man's feet dangling above a window outside a building

Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket

by Jack Finney

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How does the ledge ordeal in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets" change Tom's life?

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Finney's story is built on a situation that must have happened to him when he was working on some freelance assignment. The idea of the story came to him like a revelation, but no doubt he worried away at it until he had developed the basic plot and characters. He thought long and hard about the setting, until he realized that New York City was the perfect place for his story. He took his time with his revisions, and then just before sending off the final draft, he probably noticed that all his thoughts led to one single point: "The most important thing in life is staying alive."

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Tom's terrifying experience on the window-ledge teaches him that he's been getting his priorities in life all wrong. He suddenly realizes that, if he should fall to his death, he'll die as a workaholic, someone who put his career ahead of his family, the most important thing in life. Tom's skewed sense of priorities is illustrated at the beginning of the story when he stays at home to work on securing a promotion, instead of going with his wife to the cinema. Tom feels bad about letting Clare go to the movies alone, but he still stays behind anyway. He's neglecting his wife, the woman he's supposed to love more than anything else in the world, for the sake of a promotion he may not even get. That it takes a near-death experience high up on a window ledge to give Tom a sense of perspective in life gives you some idea of just how badly skewed his priorities were.

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Tom Benecke's near-death experience effects his realization of what is truly valuable. Once he finally is able to re-enter the apartment, Tom takes inventory of what he has valued and what he has done.

He simply turned to his desk, pulled the curmpled yellow sheet from his pocket and laid it down where it had been, smoothing it out; then he absently laid a pencil across it to weigh it down. He shook his head wonderingly, and turned to walk to the closet.

When Tom opens the door, the wind causes the yellow sheet which has been weighed down by only a pencil, to lift into the air, and fly out into the air. Tom laughs and then closes the door behind him. His laughter, thus, demonstrates the change in Tom: he has realized what is truly important, his marriage to his wife. So, Tom ignores the yellow spreadsheet and hurries on to the cinema where he can watch a  movie with his wife.

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In "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket," why does Tom go out on the ledge?

Tom climbs out onto the ledge to retrieve a sheet of paper he thinks is very important and because he doesn't realize, until he gets out there, how great a risk he is taking. The author Jack Finney takes pains to show the importance of the piece of paper in order to make it plausible that Tom would risk going after it.

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.

Jack Finney spends five full paragraphs describing Tom's mixed feelings about taking the risk and eventually talking himself into climbing out the window. Tom convinces himself that the danger is not too serious as long as he doesn't look down--but he knows that if he does look down, the sight of the street eleven floors below could not only make him dizzy but could paralyze him with fear.

The ledge is narrower than he expected. It is not even as wide as his foot. He is standing on the balls of his feet with his heels sticking out over empty space. He keeps his body glued against the brick wall and shuffles sideways for about five yards without looking down. But he didn't anticipate the difficulty he would have just in picking up the sheet of paper. He can't bend his knees enough to lower his arm so that his fingertips can reach the paper. His knees are pressing against the brick wall and forcing his body backward over the abyss. And he is forced to look down at the paper in order to get a grip on it.

He saw, in this 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 exlosion of absolute terror roared through him.

He is paralyzed with fright. He feels positive he is going to die out there. When a man is facing death he is sure to reflect upon how he lived his life, his mistakes and regrets. There are many literary works that deal with this human experience. Famous examples include Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," and Albert Camus's The Stranger. Tom Benecke realizes he was attaching too much importance to success in the wholesale grocery business and not appreciating his home and loving wife. The thought of Clare gives him courage to start creeping back until he reaches the lighted window of his warm and cozy little home. He can look inside and remember how safe and happy he had felt there, but the window panel has slammed shut and he still has to find some way of getting back inside.

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In "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket," why does Tom go out on the ledge?

Tom Benecke risks his life by going out onto the ledge of his eleventh floor apartment because he desires business advancement above all else.

In his ambition for a promotion at work, Tom spends his free time and weekends on his new idea for "a grocery-store display method." One evening, rather than accompany his wife to a movie she had wanted to see, Tom decides to stay home and continue working on his project in the hope that it will lead to a promotion. If he finishes it before he returns to work on Monday, he can take it to his boss, who might read it over the weekend before seeing any other projects. 

Unfortunately, Mrs. Benecke's opening of the apartment door causes the warm air from the hall to enter the apartment. This rush of air passes through the room and lifts up Tom's yellow sheet from the desk. While Tom watches in dismay, the worksheet drops to the window ledge and slides out onto the ledge of the building. Desperately, Tom tries to reach it with his arms extended out the open window, but the yellow sheet is too far from him. Staring at the yellow paper for a long minute, Tom waits for it to move and fall to the street so that he can hurry to retrieve it. Unfortunately, the paper stubbornly sits 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. Of all the papers on his desk, why did it have to be this one in particular!

This single yellow sheet contains the efforts of many lunch hours, four long Saturdays, "snatched half hours" at work, and many evenings at home. It would take months to redo this project. As Tom reflects upon all the hours he has spent toiling on this project, he realizes he cannot let the yellow sheet just lie there. To him, it represents a chance to become "a name in the minds of the company officials." Therefore, he decides to retrieve it by going out onto the ledge.

