What is the suspense in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets"?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Jack Finney's "Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets," suspense is created at various points with Tom Benecke's mental exploration of possible actions and their consequences before he commits himself to an action. In addition, Finney chronicles in detail Tom's dangerous journey on the ledge out to fetch the paper and back to re-enter the apartment.

When the yellow sheet is lofted out the open window by the draft and driven along the ledge, an incredulous Tom kneels and stares at the yellow paper for over a minute, waiting for it to fall off this ledge so that he can hurry and retrieve it. When the sheet goes nowhere, he looks around for what he can use to retrieve it, but nothing is long enough to reach the paper.

It was hard for him to understand that he actually had to abandon it--it was ridiculous--and he began to curse.

It is an incredulous Tom who reflects that of all the papers on his desk, this yellow sheet on which his work of two months is recorded has been lost. He just cannot shake loose the idea of how this project could launch his career. So, he "knew he was going out there in the darkness" to retrieve this important paper. Impulsively, then, he goes to the closet and pulls on a jacket to protect himself from the cold. "....He'd better get this over with before he thought too much...."

Tom's journey out on the ledge as "fear stirred in his stomach" is "not as easy as he thought," and his actions generate great suspense. For, he reaches the paper, but cannot quite touch it. Tom must contort his body while trying to stay on the ledge, and "a violent instantaneous explosion of terror" nearly overcomes him. He pictures himself slipping and falling. On his return to the window after having somehow successfully retrieved the sheet, he has another moment of terror as he sees that the window has fallen down and he is unable to lift it.

He imagines that someone might find his body if he were to fall. Inside the one pocket of the jacket this person will find a yellow sheet with figures on it:

Contents of the dead man's pockets, he thought, one sheet of paper bearing penciled notations--incomprehensible

As he clings to the building, Tom imagines falling to his death. In a growing and fierce anger, he suddenly thinks, "a wasted life."

Then, Tom determines that he will somehow make it back into his apartment, but suspense again rises as he must figure out how to get the window open without falling off the ledge. His efforts at calculating that he has but one chance to break the glass are extremely suspenseful.

But if the glass did not break, the rebound, flinging his arm back, would topple him off the ledge. He was certain of that.

Tom first tests his plan in the suspenseful climax of Finney's story. Ironically, it is his exactitude which sends him out for his yellow sheet with all its facts and figures, yet it is this same trait that saves his life as he calculates how he must strike the window with a certain force. He pictures what he must do. When he begins, Tom hesitates because he knows what can happen-- "Then he knew that it was time to make the attempt." His effort is certainly suspenseful:

....[w]ith full power, with every last scrap of strength he could bring to bear, he shot his arm forward toward the glass, crying, "Clare!" [his wife's name]

Tom falls forward and climbs into his apartment in "triumph." The suspense is finally over.

dmcgillem eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The suspense in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets" is created in multiple ways.  First, the title itself, when referring to a dead man, sets the reader up to anticipate the death of the main character Tom Benecke.  Thus, when we read that he is home alone at night when he sees his needed paper flutter out the window above "the muffled street traffic far below," we feel we know what will inevitably happen.  It is this feeling of what we, as readers, believe to be certain that helps create the suspense within the story.  Added to this is the technique the writer employs with the repetitions, such as "right foot, left foot, right foot..."  The way Jack Finney relays the exquisite details of a very small period of time puts the reader "in the moment" feeling every scrape of the brick, every gust of wind, and the feeling of imminent danger of his fall.  This anxiety is part of suspense.

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Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket

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