Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket Questions and Answers

Jack Finney

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket questions.

What is the effect of Tom Benecke's decision to go after the paper?

The protagonist of "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" attains maturity as a result of his terrifying experience out on the narrow ledge eleven dizzying floors above the street. What motivated him to climb out there in the first place was his dreams of glory. Like many young men he had unrealistic ambitions and fantasies. He was only one of the worker-bees in the gigantic bee hive called Manhattan. But he had to go through a life-threatening ordeal in order to find out how small he really was.

The turning point in Tom Benecke's fantastic experience comes when he is forced to open his eyes and look down. He has cautioned himself not to do that for fear that the dazzling, dizzying spectacle of the swarming street far below would give him vertigo and cause him to fall to his death. But once he had gotten to the precious piece of paper, he found that he could not get his fingers on it without opening his eyes at least for a moment and looking down at it:

At that instant he saw, between his legs and far below, Lexington Avenue stretched out for miles ahead. 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.

Benecke realizes in that moment how big and cold and indifferent the world is, and at the same time how small and insignificant he is himself. He could fall to his death and it would not matter to anyone except his wife—who would probably wonder how it could have happened and possibly suspect he had committed suicide. He is a nobody. He understands his place in the universe. He is figuratively and literally standing on a tiny foothold clinging to a brick wall. He has risked what happiness he enjoyed for the sake of a pat on the back and a word of praise.

The Roman historian Tacitus (56-177 A.D.) wrote an observation which has often been quoted in various languages ever since:

Etiam sapientibus cupido gloriae novissima exuitur.
(“The thirst for fame is the last thing of all to be laid aside by wise men.”)

Milton, paraphrasing Tacitus in English iambic pentameter, calls the desire for glory "The last infirmity of noble mind." The implication is that a mature man will realize his limitations and be content with a modest existence. Oftentimes we lose what we have in striving to get more.

What is the significance of Clare Benecke's character?

Tom Benecke's wife Clare appears only very briefly at the beginning of the story, already on her way out of their apartment, and she does not reappear at the end. It might have been more practical for Tom to wait for her at home after he had succeeded in getting back inside. Finding her at Loew's theater among an audience that could have numbered 1,500 people would have been difficult. In those days an usherette would have had to accompany him up and down the dark aisles with her flashlight. They would have been annoying all the other patrons while the movie was in progress. Even if he found his wife, he probably would not have been able to sit beside her because the seats would all be taken. Clare is very much a minor character. She is described as the following:

a slender, very pretty girl with light brown, almost blonde hair—her prettiness emphasized by the pleasant nature that showed in her face.

The city has everything to offer in the way of entertainment, recreation, and cultural enrichment. Tom realizes that he has been sacrificing everything in his pursuit of the American Dream. The author probably did not want to place undue emphasis on Tom's relationship with Clare because he wanted to express a more universal message.

Tom is not a unique individual. There are millions like him who become "workaholics" because they are so absorbed in achieving more and more status—and more and more money—that they neglect everything. If they have wives, they neglect them. If they have children, they wake up someday to realize that their children have grown up without them. If they have artistic or intellectual interests, they realize they never took the time to cultivate them. Tom must see all this when he realizes that he is on the point of sacrificing his life for a yellow sheet of paper with some notes intended to impress someone higher up the corporate ladder who would not even recognize him on the elevator. He is giving away the time that should be his to enjoy, to relax, to share with his young wife. He works hard enough at the office. Why should he be working late at night too? Perhaps he dreams about work in his sleep. Being out on that ledge was the worst thing and the best thing that ever happened to Tom:

We then recognize that the best the world has to offer is a painless, quiet, and tolerable existence to which we restrict our claims in order to be the more certain of making them good. For the surest way not to become very unhappy is for us not to expect to be very happy. Merck, the friend of Goethe's youth, recognized this truth for he wrote: 'Everything in this world is ruined by the excessive pretension to happiness and indeed in a measure that corresponds to our dreams. Whoever is able to get rid of this and desires nothing but what he has in hand can get along in the world.' 
Arthur Schopenhauer 

What is the significance of the yellow paper?

