Much of Finney’s body of work addresses the thematic concern of time. Indeed, The Third Level, the volume that includes ‘‘Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket,’’ has many stories about time and time travel. The opening story, ‘‘The Third Level,’’ for example, concerns a man who finds a third level at Grand Central Station, one that leads directly from the present day to 1894. In addition, Finney’s most popular novel, Time and Again, is about a man who becomes part of a secret government project to travel to the past.
There are many reasons why Finney turns so often to the subject of time. In the first place, during the 1950s when he began his career and when the stories of The Third Level were written, people were both fascinated and horrified by the implications of scientists and theorists who demonstrated that time is relative. Yet even before Einstein’s groundbreaking 1905 publication of the theory of special relativity, psychologists and other theorists had begun contemplating the troubling nature of time.
One such writer was the French philosopher Henry Bergson. As Peter Childs explains in his book Modernism, Bergson distinguished two different kinds of time, chronological time and duration. According to Childs, ‘‘Bergson thought that ‘reality’ was characterized by the different experience of time in the mind from the linear, regular beats of clock-time which measures all experience of time by the same gradation.’’ Bergson called the psychological time ‘‘duration,’’ and clock time ‘‘chronology.’’ The main point of the argument is that there are instances when a person experiences time to be moving much more quickly, or alternately, much more slowly, than the clock indicates.
The second reason Finney seems so interested in exploring time in his fiction can also be explained by the historical context. By the mid1950s, the general public understood that nuclear weapons, unleashed for the first time in 1945, could wreak horrible damage on the planet. Indeed, in the midst of the Cold War, with both the United States and the Soviet Union rapidly building their nuclear arsenal, it became very clear that one or both nations could blow up the entire world several times over Some people built fallout shelters in their back yards with the mistaken belief that this would someone save them from annihilation, but most people realized that such effort was folly. If a nuclear conflagration began, few would survive the initial attacks, and even fewer the devastation of the planet. The knowledge affected people differently: some lived wildly as if there were no tomorrow, others longed for a simpler past, and some chose to re-examine their values to begin building more meaningful lives. It became a question of how one used one’s time.
Now, obviously, ‘‘Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket’’ does not address time in terms of time travel. Finney’s concern with time in this story is much more subtle, yet it is also clear that he considers Bergson’s concept of duration in crafting the plot of the story, as well as the intersection of time and values in establishing the message of the story.
In the opening scene of ‘‘Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket’’ there does not seem to be any compression or expansion of time. That is, Clare seems to be getting ready to go out at a normal rate, and Tom’s thoughts about whether he should go to the movies with her also seem to take place at a fairly steady rate. From the time the paper flies out of the window, however, time does not move at a regular rate but increasingly slows down as the action rises.
Tom’s decision to go out on the ledge is largely decided by a comparison of the time it took him to assemble the data on the paper and the time he believes it will take him to retrieve it. First he totes up the days and hours he believes that he has spent on the research until he is convinced that the paper represents ‘‘countless hours of work.’’ Next, he imagines how long it will take him to go out the window and return with the paper: ‘‘To simply go out and get his paper was an easy task—he could be back here with it in less than two minutes—and he knew he wasn’t deceiving himself.’’ What Tom is deceiving himself about, however, is the difference between chronological time and duration. Once out on the ledge, he quickly perceives this error.
Finney accomplishes the contrast by slowing down time dramatically for Tom, by using words such as minutes, then seconds, then moments, then instants, and recounting each of Tom’s steps in agonizing detail. Whereas the opening scene was accomplished in just two pages, the remaining story takes about another seventeen pages. Yet, it is likely that the first scene and the remainder of the story in terms of chronological time are about equal. Tom recognizes the difference between duration and chronological time when he glances at his watch while on the ledge: ‘‘Clare had been gone eight minutes. It wasn’t possible, but only eight minutes ago he had kissed his wife good-by. She wasn’t even at the theater yet!’’
According to Childs, Bergson argued that ‘‘duration encompasses those times in a life which are significant to an individual, and which are necessarily different for each individual.’’ Thus, for Clare, walking down the street to watch a movie, time moves quickly. For Tom, on the other hand, time stretches and becomes immense, as he is experiencing perhaps the most significant experience of his life.
Additionally, Finney addresses the connection between values and time in this story. One of the most telling ways a person reveals his or her values is by how he or she chooses to use time. People devote the most time to the things they value, whether they recognize it nor not. While, in this story, Tom would assert that he certainly values his wife Clare more than his work, his actions do not bear this out. Rather, it seems apparent that Tom’s ambition has blinded him to his own values. When he chooses to stay home and work rather than accompany Clare to the movies, he is demonstrating what has worth for him.
Likewise, as noted, when Tom weighs the hours of work he has spent on the piece of paper, it is clear that the paper is very, very valuable to Tom, so valuable, in fact, that he risks his life to retrieve it. Once Finney moves the scene of the story to the ledge, outside in the dark, he emphasizes the isolation and loneliness of contemporary life. Tom cries for help, but no one pays attention, just as Tom remembers he has done himself when he has heard a cry in the past. When Tom looks at the surrounding apartment windows, he sees people going about their lives, but he is unable to connect with them.
While out on the ledge, Tom has an epiphany: the hours he has spent working rather than building a meaningful life filled with human relationships have drained his life of value. If he were to die, no one would even know who he is.
When he chooses to risk everything to regain entry into his apartment, it is as if Tom has resolved to spend his time differently in the future, doing the things that he most values. His ability to laugh at the last moment, when he loses the paper once more, signals a complete change in his attitude toward time and his life.
It is tempting to read the end of the story biographically, as Jack Seabrook notes in Stealing through Time: On the Writings of Jack Finney. He suggests that Tom’s embrace of a new life is ‘‘parallel to Jack Finney’s decision in the late 1940s to leave behind his life as advertising man in New York City and move to California to devote his time to writing.’’ Whether this is the case or not, it is significant that when readers last see Tom, he is laughing honestly and heartily. He has shaken off the isolation of modern life, and the false values of wealth and ambition. He is ready to embrace life, in all its glory.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Jack Finney, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
Diane Andrews Henningfeld, Critical Essay on ‘‘Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.