Clare is Tom Benecke’s wife. She appears only briefly in the story as she is preparing to go out to watch a movie for the evening. Clare is pretty and thin with light brown hair. Finney makes her almost a blonde, but stops just short, suggesting perhaps that although she is as beautiful as the blonde ideal of the day, she is also a good wife who does not normally go out on her own in the evening. Clare is also portrayed as a very nice person as well, and her outward appearance reflects her inner kindness. She is understanding of Tom’s decision to work and does not try to provoke guilt in him for not going out with her. She does not reappear in the story after leaving the apartment, although it is her departure that sets in motion the rest of the story. In addition, it is the thought of Clare that allows Tom to plunge back into the apartment at the last possible moment.
Tom Benecke is the protagonist of the story, and the narration is from his point of view. He is tall, dark, and lean, rather than thin, implying a wiry strength. Tom has been working on a project during all of his free hours, demonstrating that he is both ambitious and directed. In addition, it is likely that he is very talented at his job in advertising in that he seems to understand the kind of research he must do in order to back up any claims he wants to make for his project.
Tom seems torn between his love for his wife and his need to achieve great things at his job as the story opens. He feels guilt for not going out with her and instead choosing to stay at home to finish up the presentation he wants to make to his boss in the morning. The project is one he has set for himself, not one that has been assigned; this fact emphasizes the fact that Tom is a go-getter and a self-starter, someone who not only wants to climb to the top of his profession but also has the talent to do so.
It is Tom’s ambition that leads him out onto the ledge when the paper with all his notes unexpectedly flies out the window. In addition, the decision to go after the paper demonstrates that he is a risk taker, someone who quickly weighs the risk-to-benefit ratio and acts. Unfortunately, in the case of this story, he comes very close to having calculated wrongly. Indeed, although he must take risks in his profession and live with the consequences, he has not previously been up against a life-and-death decision. His problem in this story is that he does not recognize that his decision to go out the window creates exactly that, a life-and-death situation.
Tom also is a courageous man, despite feeling fear while out on the ledge. When the consequences of his hasty decision become clear, he takes action, although he is frightened. After a momentary paralysis brought on by looking down at the street, he nevertheless continues to try to get back inside his apartment.
Finney further demonstrates that Tom is an intelligent man. Once in the difficult situation, he attempts a variety of actions to solve his problem, carefully moving from the least dangerous to the most. He also is intelligent enough to realize that he has been wasting his life; although the decision to go out on the ledge is clearly an immediate life-and-death decision, his ongoing decision to work rather than enjoy time with his wife is a longer-term life-and-death decision. When Tom is faced with death, he realizes that what he wants more than anything is a life with his wife.
By the end of the story, Tom is a wiser man than he was when the story opened. His epiphany opens the door for him to lead a more balanced and sane life, one that includes important human relationships, not just work.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Jack Finney, Published by Gale Group, 2001.