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 three techniques does Finney use to create suspense in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket"?

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Suspense in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets" is created by an intense third-person limited point of view and ever-increasing levels of tension in a life-or-death situation.

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Jack Finney creates intense suspense through descriptions of what it is like on the ledge of the eleventh floor and what lies below the ledge, the fear and terror in Tom, and the crisis of the apartment window closing.

  • What it is like on the ledge and what lies below

Once Tom Benecke makes up his mind to go after the yellow sheet containing weeks of gathered data, he climbs out of his apartment window onto the eleventh floor apartment. Inching along this ledge as he inserts his fingers between the bricks, Tom reaches the yellow sheet, which is at a corner of the building. First, he carefully places his feet on the ledges of each wall. Then, by bending his knees and sliding his body downward, Tom bumps his forehead along the "brick V" until he can retrieve the yellow paper.

At the same instant he saw between his legs and far below, Lexington Avenue stretched out for miles ahead.

He saw in that instant, the Loews theater 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 explosion of absolute terror roared through him.

  • The fear and terror in Tom

To keep himself from fainting, Tom must draw deep breaths and concentrate upon holding his consciousness. In his terrible fear, Tom shouts "Help!" but the wind and the blank wall muffle his cries. No one will hear him, Tom realizes, "...he had to try moving; there was nothing else he could do." He concentrates his mind upon placing one foot, then another, then the other foot, then the hand as he trembles and has but one thought at a time.

But he could feel the terrible strength of the pent-up horror on just the other side of the flimsy barrier he had erected in his mind; and he knew that if it broke through he would lose this thin artificial control of his body.

During one slow step he tried keeping his eyes closed; it made him feel safer....Then a sudden rush of giddiness swept over him and he had to open his eyes wide, staring sideways at the brick. 

  • The crisis of the window snapping shut

Tom has to be careful not to look out and see the windows of the buildings across the street and the void between. Nevertheless, the remoteness of safety causes Tom to stumble. As his right hand smacks against the window and under the weight of Tom's "...sagging body, the open window dropped shudderingly in its frame till it closed and his wrists struck the sill and were jarred off."

For a moment he kneels with his knee pressed against the edge of the ledge. His body sways, fighting for balance.

For an instant he hung suspended between balance and falling...then, with a focused concentration of all his senses, he increased even further the strain on his fingertips hooked to these slim edgings of wood....He couldn't open the window....with only a sheet of glass between him and the room just before him, it was not possible that there wasn't a way past it.

Perhaps, the moment in which the plot is most suspenseful is that when Tom has his last chance at breaking the closed window of his apartment. Tom calculates how to strike the window; then, he decides that he must punch the window from the shoulder,... he knows that he has but one chance to live. 

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What is the suspense in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets"?

In the short story "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" by Jack Finney, A man named Tom Benecke is alone in his eleventh-floor apartment working after his wife leaves for a movie. The paper with all his notes is swept out the window by the wind and lodges on a ledge. Benecke decides to retrieve it and gets caught outside, endangering his life.

The suspense in this story is achieved by putting the character in a life-and-death situation, but it works well, because the author maintains a very intense third-person point of view in which readers are aware of the protagonist's thoughts and sensations. This technique makes it seem as though readers are caught up in the danger along with Benecke. Additionally, Finney increases the tension step by step as the story progresses.

At first, the only thing that is at stake is somehow retrieving the lost paper. We find out that this paper is important to Benecke because it will help advance his career. We sympathize with his efforts to get it back. Initial suspense is created through this objective.

Then Finney increases the suspense as Benecke crawls out of the window. The key is in the minute details that the author shares of Benecke creeping along the ledge. We can imagine ourselves in his position and how frightened we would be. As he reaches for the paper, he suddenly looks down. This takes the suspense to another level as he realizes that he could actually die in his foolish attempt to get the paper. He is frozen in terror and doesn't know if he will be able to move.

The stakes are raised further as Benecke thinks of his wife, Clare, and how he has neglected her and wasted his life. This gives him the courage to begin creeping back to his window. However, when he reaches his window, it slams shut. He gets close enough to see inside his living room, which is tantalizing. He tries lighting letters from his pocket on fire and dropping coins, but these efforts don't work.

