Tone in a fiction is defined as the attitude the narrator has toward the characters and events and themes in the narrative: tone is how the narrator feels about the narrative. The tone of Jack Finney’s short story “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets” can perhaps best be described as one of existential dread. This means that the narrator has a feeling of dread about existence as it is shown in the story.
This is the story of a man who bids his pretty young wife goodnight as she departs for a double-feature at the nearby movie theater while he settles in to an evening’s work only to see his life suddenly turned upside down, Finney’s story builds in suspense as the reader anxiously anticipates the conclusion.
A story that would easily lose the reader’s attention were the word “dead” not included in the title, the tension that accompanies Tom Benecke’s efforts at retrieving the piece of paper that has blown out of his window and become lodged 15 feet away on a narrow ledge could easily become emotionally exhausting but for that infuriating title. Finney provides the minutest detail and, in so doing, builds tension as the increasingly mundane nature of Tom’s death-defying efforts at retrieving the paper conflict with the mind-numbing description of those efforts.
The significance of the title – “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets” – becomes apparent only late in the story, as Tom pulls papers and matches from his pockets to try and create a signal that can be seen by passerby below or from other apartment windows. It is these insignificant items, and the sudden realization that his has been a short life wasted, symbolized by the contents of the elusive piece of paper now in his grasp, that force him to reflect on their meaning, or lack thereof:
“He thought wonderingly of his fierce ambition and of the direction his life had taken; he thought of the hours he'd spent by himself, filling 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.”
The tone of Finney’s story is one of unceasing tension interrupted by emotional catharsis as the protagonist realizes what’s most important – and it isn’t the contents of his pockets.