The opening sentence of "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" shows the primitive way in which many important documents were typed in the days before word processors:

At the little living-room desk Tom Benecke rolled two sheets of flimsy and a heavier top sheet, carbon paper sandwiched between them, into his portable.

He is preparing to type an important document on his portable typewriter. He has one heavy "top sheet," a piece of good-quality paper, plus two "flimsies," which were yellow second sheets for making two additional copies. Between each sheet is one sheet of carbon paper—so there would be two sheets of carbon paper, two yellow second sheets, and one sheet of twenty-pound bond typing paper all neatly aligned together and rolled into the portable-typewriter's platen.

Sometimes inspirations cannot be recaptured. We write them down because we know we are going to forget them. The best ideas come from the unconscious. They are like messages from the muses—or from the gods. We need to capture them on the wing—even if they come to us in dreams and we have to wake ourselves up, turn on the light, and scribble down a few words that will remind us of the magical elusive idea.

Sir Francis Bacon advised the following:

Write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come unsought for are commonly the most valuable.

Some thoughts can be extremely valuable. How many precious thoughts are lost to mankind because they never got written down?

According to an ancient Chinese saying, "the faintest ink is better than the best memory."

The experience of losing a precious idea can make some people keep pens and notebooks everywhere within easy reach—in their coat pocket or purse, in the glove compartment of their car, on the bedside table, and right beside the telephone, among other important places:

“An idea isn’t put into a man’s head to be buried; it’s put into his head to be useful.”
Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit



What role does acrophobia play in the narrative?

According to Wikipedia, the correct psychological term for fear of heights is acrophobia:

Most people experience a degree of natural fear when exposed to heights, known as the fear of falling. . . . Acrophobia sufferers can experience a panic attack in high places and become too agitated to get themselves down safely. 

In "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket," the author plays on our "natural fear when exposed to heights." Tom Benecke is experiencing acrophobia to an extreme degree, and we are experiencing it along with him, since we have been beguiled into climbing out there on the ledge with him in our imaginations.

Some psychiatrists such as C. G. Jung would suggest that there are hidden implications in Jack Finney's story. The fear of heights many people experience in dreams has been attributed to an unconscious fear of moving up in the world socially and financially. In other words, a fear of falling experienced in a dream—or conceivably in creating a work of creative fiction—may represent a fear of success. It might even be suggested that Tom Benecke did not really climb out on that ledge but only dreamt he was doing it. The author intentionally creates a solution to Tom's acrophobic problem which will provide positive truth that he was really trapped outside and really in imminent danger of falling to his death:

He heard the sound, felt the blow, felt himself falling forward, and his hand closed on the living-room curtains, the shards and fragments of glass showering onto the floor. And then, kneeling there on the ledge, an arm thrust into the room up to the shoulder, he began picking away the protruding slivers and great wedges of glass from the window frame, tossing them in onto the rug. And, as he grasped the edges of the empty window frame and climbed into his home, he was grinning in triumph.

The shards and fragments of glass on the living-room floor are evidence that the window was broken from the outside. It was not a dream. 

Why should anyone be afraid of success? There are many articles about this fear accessible on the internet. One that appeared in Psychology Today includes this paragraph:

"The fear of success is a very unique issue that arises when you are genuinely creating change and moving forward in your life," says Ti Caine, a hypnotherapist and life coach based in Sherman Oaks, California. "The fear of success is very real because the future is real—we're all heading there—and what we imagine for our future has an enormous influence on us."

A classic novel dealing with the psychological problems experienced by a man who is succeeding impressively in the business world is The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells. Lapham is a lower-class entrepreneur who feels uncomfortable in the upper-middle-class social world into which his business success is inexorably drawing him. According to the eNotes Study Guide on the novel,

Silas Lapham, a millionaire paint manufacturer in Boston. He is respected in business circles, but his family is not accepted socially. Garrulous, bourgeois, burly, and brusque, he reflects traits of the self-made man who loves his maker, yet he is compassionate with outsiders and loving to his family. Babbitt-like, he emulates men he has admired for their savoir faire. Bankrupt after a series of business reverses, he gladly leaves the material comforts of Boston to return with his family to the modest living of their earlier days. 

