man's feet dangling above a window outside a building

Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket

by Jack Finney

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What are the two choices Tom considers in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets"?

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Tom Benecke has only two possible choices regarding the problem caused by the yellow sheet of paper flying out the window. 

  1. He can abandon the paper. Eventually it will get caught by a gust of wind and go flying off into Never-Never Land.
  2. He can climb out onto the ledge and retrieve it. This would be an adventure but not obviously terribly dangerous, since the paper is only a short distance away from his window.

For many seconds he believed he was going to abandon the yellow sheet, that there was nothing else to do. The work could be duplicated. But it would take two months, and the time to present this idea was now.

But just the same, and he couldn't escape the thought, this and other independent projects, some already done and others planned for the future, would gradually mark him out from the score of other young men in his company.

Jack Finney probably got the idea for his story from a real-life experience. As a professional freelance writer, he must have jotted down story ideas he intended to develop later. One of these memos may have gotten away like the yellow sheet in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket." Finney probably did not want to make his protagonist a writer because, for one thing, he wanted to distance himself a little from his character. There are too many stories about writers writing. A reader would be more likely to identify with a character who worked at a conventional job in an office. So the yellow sheet became a memo of facts Tom Benecke needed to write an important business report. It is an interesting sign of the author's craftsmanship that he writes:

And there they all lay in his own improvised shorthand--countless hours of work--out there on the ledge.

There is only one sheet of paper, but the fact that the notations are scribbled in shorthand suggests that the copy would cover many pages if it were all written out in proper form. The item in question has to be a single sheet; otherwise it couldn't fly out the window and wouldn't cling to the wall. But specifying that the writing is in shorthand magnifies its value. It is only one sheet of paper but represents "countless hours of work." If he had anything else to do he might take up some other task. But he has sent his wife to the movies with the intention of devoting the entire evening to that one all-important business report. He can't just sit there and twiddle his thumbs. The fiendish yellow sheet seems to be beckoning him to come and get it. It seems to be testing his courage.

Tom finally makes the second choice--that of climbing out on the ledge. It was probably inevitable from the beginning that he was going to make that choice. 

To simply go out and get his paper was an easy task--he could be back here with it in less than two minutes--and he knew he wasn't deceiving himself. The ledge, he saw, measuring it with his eye, was about as wide as the length of his shoe, and perfectly flat....It occurred to him that if this ledge and wall were only a yard above the ground--as he knelt at the window staring out, this thought was the final confirmation of his intention--he could move along the ledge indefinitely.

He goes through a whole series of rationalizations, but he knows that he is fated to climb out that window. And the reader, who is hooked by the problem and by being held in Benecke's point of view, is fated to climb out the window with him in his imagination.

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Having written "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" as a rejection of the culture of corporate success and materialism that became so prevalent in the United States following World War II, Jack Finney places his character Tom Benecke in a conflict between the choice of career or family. This conflict begins in the exposition of the story as Tom has become so consumed with his innovative idea for a new grocery store method of display that he hopes will advance his career; this obsession causes him to ignore the true values of life, and he declines to join his wife when she goes out to the movies on Saturday night, excusing himself by saying,

"You won't mind though, will you, when the money comes rolling in and I'm known as the Boy Wizard of Wholesale Groceries?"

But, when the yellow sheet on which he written ideas and calculations gleaned from long hours of counting people who passed displays during months of observation flies out an opened window of their eleventh floor apartment, Tom cannot bear to think of losing the paper that contains all his efforts. So, he recklessly goes out on the high ledge in order to retrieve it. Once out there, the realization of how he has endangered his life over this yellow sheet of paper suddenly strikes Tom. He imagines his death:

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

It is this near-death experience that teaches Tom that "the best things in life are not things." As he smashes the closed window in his last desperate attempt to regain entry into the apartment Tom screams out his wife's name-- an affirmation of his love for her as the most important thing to him. Once safe in his home, Tom hurries to catch Clare at the movie theater, and, ironically, as he sweeps open the door, the yellow paper agains wafts outside; however, this time Tom bursts into laughter. 

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