-rise buildings in Manhattan would not be put together brick by brick all the way to the top. The Beneckes live on the eleventh floor. Their apartment is small. It may have one-bedroom, but it could consist of a single room with a wall bed, a kitchenette, and a bathroom. It is probably furnished, which means that it would have a lot of old furniture dating back to the 1920s. It is well situated. When Tom finally has to open his eyes out on the ledge he gets a glimpse of Manhattan from the eleventh floor. This passage is the best in the entire story. Jack Finney, the author, must have devoted a lot of time to composing it and should have been proud of the effect he created.

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. For a motionless instant he saw himself externally--bent practically double, balanced on this narrow ledge, nearly half his body projecting out above the street far below--and he began to tremble violently, panic flaring through his mind and muscles, and he felt the blood rush from the surface of his skin.

The descriptions of the setting throughout the story emphasize height. We are kept aware of Tom's precarious situation on a narrow ledge high above the street, and we share his fear, his dizziness, his disorientation, his vertigo, his sense of doom, his helplessness, and his self-contempt for being stupid enough, and greedy enough, to have put himself in this suicidal position. We can feel the old, dirty bricks as he clings to them like a fly. And we can feel the awful tension in his leg muscles as he is forced to maintain that awkward position on the ledge. He can't put his feet flat on the ledge because it is too narrow. He is standing with only the front parts of both feet on the ledge and his heels raised. Sooner or later this should cause cramps in both calves--and then he would suffer excruciating pain and probably fall backwards. No doubt he is imagining what it would feel like to go falling off into thin air.

Tom is utterly alone out there. He is living in the biggest city in America, with millions living all around him. And yet he has never felt so alone in his life. He can see lighted windows with people inside their rooms and apartments going about their lives. None of them have the slightest idea that he is out there, because who would be crazy enough to be walking on a narrow ledge eleven stories above the street? It is ironic that he can see the Loew's Theater and the other places where New Yorkers go to divert themselves in the evenings. Even his own wife is sitting watching a movie without the faintest idea that he is doing anything but sitting in front of his typewriter working on some ridiculous office memo. We share his relief when he breaks his own window and manages to get back inside. Perhaps we have learned a lesson along with him--to enjoy life while we have it, not to be too greedy or ambitious, not to feel too important, not to place too much emphasis on materialistic values.