Themes, Symbols, and Motifs in “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket”

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Symbols and Themes in Contents of the Dead Man's Pockets


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Activity Overview

Themes, symbols, and motifs come alive when you use a storyboard. In this activity, students will identify themes and symbols from the story, and support their choices with details from the text.

Themes and Ideas to Discuss


An important theme in “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket” is ambition. Tom’s ambition is what causes him to choose to stay home and work that evening rather than go out and enjoy a date night with his wife. Tom hopes that his weeks’ worth of intensive research at grocery stores and at the library will be enough to present a new method of grocery store displays that will be put into use by spring. He knows it won’t lead to a raise or promotion immediately, but he hopes it will be enough to make a name for himself in the industry. His ambition also leads him to weigh the risk of his life over the risk of losing the work, and he takes the chance of falling to his death in order to save the paper.

The Necessity of Balance

Another important theme is the necessity of balance. Before Clare leaves, she tells Tom that he works too hard, and that does indeed seem to be the case - he wants to make a name for himself in the grocery industry. However, when Tom assesses the risk to his life versus the risk of getting the paper, he foolishly chooses to risk his life for a scrap of paper, suggesting that his priorities are skewed. He doesn’t have a good enough balance of enjoying life versus work to have perspective of which is more important. This is a trap many career-minded people can fall into, even if the situation isn’t as dire as Tom’s. Some will choose work over families, health, and enjoyment, to their own detriment.

Overcoming Fear

An additional important theme in the story is overcoming fear. While Tom was out on the ledge, he realizes just how high up he is from the ground, and he is paralyzed by fear. He almost passes out from the fear, which would have been fatal. Slowly, but surely, Tom is able to steel his mind against the overwhelming effects of the fear and make his way back to the window, despite his newfound clumsiness. When the window closes on him, he must assess the situation and come up with a new plan to get back into the apartment. Tom’s ability to overcome his fear becomes necessary to preserving his very life. This is a common theme found in many other works of literature as well.

Motifs & Symbols to Look For

The Yellow Sheet of Paper

An important symbol in “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket” is the yellow sheet of paper. For Tom, the paper represents his hopes and dreams, his ambitions, for his career. It represents weeks of hard work and intense thinking. It represents his future, a better future for him and Clare. When he realizes he still has the paper out on the ledge, however, he thinks about how if anyone found the paper in his pocket after he fell to his death, that it would mean nothing to anyone else. In the end, he realizes, it would not mean anything at all if he’s dead. It comes to represent his foolishness by the end of the story.

The Window

Another important symbol is the window. The window is the first part of Tom’s problem and the last obstacle for Tom to return to the safety of his apartment. He thinks about how Clare never is able to open the window because it always sticks, and now that same issue is keeping him from getting back in. As he rears back to punch out the window, fighting back his fear, he thinks of Clare, and screams her name. It is Clare that gives him that last bit of strength. The window also steals his work again as he leaves, but this time, Tom knows what is more important.

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Template and Class Instructions

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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard depicting important themes, symbols, and motifs in the story.

  1. Use the template provided by your teacher.
  2. Identify important themes, symbols, and motifs.
  3. Describe how the theme, symbol, or motif is important to the story.
  4. Illustrate each example with appropriate images, scenes, characters, and items.
  5. Save and submit your storyboard.
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