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 role does a cigarette play in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket"?

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The cigarette also plays another important role: to show us the ephemeral nature of life and how unanticipated changes can occur in just a short time.

The text tells us that Tom is looking in at his apartment, where the lighted cigarette still sits in the ash tray.

Just eight minutes before, Tom had lighted the cigarette. He had set it down to kiss Clare (his wife) goodbye before she left for the cinema. When Tom lit the cigarette, all was still right with his world. He had just finished weeks of painstaking research to justify a new grocery-store display method of his own creation. This research was to have been the means of differentiating him from the crowd of young men at his company.

Now, he is outside his apartment, perched precariously on the ledge. If he loses his balance, he will fall many stories down and die a bloody death. In eight minutes, Tom's life has changed dramatically.

So, the cigarette plays an important role. It shows us just how fragile life is and how unanticipated changes can occur in just a matter of minutes.

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To me, the purpose of the cigarette in this story is to show us in a very graphic way how little time elapses in the story.

As the story begins, Tom lights a cigarette and puts in the ashtray as Clare leaves for the movie.  After Tom goes through his ordeal out on the ledge, he gets back into the apartment and finds that his cigarette is still burning.  That shows he has not been out on the ledge that long.

That helps emphasize the fact that his perspective is affected by how much danger he was in.  He feels like it's been a long time but his cigarette is still burning.

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What role does the cigarette play in the short story "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket"?

In Jack Finney’s short story “Contents of a Dead Man’s Pocket,” the burning cigarette marks the passage of time. 

As Tom Benecke’s wife prepares to go out to the movies, he opens the window because he is feeling hot and a bit guilty about not accompanying her. The other notable action he takes is to light a cigarette, which he places in an ash tray on his desk. This action becomes significant as the plot progresses.

After the paper flies out the window and lands on the ledge, Tom’s adventures begin. The rising action describes the precision of his movements on the ledge, his fear, his attempts to garner attention, and ultimately, his ability to return to the apartment window. To both Tom and the reader, it seems he is on the ledge for a long time, but the sight of the burning cigarette changes that. When Tom returns to the window, a trail of smoke catches his eye. The cigarette is still burning in the ash tray. This indicates that Tom was on the ledge for less than the length of time it takes for a cigarette to burn. In those few minutes, Tom undergoes a life-changing experience.

A movement from his desk caught his eye and he saw that it was a thin curl of blue smoke; his cigarette, the ash long, was still burning in the ash tray where he'd left it—this was past all belief—only a few minutes before.

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