In ‘‘Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket,’’ Finney explores modern values. The main character, Tom, is a young, hard-working, conscientious advertising executive. He wants to distinguish himself in his field and rise to the top of all the young men who are working in his company. Tom thinks about the project he is working on, along with other projects he has developed independently, as the way to make this happen: ‘‘They were the way to change from a name on the payroll to a name in the minds of the company officials.’’
Further, when his wife Clare tells him that he works too hard and too much, he replies, ‘‘You won’t mind though, will you, when the money comes rolling in and I’m known as the Boy Wizard of Wholesale Groceries?’’ This suggests that Tom sees success, both in terms of money and reputation, as a direct result of his own hard work and effort. He seems to be saying that if he works hard enough, he will be able to provide for himself and Clare the kind of lifestyle he thinks that they both want.
However, when Tom goes out on the ledge to get the piece of paper containing all of his project notes, he is literally risking his life for financial and professional success. His prospects, he believes, have flown out the window with the piece of paper, and so he chooses to endanger his future by going after them.
Once outside, with no way to get back into his apartment, he suddenly realizes that what he wants more than anything is a secure life with his wife. He also realizes that if he were to fall, with nothing in his pockets except the piece of yellow paper, he would have lived a meaningless life. Thus, the title of the story points to this thematic concern. Symbolically, because Tom’s values are misplaced, when he is out on the ledge, he thinks of himself as a dead man with nearly empty pockets. When he is able to break through and reenter his home, his change of values allows him to truly begin living his life, a life that includes meaning, love, and happy relationships with other people.
Alienation is a common theme in many twentieth-century stories. In general, the term means isolation or disconnection from a group or society. In psychology, the term alienation means loss of identity and a state of depersonalization. In ‘‘Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket,’’ Finney is not concerned so much with Tom Benecke as an alienated character but rather with the alienating tendencies of modern life.
In the first place, Tom and his wife live on the eleventh floor of an apartment building in one of the largest cities in the world. They have no connection to the natural world but rather are surrounded by human-made artifacts. Although they are surrounded by people, there is a suggestion in this story that Tom has few or no real relationships with others. Indeed, the story suggests that human relationships are difficult in the modern world.
To set up the dichotomy between alienation and belonging, Finney places Tom out on a ledge looking down at the city. He is separated from the security and sense of connection his life offers him by a pane of glass he cannot immediately break through. While he is out on the ledge, Tom is totally alienated and cut off, not only from his former life but from the city around him.
For example, when he looks down from the ledge, Tom sees ‘‘moving black dots of people.’’ These people have no identity nor connection with Tom; they are no more than dots. Likewise, when Tom cries out for help, no one responds, and he remembers ‘‘how habitually, here in New York, he himself heard and ignored shouts in the night.’’ Further, when he looks into his own living room through the glass, it is as if he understands how his concentration on his work has led him to be alienated from the life he is currently living. Finally, he has the realization that there are individual people living in all of the apartments around him, but completely alienated one from another: ‘‘No more than twenty-odd yards from his back were scores of people, and if just one of them would walk idly to his window and glance out. . . . ’’
The repeated images of isolation and loneliness, made real by the extreme situation, emphasize the thematic concern of the story. It becomes a cautionary tale of how easily modern life can alienate an individual. In addition, the story provides an education for Tom, who comes to understand the danger of isolation and the necessity of connection. When he successfully reenters his apartment, it is as a changed man, someone who will actively fight against the alienating forces of modern society.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Jack Finney, Published by Gale Group, 2001.