Finally, he realizes that he has to risk everything on one punch to try to break the glass. The author makes it clear that this is a do-or-die effort. If he breaks the glass, he will get inside, but if he doesn't, he will fall. He succeeds, and regains access to his apartment.

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What is the suspense in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets"?

In Jack Finney's "Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets," suspense is created at various points with Tom Benecke's mental exploration of possible actions and their consequences before he commits himself to an action. In addition, Finney chronicles in detail Tom's dangerous journey on the ledge out to fetch the paper and back to re-enter the apartment.

When the yellow sheet is lofted out the open window by the draft and driven along the ledge, an incredulous Tom kneels and stares at the yellow paper for over a minute, waiting for it to fall off this ledge so that he can hurry and retrieve it. When the sheet goes nowhere, he looks around for what he can use to retrieve it, but nothing is long enough to reach the paper.

It was hard for him to understand that he actually had to abandon it--it was ridiculous--and he began to curse.

It is an incredulous Tom who reflects that of all the papers on his desk, this yellow sheet on which his work of two months is recorded has been lost. He just cannot shake loose the idea of how this project could launch his career. So, he "knew he was going out there in the darkness" to retrieve this important paper. Impulsively, then, he goes to the closet and pulls on a jacket to protect himself from the cold. "....He'd better get this over with before he thought too much...."

Tom's journey out on the ledge as "fear stirred in his stomach" is "not as easy as he thought," and his actions generate great suspense. For, he reaches the paper, but cannot quite touch it. Tom must contort his body while trying to stay on the ledge, and "a violent instantaneous explosion of terror" nearly overcomes him. He pictures himself slipping and falling. On his return to the window after having somehow successfully retrieved the sheet, he has another moment of terror as he sees that the window has fallen down and he is unable to lift it.

He imagines that someone might find his body if he were to fall. Inside the one pocket of the jacket this person will find a yellow sheet with figures on it:

Contents of the dead man's pockets, he thought, one sheet of paper bearing penciled notations--incomprehensible

As he clings to the building, Tom imagines falling to his death. In a growing and fierce anger, he suddenly thinks, "a wasted life."

Then, Tom determines that he will somehow make it back into his apartment, but suspense again rises as he must figure out how to get the window open without falling off the ledge. His efforts at calculating that he has but one chance to break the glass are extremely suspenseful.

But if the glass did not break, the rebound, flinging his arm back, would topple him off the ledge. He was certain of that.

Tom first tests his plan in the suspenseful climax of Finney's story. Ironically, it is his exactitude which sends him out for his yellow sheet with all its facts and figures, yet it is this same trait that saves his life as he calculates how he must strike the window with a certain force. He pictures what he must do. When he begins, Tom hesitates because he knows what can happen-- "Then he knew that it was time to make the attempt." His effort is certainly suspenseful:

....[w]ith full power, with every last scrap of strength he could bring to bear, he shot his arm forward toward the glass, crying, "Clare!" [his wife's name]

Tom falls forward and climbs into his apartment in "triumph." The suspense is finally over.

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What is the suspense in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets"?

The suspense in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets" is created in multiple ways.  First, the title itself, when referring to a dead man, sets the reader up to anticipate the death of the main character Tom Benecke.  Thus, when we read that he is home alone at night when he sees his needed paper flutter out the window above "the muffled street traffic far below," we feel we know what will inevitably happen.  It is this feeling of what we, as readers, believe to be certain that helps create the suspense within the story.  Added to this is the technique the writer employs with the repetitions, such as "right foot, left foot, right foot..."  The way Jack Finney relays the exquisite details of a very small period of time puts the reader "in the moment" feeling every scrape of the brick, every gust of wind, and the feeling of imminent danger of his fall.  This anxiety is part of suspense.

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How does the author build suspense in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket"?

Author Jack Finney builds high suspense while Tom is out on the ledge retrieving his yellow paper. Finney achieves this by taking us through Tom's frightening experience on the ledge in excruciating detail, with we as readers not knowing if this character is going to live or die, especially when considering the title.

