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 is the setting of "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket?"

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The setting of "Contents of a Dead Man's Pocket" is Lexington Avenue, New York City. More specifically, most of the action takes place on the window ledge outside an eleventh-floor apartment.

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Jack Finney's "Contents of a Dead Man's Pocket" was first published in 1956 and seems to be set at approximately that time in New York City, specifically on a ledge outside an apartment on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. This is a few years before the time in which the popular television series Mad Men is set, and Tom Benecke's apartment is only two blocks from Madison Avenue, where his office may well be. The setting, therefore, is within the cutthroat corporate world of the 1950s. Young men like Tom were struggling to get ahead, reading self-help books by gurus such as Norman Vincent Peale (whose influential work The Power of Positive Thinking was first published in 1952).

Several aspects of this setting are significant. In the first place, it helps to explain why Tom would be so eager and go to such lengths to retrieve his piece of paper. The corporate culture of the era emphasized the importance of small advantages. A clever remark in a meeting or a minute talking to the right executive in the elevator might mean promotion. The setting also stresses the idea of Tom being alone—not quite in the midst of a crowd, but high above one. In the greatest city in the world, people are too preoccupied with their thoughts to look up or notice a man on the verge of death.

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The New York setting of the story is entirely appropriate, as Tom is very much the product of the big city and its values. Ambitious, hard-working, and driven, Tom shares the same outlook on life as millions of his fellow New Yorkers. In fact, it could be any one of them out there on that ledge, desperately scrambling around for a lost piece of paper needed to get ahead at work.

Specifically, Tom lives in Manhattan, the thriving, beating heart of the city and the place where so many big businesses are based. And the values encapsulated by those businesses have been imbibed by their employees, including Tom, who's initially prepared to risk his own neck for them.

Clearly, the big city and its corporate values have led Tom astray, away from what really matters in life. In venturing out onto the ledge to retrieve his paper he's effectively putting his work before himself and his family. He's even putting it before his own life.

Thankfully, Tom eventually snaps out of this warped attitude and realizes that his values have been askew. But they're the values by which so many of his fellow New Yorkers live and will continue to live long after he's climbed back inside his apartment.

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This story is set in New York City. More specifically, a lot of the action centers around the ledge outside Tom Benecke’s eleventh floor apartment.

Benecke is a workaholic in the advertising industry and is working on a project that seems likely to bring him both prestige and a bigger paycheck. When a gust of wind brought on by his wife’s exit from the room leads to the paper he has been working on for over a month being blown out of the window, Benecke will stop at nothing to retrieve it. To this end, he risks his life (and, I would argue, his sanity) by climbing out onto the narrow ledge high above Lexington Avenue.

This incredibly dangerous setting eventually leads Tom to the realization that his dedication to his work had gone too far. He suddenly understands that if he fell to his death, someone else would simply take over his work, and there would be nothing of him left.

Once he eventually manages to get back inside, there is another gust of wind, and Tom’s precious paper is sent straight back out of the window. Having had a change of heart in light of his near-death experience, Tom watches it go and laughs, showing that his work is no longer his whole life nor his top priority.

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The setting of the story is an apartment on Lexington Avenue near 50th Street on Manhattan's East Side. Tom Benecke lives in this 11th floor apartment with his wife, Clare. Much of the story takes place on the ledge outside his apartment. Tom watches a yellow paper that he needs to complete his work towards a promotion at work fly out of the window. It lands against the corner that is formed by his apartment and the living room of the apartment that is south of his, as the other apartment projects out a yard beyond his own apartment. Tom walks out on the ledge that leads about 15 feet to where the sheet is plastered against the corner formed by the two walls. The ledge is about as wide as his shoe, and each fifth row of brick is indented half an inch, leading him to believe he can maintain his grasp as he walks along the ledge to retrieve the lost yellow paper.

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The place setting of Jack Finney's short story "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" is New York City, specifically a high rise apartment building on Lexington Avenue on the city's East Side. The time setting is post–World War II, the mid-1950s.

Colloquially abbreviated as "Lex," Lexington Avenue is a large street located on New York's East Side in the borough of Manhattan. Manhattan, of course, is today an area of New York with a high cost of living; however, at the time of Finney's story, which was published in 1956, this area was populated more by a rising middle-class that emerged after the war when there was a strong economy. Finney perceived this era as one in which men became overly concerned about material possessions and success, much to the detriment of family life. His main character in this story, Tom Benecke, spends hours each weekend working on his grocery store project rather than occupying his time with his wife. It is only after he risks his life to retrieve his yellow worksheet which blows out the window of his eleventh-floor apartment that Tom realizes the absurdity of basing his existence upon monetary success.

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What are the two settings in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket"?

There are two contrasting settings in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket": the warm interior of the cozy, brightly lighted apartment, and the cold exterior of the building where the protagonist seems to be clinging to the brick wall like a human fly, not daring to look down at the street eleven floors below, not daring to think about what a crazy situation he has put himself in. The contrasting settings are appropriate to the story. Tom Benecke has risked life and love, symbolized by the warm interior setting, for a fantasy of success, symbolized by the cold, indifferent city  below him.

