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.