We find out as Tom steps out of his window that he is in a "slight breeze," eleven stories above a New York City street, standing on a narrow ledge outside his apartment. It is inherently scary to imagine ourselves up so high, as most humans are born with an instinctive fear of heights. We learn that Tom is facing the brick wall of his apartment, pressing himself against it as he inches his way toward the yellow paper. It is darker than he had thought, and the ledge is so narrow his heels hang out over the edge.

Once Tom achieves one frightening milestone, Finney builds more suspense by increasing the terror. For example, once Tom is straddling the corner of the wall where the paper is lying, he has to lower himself into a squat to get the paper—and then his fingers can't quite reach it. When they do, he captures a glimpse of the street far below and is so terrified that he begins to "tremble violently." Now readers are terrified that the trembling will make him fall. His "shuddering" becomes so violent that he is sure he is going to fall, and he can't move. Finally he does, and then, as Tom almost falls, his apartment window suddenly slams shut.

Again, readers are faced with suspense: Will Tom be able to break the window without falling?

By taking readers in almost slow motion through the experience of being on the ledge, while constantly creating new obstacles, Finney maintains great suspense as we wonder how Tom will deal with his worsening situation—and if he will survive.

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How does Jack Finny create suspense in Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket? Provide one detail that adds to the suspense.

Any story that features a person climbing out of a window onto the ledge of a high-rise building pretty much qualifies as suspenseful. Jack Finney, in his short story Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket, however, knows that creating suspense is one thing, while sustaining it is another. Finney is subtle in his narrative, injecting an element, albeit minor, of deception into his premise, with the story's protagonist, Tom, misleading his loving wife into believing that he seriously needs to spend the evening working on a project for work rather than accompany her to the movies (". . .it was not actually true that he had to work tonight, though he very much wanted to"). This deception, while minor in terms of considerations of marital fidelity, does help set the stage for the suspense that will follow when Tom, already described as hot despite the cool evening weather outside his window ("'Hot in here,' he muttered to himself"), opens said window to allow the cooler air into his apartment. It is, of course, this open window that provides the opportunity for the main element of suspense into which Tom blunders.

Once Tom's draft memo blows out the window and settles onto the ledge outside, and Tom decides to risk his life to retrieve it, Finney builds the suspense slowly but inexorably. First, however, Finney has Tom contemplate the nature of the task, with the character quickly assessing the level of danger involved in retrieving his paper:

"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. 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."

This, then, is how Finney establishes the real tension in his narrative. He has provided us with a sense of the paper's importance -- "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, for use in the spring displays" -- and now a description of the precipice upon which Tom would now descend. It is only once Tom has actually climbed out the apartment window and positioned himself precariously on the ledge below that the true sense of danger unfolds. Now, the risk has shifted from theoretical to practical. Tom has climbed out the window and now stands on the ledge:

"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."

This passage occurs relatively early in Tom's foray outside his apartment on a cool, breezy big-city night. The element of suspense is now firmly established, and we are left with an agonizingly protracted description of Tom's continued actions and thoughts as he perilously inches closer to his objective.

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How does author Jack Finney create suspense in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets"?

There are a number of elements and techniques authors use to create suspense. One Finney uses is characterization. Another is chronological detail; this incorporates flashbacks to near-past events and flash-forwards to potential, imminent future events.

Finney's early characterization establishes Tom as a loving, though ambitious, husband of a lovely pleasant wife whom he admires and enjoys. There is no discord between then except that Finney casts her as the voice of reasonableness and truth when she points out Tom works too much and too hard; even her name, "Clare" is spelled as a scramble of "clear" (instead of "Claire"), making her a symbol of clear thinking:

glancing at the desk across the living room, [Clare] said, "You work too much, though, Tom--and too hard."

Later Jack's characterization develops him as a hard-working, insightful, practical, reasoning man. This dramatizes his flaw, which is his ambition. Suspense--already being developed--is heightened when we follow the progression of his thoughts and rationalizations when he watches the yellow sheet of paper blow along the ledge below him. When Tom finally leaps to a choice of action, as opposed to coming to a choice logically, we are suspensefully captured in the event and the potentialities within the momentous decision. Since we want Tom to be sensible and safe, we feel intense suspense knowing he will not be.