The German philosopher Schopenhauer writes that pain and unhappiness are unavoidable, while happiness is rare:

Merck, the friend of Goethe's youth, recognized this truth for he wrote: 'Everything in this world is ruined by the excessive pretension to happiness and indeed in a measure that corresponds to our dreams.  Whoever is able to get rid of this and desires nothing but what he has in hand can get along in the world.'  Accordingly, it is advisable to reduce to very moderate proportions our claims to pleasures, possessions, rank, honour, and so on, just because it is this striving and struggling for happiness, brilliance, and pleasure that entail great misfortunes. 

It is ironic that Tom opened the window because the apartment was too warm. It was the draft caused by opening the window that made his precious sheet of yellow paper move across the room and slide out into the night. It is also ironic that now he is out in the cold darkness and is looking into his apartment realizing how safe and comfortable and happy he had been there.

The story concerns only one person, and he is alone. Yet it is told in the third person, probably to keep the reader in suspense. Throughout the time that Tom is on the ledge outside the building, the reader, like Tom himself, doesn't know whether he is going to live or die. If the story were told in the first person the reader would understand that the protagonist was going to live. Vladimir Nabokov quotes a rhyme as follows:

The "I" in the story
Cannot die in the story.

In other words, if the protagonist is telling what happened to him, then he must still be alive in order to be able to relate it. The title, "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" is deliberately calculated to make the reader think that Tom may die and that he, the reader, will find that out when he gets to the end. What the title suggests is that Tom's body was found on the sidewalk eleven stories below and the yellow sheet of paper that cost him his life was the only thing found in his pocket.

Contents of the dead man's pockets,he thought with sudden fierce anger, a wasted life.

Although the story is told in the third person, the reader identifies with Tom from beginning to end because everything is told from his point of view. The reader identifies with Tom's ambition when he is in the interior setting, then with his terror when he is in the exterior setting, and finally with his relief when he manages to break the window and get back into the interior setting which he now sees as a haven of contentment.

The description in this story is excellent, most notably in the paragraph that begins with the following sentence:

He saw, in this 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.

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

"Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket" was published in 1956. The setting is a tall apartment building in Manhattan. The building was made of brick and was already fairly old. By this time it would have been torn down and replaced by a much taller building. A young man like Tom Benecke could hardly afford to live in Manhattan these days. He would probably be living in New Jersey or Brooklyn, where rentals were lower. But in 1956 it was still conceivable for Benecke and his wife to live in a good part of Manhattan, although the building is obviously being neglected in the expectation that it will be torn down. When Benecke gets out on the ledge, we see that the windows are deteriorating and that the building is made of bricks. Nowadays high-rise buildings in Manhattan would not be put together brick by brick all the way to the top. The Beneckes live on the eleventh floor. Their apartment is small. It may have one-bedroom, but it could consist of a single room with a wall bed, a kitchenette, and a bathroom. It is probably furnished, which means that it would have a lot of old furniture dating back to the 1920s. It is well situated. When Tom finally has to open his eyes out on the ledge he gets a glimpse of Manhattan from the eleventh floor. This passage is the best in the entire story. Jack Finney, the author, must have devoted a lot of time to composing it and should have been proud of the effect he created.

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. For a motionless instant he saw himself externally--bent practically double, balanced on this narrow ledge, nearly half his body projecting out above the street far below--and he began to tremble violently, panic flaring through his mind and muscles, and he felt the blood rush from the surface of his skin.

The descriptions of the setting throughout the story emphasize height. We are kept aware of Tom's precarious situation on a narrow ledge high above the street, and we share his fear, his dizziness, his disorientation, his vertigo, his sense of doom, his helplessness, and his self-contempt for being stupid enough, and greedy enough, to have put himself in this suicidal position. We can feel the old, dirty bricks as he clings to them like a fly. And we can feel the awful tension in his leg muscles as he is forced to maintain that awkward position on the ledge. He can't put his feet flat on the ledge because it is too narrow. He is standing with only the front parts of both feet on the ledge and his heels raised. Sooner or later this should cause cramps in both calves--and then he would suffer excruciating pain and probably fall backwards. No doubt he is imagining what it would feel like to go falling off into thin air.

Tom is utterly alone out there. He is living in the biggest city in America, with millions living all around him. And yet he has never felt so alone in his life. He can see lighted windows with people inside their rooms and apartments going about their lives. None of them have the slightest idea that he is out there, because who would be crazy enough to be walking on a narrow ledge eleven stories above the street? It is ironic that he can see the Loew's Theater and the other places where New Yorkers go to divert themselves in the evenings. Even his own wife is sitting watching a movie without the faintest idea that he is doing anything but sitting in front of his typewriter working on some ridiculous office memo. We share his relief when he breaks his own window and manages to get back inside. Perhaps we have learned a lesson along with him--to enjoy life while we have it, not to be too greedy or ambitious, not to feel too important, not to place too much emphasis on materialistic values.

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