Sigmund Freud maintained that creative stories or "made-up" dreams could be interpreted in the same way as real dreams. Jack Finney's short story might be interpreted as the author's unconscious expression of his fear of success as a writer. He was a good writer but never an outstanding success. Henry James writes feelingly about the perils of success for a creative writer in his marvelous short story "The Great Good Place." The middle-aged protagonist, George Dane, has achieved international fame as a writer and finds that it is causing him great stress, frustration, and weariness, along with making it more and more difficult for him to do his writing. He dreams of escaping from the responsibilities and demands of his exposed position to a sanctuary he thinks of as "The Great Good Place" where he can be at peace and regain his own soul. William Butler Yeats seems to be expressing the same fantasy in his poem "Sailing to Byzantium."

What is the MacGuffin in this story?

Wikipedia has an article on "MacGuffin" which begins with the following definition of the term:

In fiction, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or maguffin) is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation.

The MacGuffin in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" is a sheet of paper. It is nothing but an ordinary piece of cheap yellow paper, but it is important to the protagonist because of all the notes he has scribbled on it. The MacGuffin is important in a story because it creates the conflict. The protagonist wants the MacGuffin but cannot get it because of some obstacle. It could be that a protagonist wants the MacGuffin but cannot get it because someone else wants it. In Dashiell Hammett's novel The Maltese Falcon, the MacGuffin is the statuette of a black bird which many people want. The MacGuffin brings them all together and holds them all together. It is the source of the conflict among all of them—Sam Spade, Brigid O'Shaughnessy, Caspar Gutman, and Joel Cairo. 

Jack Finney takes pains to make the MacGuffin important to Tom Benecke, although it would be of no importance to anyone else in the whole wide world:

It was hard for him to understand that he actually had to abandon it—it was ridiculous—and he began to curse. Of all the papers on his desk, why did it have to be this one in particular! On four long Saturday afternoons he had stood in supermarkets counting the people who passed certain displays, and the results were scribbled on that yellow sheet. From stacks of trade publications, gone over page by page in snatched half-hours at work and during evenings at home, he had copied facts, quotations, and figures onto that sheet. And he had carried it with him to the Public Library on Fifth Avenue, where he'd spent a dozen lunch hours and early evenings adding more. All were needed to support and lend authority to his idea for a new grocery-store display method; without them his idea was a mere opinion. And there they all lay in his own improvised shorthand—countless hours of work—out there on the ledge.

Finney specifies that the notes are in Tom's "improvised shorthand" because that indicates that the single sheet could contain more condensed information than a sheet covered with ordinary handwriting. It is so important to Tom that he is willing to risk his life to retrieve it after it flies out the window of his eleventh-floor apartment. The whole story is based on this MacGuffin. In analyzing any story, it is often helpful to look for the MacGuffin. What does he want? Why can't he get it? Why do we care?

We only care about the protagonist if he wants something important, something we can easily imagine wanting ourselves. In "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" we can imagine wanting that yellow sheet of paper because it represents recognition, promotion, and money. We have to identify with the hero in order to get involved in the story, and we identify with him on the basis—not of who he is—but on the basis of what he wants. What he wants is his motivation, and the motivator is often a MacGuffin.

What is an example of symbolism in this narrative?

The image of Tom clinging to the side of the high-rise building in Manhattan symbolizes Manhattan itself. It is full of talented and ambitious young men and women who are trying, figuratively speaking, to climb to the tops of all those tall buildings. The story makes it seem that everybody in Manhattan is a little bit crazy. That is to say, where else but in Manhattan would a young man pull such a crazy stunt as Tom Benecke does when he climbs out of his eleventh-floor window onto a ledge that is not even as wide as the length of his shoe? The setting of the story in Manhattan overlooking Lexington Avenue contributes to the verisimilitude of the story.