When Tom is on the ledge, the key suspense creating device is the detailed chronological progression the narrator gives that takes us step-by-step with Tom. This is augmented by flashbacks of Tom's life that give explanations of what is on the yellow paper and why it is so important. Flash-forwards to what Tom will experience if he loses his courage or balance and falls to Lexington Avenue is a key technique that creates intensifying suspense as we envision Tom's potential death with him.

He saw himself stumbling suddenly sideways as he crept along the ledge and saw his upper body arc outward, arms flailing. ... [He] felt his balance leaving him. He saw himself falling with a terrible speed as his body revolved in the air,

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How do the two settings of living room and ledge in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" by Jack Finney create suspense?

The living room setting creates suspense in several ways. The first is the thematically related juxtaposition of Tom's desk to Clare's dressing room. This juxtaposition pits comfort and home against generating ideas and ambition. This adds suspense because it illustrates the thematic tension in Tom's life.

The room creates suspense because the sheet of yellow paper Tom carefully lays out is endangered once the window is forced open because of the heat in the room (radiating in from the warmed building hallway); some readers will even think, "Put a paper weight on it!"). The stubborn front door directly across from the open window, with the unweighted yellow paper between, creates more suspense because some readers can foresee what may happen when heat meets cold and an open window.

The ledge creates suspense by being a ledge eleven stories above Lexington Avenue in New York City. There is not much more required of an eleventh story ledge than to be itself to create suspense. Finney does add more suspenseful elements to the ledge setting though. He adds wind and cold. He adds isolation. Tom's shouts cannot be heard. His lighted letters are not seen. His dropped coins are not felt. Though people are behind the lighted windows across the street on the other side of Lexington, none see Tom outside their windows. Tom's isolation is complete and suspense is created around his need for help, especially after he scrapes his head.

The construction of the ledge creates suspense. The ledge is as wide as Tom's shoe is long. The outer brick walls of the building have hand-holds, but they are five feet apart and are "indented half an inch." Though it is only mentioned once, another way the setting of the ledge creates suspense is that from the ledge, when Tom bends to pick up the yellow paper, he sees Loew's theater. Though not explicitly stated, Finney implies this is where Clare went to watch the double feature Tom "wanted to see too." This creates suspense because we wonder if Tom will ever see Clare again.

He saw, in that instant, the Loew's theater sign, blocks ahead past Fiftieth Street;

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Ways in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" that Jack Finney uses plot and setting to create tension.

The Merriam Webster Online Dictionary defines the term "MacGuffin" as follows:

:  an object, event, or character in a film or story that serves to set and keep the plot in motion despite usually lacking intrinsic importance.

For example, the MacGuffin in Dashiell Hammett's novel The Maltese Falcon, as well as in the film version, is the statuette of a black bird. In Jack Finney's "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket," the author takes pains to establish the value of a single sheet of yellow paper to the protagonist Tom Benecke. Although this is nothing but a sheet of paper, it is of immense value to him because he has spent so many hours jotting notes on it. The plot of Finney's story is very simple. The paper blows out the window, and Tom wants to retrieve it; he wants it badly enough to risk his life for it.

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...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 led 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 needed to justify to the reader how it could come about that a sane married man would find himself on an extremely narrow ledge eleven stories above the street. The most important setting, of course, is the ledge on the outside of the building. Finney spends five paragraphs describing Tom's reservations about climbing out his window, beginning with the following sentence:

For many seconds he believed he was going to abandon the yellow sheet, that there was nothing else to do.

But he finally talks himself into it. By this point the reader is fully identified with Tom and is out there on the ledge with him, hugging the brick wall and inching along towards that precious sheet of paper. The reader identifies with the protagonist because he or she is kept in that one point of view and because the reader has come to appreciate the MacGuffin's great value.

It is a common plot device in commercial stories such as "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" to get the protagonist in a dangerous situation--and then make it even worse. Even the title chosen for the story seems to suggest that Tom is going to lose his life because he made the foolish mistake of climbing out on a ledge which is not even as wide as his foot. He knows enough not to look down. He keeps one side of his face pressed against the bricks and holds on to the spaces between them with his fingertips.

But then when he gets to the paper he is forced to look down. Finney has saved the sight to create an emotional climax. His one-paragraph description of Manhattan from eleven stories up is excellent. He must have worked on it for a long time. It begins:

He saw, in that 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 explosion of absolute terror roared through him.

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