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 does the phrase "sheer emptiness" mean in the context of "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket"?

Quick answer:

The "sheer emptiness" Tom encounters is the unexpected gap in the wall caused by the window to his own apartment.

Expert Answers

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In "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket," the phrase "sheer emptiness" refers to the absence of a handhold. Tom, out on the ledge outside his apartment window, has retrieved the paper he wanted and is moving back along the ledge towards his apartment. He is physically tired but also mortally afraid. At this point he knows the "slender hold" he had on his mind was "going to break," and he would give in to fear and fall. He begins to take rapid steps along the ledge without thinking, fingers reaching out across the brick for tiny handholds.

It is in this frame of mind—in desperate fear of giving in to his fear—that Tom, reaching out to find another groove in the brick, instead finds nothing. This "sheer emptiness" is of course the open window to his apartment. Had Tom been in a better frame of mind, he would have realized this and not be surprised. But he had been moving without thinking, even keeping his eyes closed. In a way, all his concentration was focused on not being afraid, rather than on getting back to the window. Because he is surprised, he reacts badly, stumbles, and causes the window to fall closed. It takes all his powers of concentration to master his fear enough to finally break the window and escape to safety.

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