Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket Summary

Summary and Analysis of Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket by Jack Finney

“Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket” is a short story written by Jack Finney. It narrates the story of Tom Benecke, a young man who becomes trapped on the narrow ledge outside his apartment window, several stories above the ground while trying to retrieve a piece of paper that he deems crucial for his career advancement.

Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket | Summary

The story commences on an autumn evening in the Lexington Avenue apartment Tom shares with his wife, Clare. We are introduced to the protagonist, Tom Benecke, who remains engrossed in his work at home while his wife, Clare, prepares to go to a movie. When she suggests that he join her for the show, Tom explains that he has been laboring on a paper for an entire month and still needs more time to complete it. Reluctantly, he allows Clare to leave on her own, prompting her to express frustration at his excessive workload and resentment towards him for not accompanying her since he also desired to see the movie. 

Tom accompanies Clare to the door, assists her with her coat, and bids her farewell with a kiss. As he watches her walk down the hallway, he shuts the door behind him, and a sudden gust of wind enters the living room. The yellow paper containing all his meticulous notes is carried by the draft, ultimately landing on a ledge positioned three feet beneath the window. This ledge happens to be located a staggering eleven stories high, overlooking Lexington Avenue. 

Determined to retrieve his prized possession, Tom forcefully pushes the window open, enabling him to observe the paper’s journey along the ledge. It eventually comes to a halt in a corner formed by the projecting exterior wall and a ledge of the adjacent apartment, situated five yards away from his position.

Tom contemplates abandoning the paper, fully aware of the countless hours of effort it represents. Despite attempting to rationalize its loss, his ambition to advance within his company compels him to retrieve it at all costs. He swiftly dons a jacket and climbs onto the ledge, his face pressed tightly against the building’s surface. The presence of half-inch indentations between the bricks serves as his only handhold. 

Although afraid, Tom refuses to entertain thoughts and refrains from glancing downwards as he cautiously maneuvers sideways towards the corner. Balancing with his left foot on his ledge and his right foot on the adjoining apartment’s ledge, he bends down to retrieve the paper. 

However, as he peeks between his legs, he catches a glimpse of Lexington Avenue, a staggering eleven stories below. Overwhelmed by fear, Tom’s body trembles uncontrollably, and he jerks upright, pressing himself tightly into the corner while shuddering involuntarily. He takes deep breaths, desperate to avoid fainting under the immense pressure. Despite screaming for help, his pleas go unheard by anyone nearby. In his mind’s eye, Tom envisions the horrifying scenario of losing his balance and hurtling through the air with terrifying speed.

Tom musters the courage to carefully navigate back along the ledge towards his apartment window. Clutching the yellow paper in one hand, he firmly places it between his teeth, ensuring its safekeeping, while suppressing the overwhelming horror that threatens to consume him by intentionally avoiding any deep contemplation. 

As he reaches his open window, Tom stretches his fingertips to grip the top of the casement. However, the weight of his body causes the window to abruptly slam shut, sending him tumbling to his knees on the ledge. Glimpsing his reflection in the glass, he swiftly removes the yellow paper from his mouth and hurriedly tucks it into the safety of his jacket pocket. Peering through the window, he spots the cigarette he had left in the ashtray, astounded to find it still burning. To his amazement, he realizes that very little time has elapsed during his perilous ordeal.

Desperate to open the window, Tom resorts to striking it forcefully with the heel of his hand. However, his attempt proves futile, and the impact causes his hand to bounce back, dangerously destabilizing his balance. Undeterred, he tries again, this time using a half-dollar coin and even one of his shoes to strike the unyielding glass, but his efforts remain fruitless. In his mind, he envisions the moment when Clare returns from the movies and discovers him trapped on the other side of the window. However, he realizes that he cannot endure perched on the ledge for hours until her return. In a desperate search for a solution, Tom reaches into his pocket and retrieves a book of matches and three old letters. One by one, he ignites them, hoping that the growing flames will draw attention to his perilous situation before they reach his hand, forcing him to let go. He discovers coins in his pocket and drops them down to the street below, longing for someone to notice his distress. However, his attempts go unnoticed, and his calls for help remain unanswered.

