man's feet dangling above a window outside a building

Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket

by Jack Finney

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In "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket," what mental strategy does Tom use to move along the ledge?

Quick answer:

In order to move himself along the ledge, Tom uses the strategy of focusing on moving just one part of his body at a time. First he focuses on moving just one foot, then the corresponding hand, then the next foot, then that hand. Only by doing this is Tom able to marshal some control of his terror and command his body to move.

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In the story, Tom uses one main strategy to keep himself moving, and that is blocking out his own thoughts. He forces himself to concentrate on mechanical movements rather than allowing himself to truly think about what's going on. Of course, that strategy fails a lot, but he clings to it. Let's take a look at this strategy and the others he uses during his harrowing excursion on the ledge of the building:

In the back of his mind he knew he'd better hurry and get this over with before he thought too much, and at the window he didn't allow himself to hesitate.

Above, you can see that he's already steeling himself for the task by telling himself not to think.

It was hard to take the first shuffling sideways step then--to make himself move--and the fear stirred in his stomach, but he did it, again by not allowing himself time to think.

A few moments later, Tom keeps on blocking out his thoughts by focusing on quick action instead. He continues this process:

He simply did not permit himself to look down, though the compulsion to do so never left him; nor did he allow himself actually to think. Mechanically--right foot, left foot, over and again--he shuffled along crabwise, watching the projecting wall ahead loom steadily closer.

As you can see in that quote above, Tom keeps his thoughts focused on his bodily movements rather than on thinking about what's below him or what could potentially happen. However, this strategy is really touch-and-go for him--he does look down, he does get incredibly frightened, and he does imagine what it would be like to fall and to die on the street. But even when these thoughts intrude on his consciousness, he keeps trying to dispel them:

It was extremely likely, he knew, that he would faint, slump down along the wall, his face scraping, and then drop backward, a limp weight, out into nothing. And to save his life he concentrated on holding on to consciousness, drawing deliberate deep breaths of cold air into his lungs, fighting to keep his senses aware.

Later, he keeps on trying to block out his mental processes and focus on moving his feet an his fingers:

Out of utter necessity, knowing that any of these thoughts might be reality in the very next seconds, he was slowly able to shut his mind against every thought but what he now began to do. With fear-soaked slowness, he slid his left foot an inch or two toward his own impossibly distant window. Then he slid the fingers of his shivering left hand a corresponding distance. For a moment he could not bring himself to lift his right foot from one ledge to the other; then he did it, and became aware of the harsh exhalation of air from his throat and realized that he was panting.

Tom's strategy of avoiding any real thinking doesn't seem to be a very good one, but since it eventually helps save him and get him back inside, we have to agree that it helped him avoid passing out and falling to his death, even when he stumbled.

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What mental strategy does Tom use to get himself to move along the ledge?

Once Tom Benecke accidentally catches sight of the ground, some eleven stories beneath him, he becomes absolutely paralyzed with fear. He is frozen on the ledge, unable to move, and he sees scenes in his head, "like scraps of motion-picture film," of himself falling "with a terrible speed as his body revolve[s] in the air" on the way down. In order to get himself to move again, he has to "shut his mind against every thought" save for the one body part that he needs to move next. First, he slides his left foot forward an inch or two, and then he moves his left hand just a small bit. Then he lifts his right foot just a little, followed by his right hand.

By concentrating his entire mind on first his left foot, then his left hand, then the other foot, then the other hand—he was able to move, almost imperceptibly, trembling steadily, very nearly without thought.

Tom knows that the "pent-up horror" in his brain is so barely controlled, so barely held back by this strategy, that if he allows it to break through the barrier he has erected in his mind, he will lose all control of his body, and he will be lost. This, then, is the mental strategy Tom must employ in order to overcome the paralysis he experiences when he sees just how high up he is and how far he could fall.

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