man's feet dangling above a window outside a building

Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket

by Jack Finney

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Who is the antagonist in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket"?

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The antagonist of “Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket” is Tom Benecke, for he goes through a severe internal battle as he creeps along the outside ledge of his apartment, trying to retrieve his yellow sheet of paper.

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In “Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket,” the protagonist and the antagonist are actually the very same person: Tom Benecke.

Tom is something of a workaholic. He has been developing a plan for a new grocery display that he hopes will increase sales and earn him more money and the esteem of his superiors and coworkers. Tom has been writing all of his research data on a sheet of yellow paper, and on the evening of the story, he is determined to complete his work so that he can get the whole thing turned in to his boss. But this means that Tom's wife, Clare, has to go to the movies by herself, and Tom feels guilty about this, although he suppresses the guilt in favor of his desire to work. Here we can see some internal conflict.

As Clare leaves, Tom's yellow sheet of paper gets caught up in a wind gust and flies right out the window. Since Tom lives in a high-rise apartment, this is a big problem, for he must go out onto the ledge to try to retrieve the paper. It is one of the hardest things that Tom has ever done, deciding to go out the window and chase after that paper. He has nothing that can reach it. It is stuck in a corner. Yet that paper contains all of his notes, and he must have it. So he conquers his hesitancy (but not his fear) and follows the paper out the window.

Tom now enters into a full-out battle with his fear. As he struggles to navigate the ledge and catch his paper, he fights the desire to look down, trying desperately to keep his nerves steady and focus on what he is doing, one shuffling step at a time. He is soon shaking, gritting his teeth, and striving to maintain his self-control and not lose consciousness. He is absolutely terrified.

When Tom finally gets the paper, he realizes that he cannot find the strength to walk back. He manages to ease his way back, very, very slowly. Then, almost losing his battle with his terror, he begins taking quick, nearly blind steps, and he stumbles. He manages to catch himself but then makes the horrible discovery that the window has almost closed and is firmly stuck. Again, Tom is left battling himself and his horror. He cannot even hope that Clare will save him when she gets home, because she can never open that window by herself; it is too sticky.

As he crouches on the ledge, stranded, Tom begins to think about his life and how much time he has wasted. He looks through his pockets and thinks about the worthless things in them. He wishes he had gone with Clare to the movies. He thinks about how death has finally come to meet him. Finally, in an act of almost sheer desperation, Tom manages to drive his fist through the glass, and he falls into the living room. He doesn't even care that the yellow paper flies out the window again. In fact, he laughs, for Tom Benecke has conquered himself in more ways than one.

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Who is the antagonist in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets"?  

Since Tom Benecke is virtually the only character in the story, the conflict would have to be described as one of man against himself. The protagonist is Tom Benecke. The antagonist is Tom Benecke. His first struggle with himself occurs when his precious yellow sheet blows out the window and gets stuck against the building just out of reach. One part of Tom tells him to forget about it. The other part tells him that he should try to retrieve it because he has worked so hard to obtain the information.

But just the same, and he couldn't escape the thought, this and other independent projects, some already done and others planned for the future, would gradually mark him out from the score of other young men in his company. They were the way to change from a name on the payroll to a name in the minds of the company officials. They were the beginning of the long, long climb to where he was determined to be, at the very top. And he knew he was going out there in the darkness, after the yellow sheet fifteen feet beyond his reach.

Then when Tom is out on the ledge inching his way towards his prize, he has to struggle with himself not to lose his nerve. One part of him is ready to panic. The other part is refusing to yield to his emotions and also steadfastly refusing to look down. But when he finally makes it to within reach of the yellow memo sheet, he finds that he cannot get a grasp on it without looking down at least for an instant. 

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 sight almost causes him to fall. He realizes the terrible position he is in. His only hope of saving himself from a horrible death is to keep control of his emotions and force himself to inch his way back to his apartment window. The struggle of man against himself is infinitely harder now that he has looked down and seen the dizzying spectacle of Manhattan at night, with pedestrians only little black dots and lights constantly changing shapes and colors. Everything is in motion. All the traffic lights along Lexington Avenue are now green--but at any second they will all turn red, and the effect will be disorienting, possibly even hypnotic. He has to fight to keep his sanity and fight against the impulse to get it over with--to let himself go flying backwards off the ledge and down to his death. He even imagines himself already dead on the street below.

Then when he finally forces himself to take the necessary steps back to his window, he finds that it has slammed shut. It is an old building with windows that haven't been maintained properly for many years. It was hard enough to open the window from the inside, where he could give it is strong jolt with the palms of both hands; but it is out of the question to try to open it from the outside. He can't stand there for four hours while his wife is enjoying the movie at Loew's theater. He has to break the glass, then knock out all the jagged shards and climb through. Here he has to force himself to land a blow hard enough to break the glass, while at the same time another part of himself is telling him that he will lose his balance if he tries it. He might break the glass and at the same time go falling backwards to his death.

So the protagonist manages to conquer the antagonist. Tom Benecke keeps his nerve and saves his life, although he has learned from his experience that he was crazy to risk it in the first place.

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Who is the antagonist in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets"?  

An antagonist can be different things in a story - a villian (the most commonly thought of), a competitor or rival (not necessarily villainous), or a major threat or obstacle the protagonist has to overcome, even though it might not necessarily target him or her.  This last meaning of antagonist is the one which is applicable to the short story "Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets."  Within this story, the antagonist can be two-fold - both the harsh setting on the ledge with the wind buffeting his body and Tom's own feelings of terror and panic which he must battle to regain the safety of his living room.  The phrase "He is his own worst enemy" is applicable in this short story by Jack Finney.

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In the story "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket," who or what is the antagonist?

This would seem to be a story in which the conflict is one of man against himself. From the very beginning Tom Benecke experiences a conflict over whether he should let the paper go or whether he should try to retrieve it.

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

But just the same, and he couldn't escape the thought, this and other independent projects, some already done and others planned for the future, would gradually mark him out from the score of other young men in his company.

He takes a long time and goes through a complex process of rationalization before he ventures out onto the narrow ledge. In fact, the author Jack Finney spends eight paragraphs describing Tom's conflicting thoughts about what to do before Tom finally puts one leg over the window-sill. One part of Tom knows all along that it is a crazy thing to be doing. If his wife had stayed at home she surely wouldn't let him climb out of an eleventh-story window and walk along a ledge that isn't even as wide as his foot. 

But once he is out on the ledge he has committed himself. The internal conflict then becomes one of forcing himself to remain calm and rational against his own natural, animal fear of falling. He knows he mustn't look down. That would give the antagonist inside him, his fear and potential vertigo, the edge over the protagonist inside him, his ambition and motivation. 

Tom has to fight with himself throughout this harrowing adventure. For a short while it looks as if he is going to abandon hope and let his terror win over his reason. The worst part of the experience occurs when he has to look down in order to be able to get his fingers on the yellow sheet of paper.

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.

So there is a back-and-forth duel between Tom Benecke and Tom Benecke. The title of the story, "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket," leads the reader to assume that Tom is going to lose his nerve, succumb to vertigo, and fall to his death with a scream of anguish. But Tom's strength of character, augmented by his love for his beautiful wife, keep him inching his way back towards his apartment-window. He shows what Ernest Hemingway called "grace under pressure." It must be internal challenges such as this that make men climb jagged cliffs and treacherous mountains. They experience that same visceral fear but have found they can overcome it and act with their intelligence. 

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