What is the them of "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket"?
The author of "Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets" noted how materialism grew in the 1950's after World War II, and he became disturbed by how much the drive for material success and for possessions was absorbing people. Consequently, Finney's protagonists find themselves trapped in the modern, technological world and return to their families and a more natural and simpler life.
In his rather long story, Finney illustrates how Tom Benecke loses sight of what really matters in his life as he stresses his advancement in business to the exclusion of his wife and their married life. Tom is so obsessed with gaining a promotion that when all his data which he has collected for weeks wafts out his eleventh story window, he steps out onto the ledge of the apartment building and risks death in order to retrieve it. Unfortunately, while he is out there, the window he has opened slams shut.
It would be four hours before she could possibly be home, and he tried to picture himself kneeling out her, fingertips hooked to these narrow strippings....
Tom knows he cannot wait until Tom's wife Clare returns home. It will be too late. When he realizes that he could die out there, Tom thinks about his "wasted life." Finally, he is able to break the window and enter his apartment. Tom knows now that "the most important things in life are not things." This theme is at the heart of the story. The material object has no value unless you give it to someone. This is truly a theme.
In the simplest terms, the theme of "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" might be described as ambition. Tom Benecke, in his own way, is just as ambitious as Shakespeare's Macbeth--and Tom nearly comes to a comparable end as a result of his driving ambition. In one way he is a man stuck out on a ledge eleven floors above the street; but in another way he might be seen as a man who is trying to climb one of the skyscrapers of Manhattan. We might imagine countless silhouetted men like Tom Benecke all striving to climb to the tops of all the skyscrapers of the great, indifferent city, all of them doing it late at night because they are all workaholics who work night and day and dream about their work in their sleep--and all of them, with possibly a few exceptions, doomed to failure.
The theme of ambition, or hubris, goes all the way back to the tragedies of ancient Greece. Tom can be seen as just a modern example of hubris. Fortunately for Tom, his story has a happy ending. He realizes that he had been thinking too highly of himself and makes a decision to change. Once he makes that decision to change while still out there on the ledge, he is just barely able to move step by step back to the window of his apartment.
In the story, Tom Benecke experiences a dramatic revelation about his own life and how he has been spending it. He is an ambitious young man who has dedicated all of his waking hours to getting ahead in his job. He has been obsessed with achieving professional success, even at the expense of his relationship with his wife, Clare. When the story begins, Tom sends Clare off to the movies alone so that he can continue working. When he has his near-death experience trapped on the ledge far above the street below, Tom realizes the truth of how he has been living. He realizes that he has sacrificed too much of his life in the pursuit of material success. This, then, becomes the central theme of the story. Our lives have little value if we do not live them well. Becoming obsessed with work and success at the expense of those we love is not a good or wise way to live. "Success" is not success when it is purchased at too high a price.