‘‘Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket’’ offers an excellent example of plotting in a short story. Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray in The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms define plot as the ‘‘arrangement and interrelation of events in a narrative work, chosen and designed to engage the reader’s attention . . . (or even to arouse suspense or anxiety) while also providing a framework for the exposition of the author’s . . . theme.’’ Murfin and Ray go on to distinguish plot from story in that story is simply a ‘‘narrative of events ordered chronologically, not selectively.’’
In ‘‘Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket,’’ Finney begins his plot with exposition, that is, details about the setting and the main character. Within the first page, readers know that Tom is ambitious, lives in New York, is young and handsome, has a beautiful wife, and that he chooses to stay home to work rather than go out to the movies. This exposition, selectively chosen, down to the detail of the apartment being hot and Tom feeling guilty, sets up the rest of the plot.
After the initial expository phase, the catalyst occurs. A catalyst is a plot device that moves the story forward and introduces the rising action that will ultimately lead to the climax, falling action, and resolution of the story. In this case, the piece of paper flies out of the window, serving as a catalyst. Now Tom must reach a decision: should he go out on the ledge to retrieve the paper or stay inside? The conflict in this case is between Tom and himself, between his common sense and his ambition, and represents yet another plot device. The conflict pushes the action forward, causing suspense and anxiety within the reader.
When Tom reaches a decision to go out on the ledge, the action continues to rise. The reader wonders if Tom will survive this event or fall to his death. Each selected detail Finney provides contributes to the upward arc of the story.
Typically in a short story, the action rises to its highest point at the climax, another plot device. The climax is the moment in a story of greatest intensity, a turning point when the outcome is unclear. In the case of ‘‘Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket,’’ the climax occurs when Tom smashes his fist through the window while calling out Clare’s name. The reader knows that there is an equal chance that Tom will be successful or that he will fall to his death, the mark of a good climactic scene.
After the climax, the action in a short story falls rapidly to the resolution. Sometimes called the denouement, the resolution completes the story: usually, conflicts are resolved, and the reader has a sense as to what might happen after the story. In ‘‘Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket,’’ the resolution is Tom’s decision to grab his coat and go find his wife. It demonstrates that he has learned the lesson the story had to teach him. Finney, of course, the master of the surprise ending, lets the paper fly out of the window again. When Tom laughs at this event, the reader knows that his inner conflict has been resolved, and the plot concludes.
The word epiphany comes from a Greek word meaning ‘‘showing forth.’’ In literary criticism, the term has been used figuratively. Irish writer James Joyce first used the term to describe a moment in a story when a character has a sudden revelation or insight about an event, or object, or situation. In the case of ‘‘Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket,’’ Tom’s epiphany occurs when he realizes that he has nothing in his pockets except for the yellow piece of paper filled with his incomprehensible notes. This leads him to the knowledge that if he falls, no one will know who he is, nor anything about his life. His life will seem as empty and unintelligible as his pockets. This, in turn, leads him to the larger truth: he has been living a wasted life.
The moment of epiphany in a short story can be a great catalyst for change on the part of the protagonist. Surely, in this story, Tom’s life will be markedly different after his reentry to his apartment.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Jack Finney, Published by Gale Group, 2001.