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In "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket," why does Tom go out on the ledge?

In the short story “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket” by Jack Finney, Tom Benecke goes out on the ledge of his apartment building to retrieve a piece of paper. It is not just any piece of paper; it is ledger containing the results of many months of personal market research Tom accumulated in hope of presenting new, innovative ideas to his bosses. He must decide whether the risk of retrieving the piece of paper is worth the reward.

The author alludes to a play on words by having Tom “go out on a ledge.” When one does that, they are generally putting themselves in a dangerous or difficult situation with the hope of receiving accolades or rewards for presenting an idea that goes against the mainstream. In this case, Tom goes out on the ledge of a building that is eleven stories above a busy New York City street.

As you read the story, you determine whether the risk was worth the reward for Tom’s escapades on that ledge.

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In "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket," how does Tom's life change as a result of his ordeal on the ledge?

In the story, Tom finds himself on the ledge after a piece of paper documenting his research on grocery-store displays flies out the window. As he balances himself on the ledge, Tom contemplates his absurd and precarious position. In his mind, it is absolutely imperative that he retrieves the piece of paper. If he abandons his efforts, he knows that he will need at least two months to duplicate the results of his extensive fieldwork.

Although the prospect of any sort of promotion isn't promised, Tom bargains that his research will set him apart from the other young men in his company. With great resolve, he is determined to rise to the top of his profession, regardless of the challenges ahead. At the beginning of the story, Tom strikes us as a very conscientious young man; despite his desire to see a much-awaited movie with his wife, Clare, he chooses to sacrifice his free time for his work. Although Clare is visibly disappointed with his decision, she refrains from quarreling with him. It is apparent that both believe on some level that the sacrifice may be necessary.

From all indications, the young couple live in a substandard apartment. The window does not open easily, and the door needs an extra push to shut. Only Tom can open the troublesome window; Clare always has to ask for Tom's assistance to get the window open. So, from Tom and Clare's perspective, their desires must take a back seat to work if the hope for financial gain is to be realized.

However, when Tom finds himself on the verge of falling to his death, his perspective changes. Despite his frantic actions to alert any passersby to his predicament, no one notices Tom on the ledge. He lights at least four pieces of paper on fire with matches and waves the papers side to side. Tom even drops coins from his pocket, but no one seems the wiser. After a while, he comes to the dreaded realization that, even if he fell to his death, no one would know the real reasons for his demise.

His life would end with no possibility of adding any further pleasure or happiness  to it. With death staring him in the eyes, Tom comes to understand the folly of wasting his life on material ambitions and dreams. He begins to realize how much he really cherishes his relationship with Clare. If he dies, Clare will be left a widow with little to show for all his busywork. This realization gives Tom the necessary courage to survive. With all the strength he can muster, Tom decides to smash through the window with his fists. For added emphasis, as if his will to live has been inspired by Clare, Tom shouts out his wife's name as he shatters the window with his bare fists.

As he falls forward into the living room, Tom grins triumphantly. He is grateful for life and knows how close he came to dying that day. As he leaves to go and join Clare at the cinema, the yellow paper flies out the window again when he closes the door. This time, Tom merely laughs in response. As a result of his ordeal on the ledge, he is no longer the same man he was. Tom has become a new man, a husband who understands the importance of intimacy, love, and life. He will no longer let material ambitions cloud his judgement or dictate his happiness in life.

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In "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket," how does Tom's life change as a result of his ordeal on the ledge?

In this story, the ordeal on the ledge (and what happens after Tom gets to safety) changes Tom's life by making him realize what is truly important.

At the beginning of the story, Tom thinks that work is the most important thing in the world.  He is willing to essentially ignore his wife so he can get work done.  But his ordeal on the ledge changes that.  He realizes that his work really doesn't matter.  What really matters is the people in our lives and our relationships with them.

By coming close to death, Tom realizes what is truly important in life.

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Tom values something the most in the beginning of "Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets," but these values change at the end of the story. Why do Tom's experiences on the ledge change his values?

The protagonist of "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" has two insights because of his experiences out on that ledge. The first insight, or "revelation," has nothing to do with his wife. (She may be very important to him, but she is only a minor character who is mostly absent.) He realizes that he is doing a crazy thing and therefore that he must have been going crazy with his obsession on achieving success in the business world. He was so crazy that he thought what he was doing was a rational thing to do. The reader must have known this all along. The reader probably would never have gone out on that ledge in the first place; but since he is in Tom Benecke's point of view he has to go out there with him, see what he sees and feel what he feels. Both the protagonist and the reader realize that excessive ambition can drive a person crazy. New York City itself can drive a person crazy.