Shaking with a combination of fear and fatigue, Tom anxiously searches his jacket pockets once more, only to find that “there was nothing left but the yellow sheet” containing his incomprehensible notes. Gazing at the sheet, he becomes acutely aware that if he were to fall to the street below, there would be no means of identifying his lifeless body. Regret floods his thoughts as he reflects upon his intense ambition, realizing the countless hours he dedicated to work instead of being with Clare.

Determined to make one final effort to preserve his own life, Tom reaches a decisive moment. He resolves to shatter the window using his fist, knowing that if the glass breaks, he will survive, but if it remains intact, he will be violently thrown off the ledge. With Clare’s name on his lips, he thrusts his fist through the window, causing it to shatter, and in a forward motion, he tumbles into the safety of his apartment. Relieved and unharmed, he carefully places the yellow sheet of paper back on his desk, restoring it to its original position, and sets out to locate Clare.

However, as Tom opens the front door, a draft unexpectedly rushes in, propelling the yellow sheet of paper through the broken window. He watches it disappear into the distance, and in an unexpected twist, Tom finds himself chuckling at the situation. Undeterred, he leaves the apartment, deciding to meet his wife at the movies, content with the knowledge that his life has taken a fortunate turn.


Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket | Analysis


The structure of “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket” adheres to the conventional framework commonly found in works of fiction. The events unfold in chronological order, starting from the beginning of the story and progressing toward its eventual conclusion. The plot aligns with the structure known as Freytag’s Pyramid, a framework developed by Gustav Freytag, a German playwright. This pyramid encompasses various stages, beginning with the exposition that introduces the setting and characters, followed by an inciting incident that sets the story in motion. The narrative then builds tension through rising action, leading to a climactic peak. Afterward, it moves into the falling action, gradually resolving the conflicts introduced earlier, and finally concludes with the resolution, providing a sense of closure to the story and a leaves the reader with a sense of introspection.

The character development in “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket” is compelling, particularly in Tom’s transformation throughout the story. Initially portrayed as an ambitious and work-driven individual, Tom’s journey on the ledge leads him to reevaluate his priorities and recognize the value of human connection. His realization of the emptiness of his relentless pursuit of success brings about personal growth and a newfound appreciation for his relationship with Clare. 

Furthermore, the story raises thought-provoking themes. The exploration of ambition and its consequences serves as a cautionary tale about the potential sacrifices one may make in the pursuit of success. The fragility of life is depicted through Tom’s perilous situation, highlighting the unpredictability of existence. The theme of human connection underscores the importance of relationships and the need for balance between personal and professional aspirations.


Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket | Themes

The story explores the theme of ambition and its consequences. Tom Benecke’s intense ambition to advance in his career leads him to prioritize work over personal relationships, causing him to neglect his wife Clare. The life-threatening situation he faces on the ledge forces him to reassess his priorities and realize the importance of human connection.

Tom’s decision to venture onto the ledge to retrieve the yellow paper symbolizes the risks and sacrifices people make in pursuit of their goals. He puts his own life in danger, highlighting the lengths to which individuals may go for their ambitions.

The story highlights the fragility and preciousness of life. Tom’s perilous situation on the ledge serves as a reminder of how swiftly life can change or be lost. It prompts him to reevaluate his choices and appreciate the value of his relationships.

Tom experiences a profound sense of regret as he contemplates the time he wasted on work at the expense of spending time with his wife. Through his ordeal, he seeks redemption by recognizing the importance of love and connection, ultimately choosing to leave the apartment and meet Clare.

The story emphasizes the significance of human connection and the need for meaningful relationships. Tom’s fear and isolation on the ledge highlight the emptiness of his ambitious pursuits without the presence of his loved ones. The experience prompts him to value the connection he shares with Clare and prioritize their relationship.

Tom’s life-threatening situation forces him into moments of intense self-reflection. He contemplates the choices he has made and gains a deeper understanding of his desires and values. The experience on the ledge becomes a catalyst for self-discovery and personal growth.

