man's feet dangling above a window outside a building

Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket

by Jack Finney

Start Free Trial

What is the main theme of "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket"?

Quick answer:

The main theme of "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" is that life is precious and should be enjoyed, not simply consumed in trying to get ahead at work.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The main theme of "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" is the importance of living and enjoying life in the moment, because, in the end, life is short.

This theme is summed up in a different way by Tom's wife, who says, as she leaves her husband to...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

go to the movies,

You work too much, though, Tom—and too hard.

Tom is an ambitious young employee at Wholesale Groceries. He wants to get ahead and is doing so by working on new ideas for the grocery business. For two months he has been going into grocery stores and counting shoppers on weekends, on his own time, and is now ready to compile a report about his findings and how they should influence the new displays. He feels that all this extra work will help him rise to the top level at his company, which is where he wants to be.

However, after the paper with his careful research on it flies out the window of his upper-story apartment and he risks his life climbing out on the window ledge to retrieve it, only to have the window crash down behind him, Tom has a genuine, terrifying brush with death. Upon realizing that he has nearly died in an effort to get ahead at work, Tom vows to no longer make work his top priority. He now sees the value in spending more precious time with his wife.

Afterwards, when he is safe and the paper once again blows out the window, Tom laughs, uncaring. He goes to join his wife at the movies: he has learned his lesson. Life is too short and too fragile and precious to waste in the rat race of getting ahead. We can feel assured that, from now on, Tom is going to try to enjoy life as well as work hard.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the theme of "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket"?

In the simplest terms, the theme of "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" might be described as ambition. Tom Benecke, in his own way, is just as ambitious as Shakespeare's Macbeth--and Tom nearly comes to a comparable end as a result of his driving ambition. In one way he is a man stuck out on a ledge eleven floors above the street; but in another way he might be seen as a man who is trying to climb one of the skyscrapers of Manhattan. We might imagine countless silhouetted men like Tom Benecke all striving to climb to the tops of all the skyscrapers of the great, indifferent city, all of them doing it late at night because they are all workaholics who work night and day and dream about their work in their sleep--and all of them, with possibly a few exceptions, doomed to failure.

The theme of ambition, or hubris, goes all the way back to the tragedies of ancient Greece. Tom can be seen as just a modern example of hubris. Fortunately for Tom, his story has a happy ending. He realizes that he had been thinking too highly of himself and makes a decision to change. Once he makes that decision to change while still out there on the ledge, he is just barely able to move step by step back to the window of his apartment.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the theme of "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket"?

The author of "Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets" noted how materialism grew in the 1950's after World War II, and he became disturbed by how much the drive for material success and for possessions was absorbing people. Consequently, Finney's protagonists find themselves trapped in the modern, technological world and return to their families and a more natural and simpler life.

In his rather long story, Finney illustrates how Tom Benecke loses sight of what really matters in his life as he stresses his advancement in business to the exclusion of his wife and their married life. Tom is so obsessed with gaining a promotion that when all his data which he has collected for weeks wafts out his eleventh story window, he steps out onto the ledge of the apartment building and risks death in order to retrieve it. Unfortunately, while he is out there, the window he has opened slams shut. 

It would be four hours before she could possibly be home, and he tried to picture himself kneeling out her, fingertips hooked to these narrow strippings....

Tom knows he cannot wait until Tom's wife Clare returns home. It will be too late. When he realizes that he could die out there, Tom thinks about his "wasted life." Finally, he is able to break the window and enter his apartment. Tom knows now that "the most important things in life are not things." This theme is at the heart of the story. The material object has no value unless you give it to someone. This is truly a theme.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the theme of "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket"?

In the story, Tom Benecke experiences a dramatic revelation about his own life and how he has been spending it. He is an ambitious young man who has dedicated all of his waking hours to getting ahead in his job. He has been obsessed with achieving professional success, even at the expense of his relationship with his wife, Clare. When the story begins, Tom sends Clare off to the movies alone so that he can continue working. When he has his near-death experience trapped on the ledge far above the street below, Tom realizes the truth of how he has been living. He realizes that he has sacrificed too much of his life in the pursuit of material success. This, then, becomes the central theme of the story. Our lives have little value if we do not live them well. Becoming obsessed with work and success at the expense of those we love is not a good or wise way to live. "Success" is not success when it is purchased at too high a price.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the message of the author in the short story "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket"?

The protagonist of this story, Tom, is dedicated to his great plan to become "the Boy Wizard of Wholesale Groceries," which requires him to eschew leisure activities and spend all his time working towards this dream. At the beginning of the story, his "pretty wife" tells him she hates the thought of his missing a movie they had both wanted to see, but Tom is so fixated upon his dream that he says it "has to be done," at the expense of spending time with his wife. Ultimately, however, Tom realizes the folly of wasting his life striving towards a future that might never come when he almost falls out of the window of his apartment, a figurative sacrifice to work and fruitless dreams. When Tom gets back into his apartment, he changes his mind and decides to spend the evening with his wife instead. The moral of the story, then, is that we shouldn't spend all our time working in the hope of eventually "making it big"—something relatively unlikely to happen. The story could be interpreted as a criticism of the so-called "American Dream," which by the 1950s had been transformed into an unhealthy work ethic and an atmosphere that encouraged living to work, rather than working to live. Life, Tom realizes in this story, should be enjoyed: there is no benefit in continually working in the hope of achieving a nebulous profitable future if it means we don't spend quality time with the people we love.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the message of the author in the short story "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket"?

The main message of Jack Finney's "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" is that the most important things in life are not things.

Finney's story illustrates the absurdity of basing one's existence upon monetary sources. Originally published in 1956, a period after World War II when materialism grew because the United States enjoyed great prosperity, this story has as its theme the importance of the non-material values such as love, family, and one's health.

These values are what Tom Benecke has put aside while he pursues his career in the grocery business. Instead of going to the movies with his pretty wife, Tom remains home to continue working on his marketing project, a project on which he has already spent four long Saturday afternoons, lunch hours, and even evenings. And, because he has spent so much of his own time already, the ambitious, materialistic Tom cannot let this project go out the window of his eleventh floor apartment and not try to retrieve it, no matter how great the risk. However, once he gets out on the ledge and nearly falls to his death and the window through which he has gone slams shut, Tom becomes all too aware of the folly of his having placed his values on the wrong things.

He cries out his wife's name in his last desperate attempt to make it back into his apartment. Once inside, he hurries to catch up to his loving wife at the movies, now aware that love supersedes any grocery project. 

Last Updated on