Then when the protagonist, still out on the ledge, realizes he was crazy, he starts thinking rationally. In doing so, it is natural for him to think about his real value, his real goal, his real purpose--which is to stay alive and get back to his wife, who represents sanity, security, and life itself. Perhaps the most significant passage in the story is the following:

He understood fully that he might actually be going to die; his arms, maintaining his balance on the ledge, were trembling steadily now. And it occurred to him then with all the force of a revelation that, if he fell, all he was ever going to have out of life he would then, abruptly, have had. Nothing, then, could ever be changed; and nothing more--no least experience or pleasure--could ever be added to his life. He wished, then, that he had not allowed his wife to go off by herself tonight--and on similar nights. He thought of all the evenings he had spent away from her, working; and he regretted them. 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.

"Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" is a terrifying story. It must be the terror that has the greatest effect on the protagonist (since the terror has the greatest effect on the reader). Benecke's fear makes him realize that he had been crazy enough to risk losing what was most precious for something that was frivolous, if not worthless. As a matter of fact, if he had been crazy, how could he tell whether his business proposal wasn't crazy? Maybe the scribblings on that piece of yellow paper were only meaningless hieroglyphics. And maybe the protagonist's superiors would see that the ideas were full of holes and reject them.

Jack Finney was a professional writer. He probably got the idea for his story from something that really happened to him while he was working on a freelance story. No doubt he had scribbled a first draft in his own handwriting on a yellow "second sheet" and it had blown out his window. He could have written the story with the hero being a writer rather than a businessman. It is very common for creative writers to get great ideas and to scribble them down in a hurry to keep from forgetting them. Sir Francis Bacon offers very good advice when he says:

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

Such ideas, which usually come from the unconscious, are elusive and often irrecoverable, very much like dreams. But as a professional, Finney probably realized that a story of a writer writing about a writer writing was apt to sound too specific, too limited, too convoluted, too introverted--and, to editors, too much like the work of a hungry freelance writer.

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Tom values something the most in the beginning of "Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets," but these values change at the end of the story. Why do Tom's experiences on the ledge change his values?

A story that was first published in 1956, "Contents of a Dead Man's Pocket" presents an extreme scenario from the life of one of the many young men of post World War II's growing economy that aspired to financial greatness. So focused upon his ingenious plan to improve the profits of the grocery chain for which he works is Tom Benecke that he neglects his wife and puts aside even his common sense. His yellow sheet with facts and figures, a sheet representative of long hours of research, takes precedence over all other values and considerations.

But, when he rashly goes out onto the ledge of his eleventh-floor apartment after the yellow sheet that has blow outside when his wife departs, and, later when the window slams shut, Tom experiences an epiphany as he confronts the possibility of death. In his mind, he imagines himself:

Eyes squeezed shut, he watched scenes in his mind like scraps of motion-picture film--he could not stop them....He saw himself falling with a terrible speed as his body revolved in air, knees clutched tight to his chest, eyes squeezed shut, moaning softly....he could feel the terrible strength of the pent-up horror on just the other side....

Tom has to forcibly hold himself together in order to try to break the glass of the window that has slammed shut. In fact, it is not Tom's self interest that keeps him steady; it is the love of his wife, the true value of which he suddenly recognizes in this moment of crisis. He screams her name as he breaks through into the apartment. 

Acknowledging that Clare has saved him and is the most valuable being in his world, Tom hurries to be able to meet his wife at the cinema. When the sheet blows back out the broken window as he creates a draft by opening the door, Tom throws his head back and laughs at the existential absurdity of his having placed so much value upon monetary success. He now closes the door and heads to the woman he loves.

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How does Tom's life change as a result of his ordeal on the ledge?

Tom changes because he realizes that that there are more important things in life than work. But what he really comes to understand is how desperately foolish he is. First of all, his decision to go out on the ledge to retrieve his notes is very stupid. Finney is very much concerned with recording the details of Tom's inner state out on the ledge, and mostly what Tom is thinking about is how to keep his balance. But it's also pretty clear that Tom regrets his decision to climb out his window. Not only is this decision foolish, but he comes to realize that his ambition—his project to develop new grocery store displays—is not very important either. There is a kind of arrogance in the importance Tom assigns to his notes, as well as in his obsession with his career. Even though he knows that this side project will not get him a promotion, he is still compelled to do it, and the thought of duplicating months of research is more than he can bear.

I think, in the end, what Tom realizes is that his love for his wife is more important than his personal ambition. It's not clear from the story that he has become any less self-centered: his motivation to find his wife at the movie theatre could be interpreted as having less to do with her than with his desire to add more pleasure to his life. The final bit, where the paper he endured so much to preserve flies out the broken window, is ironic: he laughs at his own foolishness.

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How does Tom's life change as a result of his ordeal on the ledge?

"In the Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets" Tom Benecke has a revelation about the direction of his life and his misguided use of time.

Early in the story, Tom is focused on advancing his career at the expense of his relationship with his wife and his enjoyment of leisure activities. He spent most of his non-working hours doing research on an idea for making the grocery industry more efficient. Instead of balancing his work life with his home life, he put his relationship with his wife on hold, promising her things would be better when his idea came to fruition. His life was out of balance.

After his ordeal on the ledge, which represented a near death experience, Tom realized his transgression. As he hung on the ledge, he realized how insignificant his life was, and how important his wife was to him. Once off the ledge, he rushed off to be with his wife as she enjoyed a movie. This is symbolic of his new appreciation for life and relationships.

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