These themes collectively contribute to the story’s exploration of ambition, priorities, risk, human connection, and the profound impact of life’s fleeting nature.



Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket | Title of the Story


The title “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket” holds significant meaning to the story. The title immediately creates a sense of mystery and suspense. It raises questions about what these “contents” might be and why they are in the possession of a dead man. This piques the reader’s curiosity and draws them into the story, setting the stage for the events that unfold.

The “dead man’s pocket” symbolizes a hidden and forgotten part of the protagonist’s life. Tom Benecke, the main character, becomes so consumed by his work and ambition that he neglects other aspects of his existence, including his relationships and personal happiness. The contents of the pocket symbolize the forgotten and overlooked aspects of his life that he must confront and reassess during his perilous journey on the ledge.

The inclusion of the word “dead” in the title hints at the theme of mortality. Throughout the story, Tom faces the imminent threat of death as he navigates the dangerous ledge outside his apartment window. This experience forces him to confront his mortality and prompts a reevaluation of his priorities. The title serves as a reminder that life is fleeting, and it is essential to consider what truly matters before it is too late.

The juxtaposition of the words “contents” and “dead man’s pocket” creates an intriguing paradox. Typically, one would associate the contents of a pocket with someone alive and actively using or carrying those items. However, in this case, the contents are associated with a dead man, which adds an element of irony and raises questions about the circumstances surrounding the dead man and how his possessions become relevant to the story.

The title “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket” captures the essence of the story’s themes and engages readers by hinting at the mystery, suspense, mortality, and personal introspection that lie within its pages.


Contents of the DeadMan’s Pocket | Character Sketch

“Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket” primarily focuses on the character of Tom Benecke, the protagonist of the story, who is a young and ambitious man consumed by his work and career aspirations. He neglects his personal life, including his wife, Clare, in his relentless pursuit of success. Tom becomes trapped on a ledge outside his apartment while trying to retrieve a crucial piece of paper, forcing him to confront his priorities and reconsider the value of his relationships. 

Tom’s wife, Clare, is a supportive and understanding character. She expresses concern for Tom’s workaholic tendencies and desires to spend quality time with him. Clare is briefly mentioned in the story, as going to the movies alone while Tom stays behind to work. Although her role is minimal, her presence serves as a reminder of the neglected personal aspect of Tom’s life.


Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket | Literary Devices


Finney employs symbolism to illustrate Tom’s preoccupation with work and his obliviousness to those around him. While Tom’s wife Clare goes out to watch a movie, he remains at home ostensibly working, even though he doesn’t have an urgent need to do so: 

“it was not actually true he had to work tonight, though he very much wanted to”

However, he eagerly desires to continue working on his project, symbolized by a cherished yellow piece of paper that he cannot afford to misplace. 

“Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket” incorporates a rich array of visual, auditory, and tactile descriptions that immerse the reader in the story’s setting. Tom’s perspective from the ledge offers striking visual imagery, such as his gaze down at Lexington Avenue, where he observes the vast expanse of traffic signals, all illuminated in green, stretching out for miles. The pedestrians he spots are metaphorically depicted as “moving black dots,” emphasizing the significant distance separating him from the bustling street below.

Auditory imagery, including the tonal shifts of the street traffic, further enhances the atmospheric quality of the narrative. Tom becomes attuned to the toned-down volume of the street traffic far beneath him, which gradually slows down and fades into near-silence, heightening the sense of isolation and vulnerability. However, as the traffic light changes, he discerns the subdued roar of the cars starting up once more, underscoring the cyclical nature of the urban soundscape.

Additionally, the tactile descriptions of Tom’s physical sensations on the ledge intensify the reader’s connection to his plight. Tom’s fear and desperation are conveyed through his physical sensations, such as the trembling of his body and the gripping pressure of his fingertips on the ledge. These tactile details enhance the reader’s understanding of Tom’s emotional and physical state as he navigates the treacherous ledge.

The skillful use of visual, auditory, and tactile descriptions in the story immerses the reader in Tom’s precarious situation, intensifying the sense of tension, isolation, and vividness of the scene.




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