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 most important things in Tom's life in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket"?

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What Tom wants changes over the course of the "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket." At first, he is ambitious about getting to the top in his career. Then, after a life-threatening experience, he learns to value being alive in the moment over career success in the future.

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Jack Finney's "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" presents a character driven by the eagerness to succeed in business who arranges his priorities into a faulty order because of his desire for material success.

While he initially arranges his priorities into an artificial order because he is influenced by the materialism of his age, after his reckless actions to preserve his materialistic goals, Tom finally realizes in what order his values should really be. So, throughout the story, there is a shift in his priorities.
Here is Tom's initial order of priorities:

1. success in business and money - As Tom's wife prepares to leave alone for the movies, he rationalizes his refusal to accompany her,

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

2. his marriage - Tom loves his wife; as she gets ready to depart, he runs his fingers lovingly through her hair. As he kisses her good-bye, he is "tempted to go with her."

3. his own life - When the yellow sheet wafts out his open window, Tom cannot escape the thought that the time to present his idea is now. Further, he ponders that other projects like the one on his yellow sheet

...would gradually mark him out from the score of other young men in his company.

Thus, his drive for material success dangerously supplants all other drives. However, after his near-death experience out on the ledge, Tom's revised thinking shifts his priorities as he realizes that life and love are far more important than material success. During the climax of the story as he ponders what people would think when they discover the "contents of the dead man's pocket" if he falls from the eleventh floor ledge, Tom fears for his life without which nothing else matters. When the window closes and Tom has but one chance to break it open and gain entry, he cries out, "Clare," his wife's name. Thus, with this desire to be with her, he gains entry into the apartment. Clearly, his priorities have altered.
Here is the revised order:

1. Tom's life
2. His love for Clare, his wife
3. His desire to succeed in business

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At the beginning of the story, what seems to be the most important thing in Tom Benecke's life in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" by Jack Finney?

In a way, this is an unfair question to ask about Tom because the symbolism, set juxtapositions, and Tom's characterization (especially his guilty conscience, "he thought: Hot, no--guilty conscience.") show that there are two things that Tom values equally. These two are Clare, his "slender, very pretty" wife, and his ambition: "it was not actually true that he had to work tonight, though he very much wanted to. This was his own project ...."

Yet, we do see that the thought of "abandoning" his "creased yellow sheet" drives him to an unreasoned act that very nearly takes his life from him. So in this sense, it is fair to ask, "What seems most important to Tom when the story opens?" Rewording it just a little leaves room to think that Tom's overzealous ambition is just a temporary aberration (i.e., departure from the norm) that he will overcome.

If we start with the strongest textual evidence that Tom allowed Clare to go out the door without him for a movie and that he then crawled out the stubborn, puttyless window for a sheet of yellow paper, then the answer seems clear that, at the moment of the story, Tom thinks the most important thing to him is his ambition, which is symbolized by the creased yellow paper.

If we take the second strongest textual evidence that Tom's thoughts were on his ambition and carefully constructed plans for advancement before yielding to the impulse to go "out there in the darkness, after the yellow sheet," then the answer seems confirmed that, at the moment of the story, Tom thinks the most important thing to him is his ambition. Here lies the internal conflict of the story.

It must be noted that after seeing Loew's theater--the implied location of Clare and the movie--and after reaching the window in comparative safety (he did not fall any of the times he nearly fell), his viewpoint is radically altered because when he punches in the window his one word is "Clare!"

[With] his nerves tautening [he] thought of Clare--just a wordless, yearning thought--and then drew his arm back just a bit more, fist so tight his fingers pained him, and knowing he was going to do it. Then with full power, with every last scrap of strength he could bring to bear, he shot his arm forward toward the glass, and he said, "Clare!"

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What does Tom want in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket"?

Through most of the story, Tom wants to get ahead in the world. He is filled with ambition to be successful in his career. As he puts it to himself, he is at the

beginning of the long, long climb to where he was determined to be ... at the very top.

Therefore, Tom is willing to delay gratification. Rather than go to the movies with his wife, he stays home so he can work on a project he believes will impress his superiors. He imagines the time when

the money comes rolling in and I'm known as the Boy Wizard of Wholesale Groceries.

However, in a mishap, a gust of wind takes the very paper he has been working on for weeks and blows it out of the open window of his Manhattan apartment. It lands on a ledge about five yards away. He lives very high up, but he nevertheless decides to climb out on the narrow ledge to retrieve the paper. He knows he can reproduce the work, but it will take a long time, and he wants to present his proposal as soon as possible.

Out on the ledge, Tom retrieves his paper, but as he tries to get back into the apartment, the window closes, and he realizes he could very easily fall to his death. As mortality becomes real to him, Tom begins to reevaluate his ambitions and to realize they are not worth his life:

He thought of all the evenings he had spent away from [his wife], working; and he regretted them. He thought wonderingly of his fierce ambition and of the direction his life had taken.

Tom is finally able to get back in the apartment. The paper he was working on blows out again, but this time he doesn't care. What he wants has changed: he wants to live, not to sacrifice his life to his career.

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In "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket," what does Tom value the most at the beginning of the story?

Much like Arthur Miller's The Death of a Salesman, Jack Finney's short story "Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets" was written in response to the increasing materialism of Americans in the wake of World War II.  Thus, the exposition of Finney's story creates the motif of ambition as a driving force that clouds Tom Benecke's judgment and values. 

