Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket Summary

In "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket," Tom Benecke is forced to reconsider his priorities.

  • Tom Benecke has been obsessively researching how to get promoted at work, to the point of having neglected his wife and other interests.

  • When the paper with all his research flies out the window, Benecke climbs out onto the window ledge to retrieve it. However, the window closes and locks behind him.

  • He tries to get the attention of the people walking below by dropping items out of his pockets. Eventually, the only thing he has left to drop is the paper he risked everything to retrieve.

Introduction

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 484

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Jack Finney’s short story “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket” was originally published in the magazines Good Housekeeping and Collier’s in 1956. Although not as highly regarded as Finney's The Body Snatchers or Time and Again, "Contents" still exhibits the author's concern with time and the struggle to escape from its grip. The story's protagonist, Tom Benecke, illustrates the delicate balance between what people tend to prioritize in life and spend the most time on versus what ends up arguably being the more worthwhile investment of that time. Benecke has tremendously invested himself, including all of his leisure time, in completing research to gain a higher position at the grocery store where he is employed. In the process of working so hard, Benecke neglects his wife, Clare, and his life outside of his job. It takes a near-death experience for Benecke to realize that he has been wasting valuable portions of his life that he could have spent with his wife. Faced with the prospect of not ever having those opportunities again, Benecke mourns the death he created—the death of time—and resolves to save his life by valuing the time he is given.

The story begins with Benecke tied up in his work while his wife is getting ready to attend a movie. Insisting that he must finish the work that he has spent a month compiling, Benecke allows his wife to leave alone. Upon her exit, a gust of wind blows the one page with his work out the window of his eleventh-story apartment above Lexington Avenue. The paper lands too far beyond his reach, and because Benecke cannot conceive of abandoning all of the work he has completed, he climbs onto the narrow ledge, beginning what becomes a physically dangerous and emotionally agonizing journey to retrieve the paper.

Finney delves into Benecke’s thoughts as the character fearfully edges along the ledge and comes close at one point to losing his footing when forced to look down. Thoughts rush through Benecke’s mind of everything that he will not have a chance to do and how this may be the very last moment of his life. To make the situation worse, Benecke’s window falls shut when he finally manages to get back to it with his paper. Attempting to gain the attention of anyone on the street below or in another apartment building, Benecke begins slowly emptying his pockets. When he has nothing but his yellow work paper left, Benecke realizes that the one thing he risked his entire life for would say absolutely nothing about him if he were to fall to his death.

The detail with which Finney presents Tom Benecke’s torment creates strong suspense and allows a firsthand experience of the woe with which Benecke realizes what he has made of his life and what he should have done with that time instead.

Synopsis

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 723

Published in Collier's Magazine and Good Housekeeping in 1956, "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" is a short story by Jack Finney that depicts the terror that can enter everyday life.

Clare and Tom Benecke are a young married couple residing in an eleventh-story apartment on Lexington Avenue in New York. An ambitious ad man, Tom is still working on a grocery-store project that will earn him either a promotion or raise, so he sends his wife to the movies without him, promising to meet her later. As Clare leaves, a draft sends Tom's fact sheet of yellow paper out the opened window as the door closes. Running to the window, Tom sees the sheet lying a yard away on the ledge:

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

After working two months on this data sheet, Tom determines to retrieve it, calculating that he can be back to the window in less than two minutes.  Impulsively, he steps out onto the ledge, edging his way to the corner where another apartment that juts out holds the sheet. Tom lowers his body, but he cannot quite reach it, so he must duck his head an inch lower. With the top of his head and his knees pressed against the brick, he lowers his right shoulder so his fingers can pull loose the paper. But, in so doing, Tom sees the street below and "a violent instantaneous explosion of absolute terror" runs through him.

Paralyzed with the fear of death, it became impossible for Tom to walk back.  As seconds pass, Tom yells "Help!" but no one hears.  Out of "utter necessity" Tom forces his feet to move. In slow, sidling steps he inches his way, then stumbles, smashing his right foot into his left ankle; he staggers and almost falls. With his fingers pressed onto the edging of his window and the full weight of his staggering body, the window slams shut. For an instant that feels slowed in time, Tom is suspended between falling and balancing; but, with intense concentration he manages to grasp the slim edgings of wood on the window. Seeing the yellow sheet still in his mouth, he lifts a hand and takes it, depositing it into a pocket of the jacket he has thought to put on before going on the ledge.

Testing the window glass first with a coin and then the heel of his shoe, Tom realizes the window will not break easily. But he cannot hold on long enough for Clare's return as she is staying for the second feature. So, he takes from his pocket three envelopes and ignites them, one by one with a match, hoping as he waves the burning paper that someone will notice. No one does. He drops coins three or four at a time downward to the street. No one glances upward. Tom ponders what might happen if he falls; no one could identify him:

All they'd find in his pockets would be the yellow sheet. Contents of the dead man's pockets, he thought, one sheet of paper bearing penciled notations—incomprehensible.

At this point Tom has a revelation: he wishes that he had gone with his wife; he thinks of the hours he has spent on his projects: "a wasted life." With new determination, Tom decides to break the window after calculating the best way.  With Lexington Avenue far below and his fingers pressed down on the narrow stripping, he musters all the strength he can, Tom shoots his arm forward toward the glass, shouting "Clare!" His arm thrusts itself through the broken glass; with his other hand he grasps the edges of the broken window frame, grinning in triumph.  Once inside, Tom simply spreads the crumpled yellow sheet on his desk, placing a pencil across it to weigh it down. Walking to the closet, he gets his topcoat and hat, and opens the front door. As he does so, the warm air from the hall rushes into the room,

the yellow paper, the pencil flying, scooped of the desk and, unimpeded by the glassless window, sails out into the night and out of his life.

