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 Jack Finney contrast the ledge and apartment settings in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket"?

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The most direct and illustrative contrast between the settings occurs after Tom has overcome his terror, weakness and faintness and has arrived, not without mishap, safely back at his once open apartment window. Tom is kneeling on the ledge after two near falls, the first of which dragged the window shut "under the full weight and direct downward pull of his sagging body."

Out of danger and back in balance, Tom's forehead is "pressed to the glass of the closed window." Through the glass he sees his apartment living room. He sees the wall-hangings, the davenport (sofa), a magazine and his still burning cigarette and the hallway to the bedroom where Clare was earlier getting dressed for the movie. Most dramatically of all, he sees his papers, typewriter and desk:

his papers, typewriter, and desk, not two feet from his nose.

The feelings Finney wants to ignite from this setting are ones of comfort, warmth, safety, security and successful accomplishment, even ambition. Tom's apartment is a haven where he and Clare relax and happily live. It is an inspiration where he brings to fruition ideas and aspirations leading to future good.

[Tom] 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 ... They were the beginning of the long, long climb to where he was determined to be, at the very top.

Contrastingly, the long ledge is only as wide as his shoe is long. The brick wall offers "finger-tip grips" every five feet at shoulder level. The cold night air has a chill breeze. He is eleven stories above New York's Lexington Avenue. He shuffles perilously along sideways with his "chest, stomach, and the left side of his face pressed against the rough cold brick." It is dark out on the ledge.

One feeling Finney wants to ignite from this contrasting setting is isolation, maybe above all, isolation.

Then he was shouting "Help!" ... If anyone heard him, there was no sign of it, and presently Tom Benecke knew he had to try moving; there was nothing else he could do.

Other feelings are threat of danger, fear, desperation, regret, panic, single-minded courage, finality ("Nothing, then, could ever be changed ... -could ever be added to his life."), and determination and control. These last two are shown most clearly when he finally punches through the window with a warrior's shout of "Clare!" Regret is hinted at when he realizes if he looks at the "lighted windows across the street, he would be past help."

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There are two kinds of settings in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" - the ledge and the apartment. What kind of atmosphere does the author develop for each setting? 

The atmosphere of Tom's apartment is, at first, described like a normal, functional apartment. It isn't until Tom is out on the ledge that he begins to contrast the two settings (apartment and ledge). After he is overcome with fear of falling, he must battle his fears and effectively, mind over matter (logic over emotion), will his way back to his window by taking small steps. It is here that Tom is fully aware of the differences between these two worlds. The ledge is literally living on the edge, always in danger. The bulk of this story is comprised of the descriptions of Tom trying to manage his terror while out on the ledge. The apartment is now a sanctuary for him, a place of safety and security. 

He had a sudden mental picture of his apartment on just the other side of this wall--warm, cheerful, incredibly spacious. And he saw himself striding through it lying down on the floor on his back, arms spread wide, reveling in its unbelievable security. 

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In Jack Finney's short story Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets, there are two principal settings, the apartment and the ledge outside the window.  How is each of these settings associated with a distinctive atmosphere or mood in the story?  

Jack Finney’s 1956 story Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets takes place inside the apartment of Tom and Clare Benecke, and on the ledge outside of their window.  Descriptions provided by Finney indicate that it is a small apartment – “the little living-room desk,” the “short hallway,” the “little hallway” – located on the eleventh floor of a high-rise building lacking decent ventilation:

“Hot in here,” he muttered to himself.”

While it is cool outside (Tom helps Clare with her coat), the heat inside prompts Tom to open a window, precipitating the chain of events that follow.  Before he can open the window, however, he has to force it, as it is typically stuck (“as usual, the window didn’t budge”).  The Benecke’s are not wealthy, but neither are they poor.  They appear to be lower-middle class, as indicative of an exchange that occurs before Clare departs for the movie theater while Tom remains behind to finish a report for his job.  Clare expresses her disappointment that Tom has decided to forego the movie in deference to his desire to finish his report, which is an expression of his ambition to move up in the world:

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

Finney’s description indicates socioeconomic status as a factor in his story.  The couple, especially Tom, hope for better things; it is even noted that they “paid seven and a half less dollars rent than their neighbors” in exchange for a slightly inferior unit.  Their status  provides the basis for the developments that follow: the absence of decent ventilation causes Tom to force open the window, causing an important piece of paper to be blown outside, where it settles onto the ledge.  So important is that paper that Tom decides to risk his life to retrieve it.

Descriptions of the ledge similarly indicate a high-rise building that has aged and for which its best days lay behind it: “the ornamental ledge,” “the ornate corner ornament of the ledge.”  It is late evening – Clare left in time to make the seven o’clock show – and darkness has descended: “. . . he knew he was going out there in the darkness, after the yellow sheet fifteen feet beyond his reach.”  The width of the ledge is of crucial importance, as it speaks directly to the level of risk Tom is about to take to retrieve his notes:

“The ledge, he saw, measuring it with his eye, was about as wide as the length of his shoe, and perfectly flat.  And every fifth row of brick in the face of the building, he remembered – leaning out, he verified this – was indented half an inch, enough for the tips of his fingers, enough to maintain balance easily.”

The danger in which Tom has placed himself is firmly established with the following description:

“Now, balanced easily and firmly, he stood on the ledge outside in the slight, chill breeze, eleven stories above the street, staring into his own lighted apartment, odd and different-seeming now.”

The mood established in the author’s descriptions of the apartment and the ledge suggest the physical peril to which Tom Benecke subjects himself out of a misbegotten drive to propel himself upward in the corporation that employs him.  This project “would gradually mark him out of from the score of other young men in his company.”  And, for that, he risks his life.  

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