That Tom has already achieved a certain status is evinced by Tom's

watching the expanding circlet of mist, staring down through the autumn night at Lexington Avenue, eleven stories below.

Lexington Avenue is on the Upper East Side, Manhattan, a very affluent part of New York.  Skyscrapers were new to the scene in the 1950s as well, so people who lived in them were social climbers.  In this passage, too, is foreshadowing of the blindness of Tom to real values since he looks through the autumn night only to the street below, missing the beauty of the evening.  Nor does he notice the prettiness of his wife when she speaks to him about missing the movie, merely replying, "Got to get this done, though." In his ambition, Tom's grocery store project is paramount.

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In "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket," what does Tom value the most at the beginning of the story?

It is clear from the very opening of the story that Tom is a man devoted to his work. Note how he responds to the sound of his wife dressing in the first paragraph with "hot - guilty conscience." As the story develops we find out why precisely he is so guilty - he is leaving his wife to go out to see a film by herself because he is staying behind to work. The text establishes that Tom is a workaholic, transfixed with the idea of achieving wealth and status through his own efforts, even if it means that he leaves his wife to amuse herself in his pursuit of these intangible goals. Note how this is presented in the text:

"It's just that I hate you to miss this move; you wanted to see it, too."

"Yeah, I know." He ran his fingers through his hair. "Got to get this done, though."

She nodded, accepting this. Then, glancing at the desk across the living rook, she said, "You work too much, though, Tom - and too hard."

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

Here we see his patient, understanding wife, allowing him to devote himself to work instead of her, and willing to go out and see a film by herself because of his dreams.

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In "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket," what does Tom value the most at the beginning of the story?

At the start of the story, Tom clearly values his work more than anything else in his life.

You can see this right away in the story.  He comes home from work and he chooses to stay home working instead of going off to the movies with his wife.  He clearly thinks that doing his work is more important than doing things with his wife.

Tom is dedicated to his work to the extent that he is not interested in doing things that he would otherwise enjoy.  We know from the start of the story that he wanted to go see this movie too.  But he is not going to go and watch because work is more important to him at this point in the story.

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At the beginning of "Contents of a Dead Man's Pocket," what does Tom think is the most important thing in his life?

At the beginning of the story, Tom thinks that his work is the most important thing in his life.

When his wife, Clare, asks him to accompany her to the cinema, he refuses. Tom explains that he has to finish up some work, and he tries to cheer his wife up with a comment about future prospects:

"It's just that I hate you to miss this movie; you wanted to see it too." "Yeah, I know...Got to get this done though...You won't mind though, will you, when the money comes rolling in and I'm known as the Boy Wizard of Wholesale Groceries?"

Tom believes that all his hard work will eventually pay off for him and Clare, and that's how he rationalizes his workaholic tendencies. In his opinion, he feels that he has to distinguish himself from the other young employees. By taking on independent projects that will benefit the company, Tom believes that the top executives will finally take notice of him. So, Tom stays home to put together a special report that (he is convinced) will revolutionize grocery-store display methods for his company.

However, it is not until he loses the yellow paper containing all the pertinent facts and figures of his study that he begins to reevaluate his priorities in life.

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At the beginning of "Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket," what seems to be the most important thing in Tom Benecke’s life?  

Tom Benecke is characterized as ambitious and competitive. He is married and living in New York City, which was and still is a highly competitive environment. For some time he has been working on a project for a new grocery-story display method, which he feels sure will win him recognition and promotion at the firm he works for. He tells his wife he expects to become known as "the Boy Wizard of Wholesale Groceries."

On the evening the story takes place, Tom is preparing to write the all-important Interoffice Memo that will bring his project to the attention of the top executives. He sends his wife to the movies by herself, and their brief conversation before she leaves indicates two important facts: (1) that he is working too hard, and (2) that she resents being neglected.

The fact that his project is the most important thing in his life is dramatized when he decides to risk his life by climbing out on the ledge below his apartment window to retrieve a sheet of paper that got blown outside when his wife opened their door and created a draft.

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-story 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.

The author specifies early in the story that the apartment is eleven stories above Lexington Avenue. It seems dangerous enough when he is merely considering the idea of climbing out on the ledge and inching over to retrieve it from where the breeze had blown it against a projecting blank wall about five yards away; but when he is actually standing on the ledge the idea seems almost suicidal. Can anything be that important?

If the ledge were two or three feet wide, the risk would be bad enough. He could trip or slip or have an attack of vertigo and go screaming backwards into space. But the ledge actually appears to be only "about as wide as the length of his shoe." In other words, it is less than a foot wide. And when he gets outside:

He moved on the balls of his feet, heels lifted slightly; the ledge was not quite as wide as he'd expected.

He can't even plant his feet firmly on this narrow ledge. He is practically walking on his toes, and he has to keep his body and his face pressed against the building, not daring to look down.

He could hear the buttons of his jacket scraping steadily along the rough bricks and feel them catch momentarily, tugging a little, at each mortared crack.

He manages to retrieve his precious paper and to get back--but he had accidentally shut the old-fashioned double-pane window while climbing out, and now he is stuck outside looking into his own apartment which seems like a haven of bliss. He can't be too vigorous in trying to get through the window because that could cause him to lose his balance. His near-death experience has made him realize the folly of his ambition and the most important thing in his life, which is not his job but his wife.

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