This time Tom Benecke, whose priorities have changed, bursts into laughter as he closes the door behind him.

Summary

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1152

First published in Collier’s Magazine (October 26, 1956), “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket” by Jack Finney is a modern American short story set in New York City. Through the story’s protagonist, Tom Benecke, Finny examines the concept of personal success in relation to the American business culture of the 1950s. In addition to Tom Benecke, the story features only one other character, Tom’s wife, Clare.

Tom and Clare are an attractive young married couple who live in a small apartment high above Lexington Avenue. As the story begins, Clare is dressing to go to the movies, but Tom has chosen to stay home to complete a marketing project to display grocery store products in a new way. He is driven to finish his work, hoping that his efforts will impress his boss and lead to professional advancement. Tom is ambitious and career-oriented. He wants to succeed, and he defines success as having money “rolling in.” Tom wants to go out with his wife, but he is obsessed with his work. When Clare leaves, alone, Tom feels guilty but turns immediately to his paperwork laid out on his desk near the window he had opened moments before.

After closing the door behind Clare, Tom is horrified to see a single sheet of yellow paper fly out the open window. This is the page containing all of his project research notes, gathered through hours and hours of extra work on many nights and weekends. Tom watches the paper slide along the building’s ledge three feet below his window, finally becoming lodged five feet away in a corner where the exterior wall of the adjacent apartment projects farther into space over the avenue far below. Tom’s mind races as he stares at the yellow paper—a symbol of his hard work, sacrifice, and future success.

Even though he tries, Tom cannot accept its loss; ignoring his better judgment, he climbs through the open window and stands on the narrow ledge, eleven stories above the street, on a cold and windy autumn night. He intends to retrieve the paper. With his face and body pressed against the brick building, he will hold on to the bricks with his finger tips and shuffle sideways to the corner, get the paper, and shuffle back to his window. As Tom moves away from his warm, lighted apartment into the darkness, he undertakes what turns out to be a truly terrifying journey.

The story describes Tom’s ordeal in vivid, specific chronological detail. After finally working his way to the paper and bending to pick it up, Tom pulls it loose; then he sees Lexington Avenue many stories below. The sudden realization of his tenuous physical position on the ledge terrorizes him. Jerking upright and shuddering violently, he almost falls to his death. He struggles to overcome his fear, breathes deeply, and gets control. Calmer but unable to move, Tom shouts for help, but no one will hear, he knows. He begins to make his perilous way back along the ledge, only then realizing that the paper is actually in his hand; he puts it between his teeth and continues toward his apartment window, nearly falling several times. Finny captures Tom’s terror through numerous succeeding paragraphs by detailing the thoughts that race through his mind as he attempts to overcome his fear in order to survive.

When Tom has worked his way back to his own apartment, he discovers the window has closed. He takes the sheet of paper from his mouth, wads it into a ball, and shoves it into his pocket before opening the window. The window will not budge; Tom cannot open it. Striking the glass with his hand, the force of the blow upsets his balance, and he struggles to regain it. Only a thin pane of glass now separates Tom from warmth and safety; he refuses to believe that he cannot find a way to get inside. He tries and fails to break the glass with a coin from his pocket; he takes off one shoe and strikes the window again, without success. Giving up on these efforts, Tom pulls miscellaneous papers from his pockets and lights them with matches, desperately waving them behind him like a torch. No one notices. Tom finds more coins in his pockets and drops them a few at a time to the street below. Again, no one notices. Tom begins to understand that he may well die. He imagines his body having fallen to Lexington Avenue below. All that would identify the dead man in the street, he realizes, would be a wadded up sheet of yellow paper filled with meaningless facts and figures.

Facing this truth, Tom remembers and now regrets the many times he chose to work, leaving Clare alone while he chased success. He is filled with bitterness for the life he has lived, a wasted life. Tom, however, cannot accept that his meaningless life will end without his having an opportunity to make amends. He decides to try his only remaining option: he will strike the glass with his fist. He will break the glass and save his life, or the rebound from the blow will throw him backwards to his death. After testing the glass again and determining the best angle to strike it, Tom acts. Using his last ounce of strength, he calls out Clare’s name, drives his fist through the window pane, grabs the curtains inside, and falls forward into his apartment.

Once inside, Tom picks his way through the broken glass and lays the yellow paper on his desk, smoothing it out and laying a pencil on top to act as a paperweight. He goes directly to his closet then, finds his coat and hat, and walks to the front door. He intends to find Clare without wasting a moment. As Tom opens the door, a sudden draft blows through the apartment. He watches as the pencil blows off the desk and the yellow paper once again sails through the now glassless window. Tom bursts into laughter, closes the door behind him, and goes to find his wife.

The ironic ending of the story emphasizes its theme. Because of his near-death experience, Tom’s personal values have changed, no doubt for the rest of his life. He will no longer sacrifice his relationship with Clare, whom he loves deeply, in order to work for professional advancement. Tom now rejects material success—acquiring great sums of money—as the standard by which he will judge a life well lived.

“Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket” rejects the culture of corporate success and materialism that flourished in the United States following World War II. Other American writers, such as Arthur Miller, developed similar themes. Miller’s award-winning drama Death of a Salesman stands as an excellent example of this social criticism in contemporary American literature.