Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket by Jack Finney

Teacher Guide by Kristy Littlehale

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Contents of a Dead Man's Pocket Lesson Plans

Student Activities for Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket Include:

There are few stories that will actually cause students’ palms to begin to sweat, but if any reader has a fear of heights, this short story will do it. Jack Finney’s thriller examines the motivations of a young man named Tom, driven by ambition and success, to risk his life for a piece of paper. The narrative taps into the very root of the conflict of being able to find a healthy balance between living life and pursuing ambition. While ambition is important for all of us, sometimes it can cloud our judgment, as it clouds Tom Benecke’s judgment in the story. This story is a fair warning to those who might be tempted to take “follow your dreams” a little too literally.

Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

“Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket” Plot Diagram

Copy Assignment

A common use for Storyboard That is to help students create a plot diagram of the events from a story. Not only is this a great way to teach the parts of the plot, but it reinforces major events and help students develop greater understanding of literary structures.

Students can create a storyboard capturing the narrative arc in a work with a six-cell storyboard containing the major parts of the plot diagram. For each cell, have students create a scene that follows the story in sequence using: Exposition, Conflict, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution.

Example "Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket" Plot Diagram


Tom Benecke is staying home in his high-rise apartment in New York City while his wife, Clare, goes out to the movies without him. Tom is choosing to stay home and work on a very important project for his job. It’s hot in the apartment though, so he opens a window.


As Clare goes out the door, an air current from the hall picks up the papers on Tom’s desk, whisking a yellow paper with weeks’ worth of research scrawled on it out of the window. This research and idea could eventually bring big things for Tom in his company and in the grocery business. The paper is out on the ledge, and Tom has to decide whether or not to go out on the ledge to retrieve it.

Rising Action

Tom assesses the situation: the paper is against a projecting wall from the next apartment, caught in the corner between the two walls, about five yards away. The ledge is about the width of his shoe, and every fifth brick of the wall indents for good finger gripping. He decides it is an easy task and ventures out.


Tom slides easily along the wall, 11 stories above Lexington Avenue, until he reaches the corner. He straddles the ledges of the two walls, and scrapes his head against the wall as he stoops down to pick up the paper. However, as he bends down and grabs the paper, he sees the street below between his feet and suddenly is seized by panic. He jerks upward suddenly and almost loses his balance. He is then paralyzed by his fear, and unable to move.

Falling Action

Slowly, through the panic, Tom is able to shut his mind against the horrific pictures he sees in his mind of losing his balance and falling. He painstakingly shuffles along the ledge, sliding his body along the wall. He stumbles, begins to fall, and grasps onto the window, which closes on him. He tries to get the attention of the apartments across the street, but no one sees him. He finally manages to punch through the glass and pull himself back inside.


Once inside, Tom immediately takes the yellow paper out of his pocket and weighs it down with a pencil. He goes to the closet, takes out his coat and hat, and immediately goes to the door, presumably to go meet Clare. As he closes the door, he watches the current pick the paper up from under the pencil and whisk it out of the open window frame… again. Tom bursts into laughter and closes the door behind him.

(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Copy Assignment", change the description of the assignment in your Dashboard.)

Student Instructions

Create a visual plot diagram of “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket”.

  1. Separate the story into the Exposition, Conflict, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution.
  2. Create an image that represents an important moment or set of events for each of the story components.
  3. Write a description of each of the steps in the plot diagram.

(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)

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Tom Benecke Character Evolution in “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket”

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Tom Benecke’s priorities change significantly throughout the short story “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket”. Use the activity for Character Evolution with your students to help them keep track of how Tom evolves throughout the course of his ordeal.

Example Character Evolution for Tom Benecke




ExpositionDark-haired young man, tall, lean, pullover sweater. Works hard; wants to make a difference in his grocery industry. Tom is skipping the movies with his wife to stay home and work on an independent project. He kids that his work will someday earn him the title of “The Boy Wizard of Wholesale Groceries.”
Rising Action
Desperate; unable to abandon the sheet of paper Tom is unable to understand that he should abandon the sheet of paper. It has weeks’ worth of research on it for a new kind of grocery-store display. The time to present the idea is now for use in the spring displays. To replicate the work, it would take him two whole months.
ClimaxCalm, cool, and collected; methodical, until he stoops down to grab the paper; then he becomes panicked, frozen, and clumsy Tom initially goes out to retrieve the paper carefully, but without much concern. As Tom bends down to retrieve the paper, the true danger of his situation becomes clear as he views the street 11 stories below him.
Falling ActionFrightened; delirious; realistic Tom reaches the window and it slams shut on him as he grasps it to keep from falling. He thinks that it would be funny if he were to wait out on the ledge and Clare came home to find him there, and he almost laughs out loud. He looks at his watch, however, and realizes she’s only been gone eight minutes and will probably be gone four hours. He knows he needs to get inside. He screams “Clare!” and punches in the window.
ResolutionElated; energized; prioritized As soon as Tom is back in the apartment, he goes straight to the closet to get his coat and join Clare. He gives no more thought to working that night; he is grateful to be alive. As he watches the paper fly back out the window, he laughs and closes the door; he finally realizes that work is not more important than his life.

(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Copy Assignment", change the description of the assignment in your Dashboard.)

Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that shows the evolution of Tom Benecke throughout the course of "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket".

  1. Use the Character Evolution Template to get started.
  2. Break the story down into Exposition, Conflict/Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution. What traits does Tom have?
  3. Illustrate one or more of the traits for each stage of the story.
  4. Identify major events in each part of the story that affected Tom.

(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)

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

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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Vocabulary Lesson Plan for “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket”

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Another great way to engage your students is through the creation of storyboards that use vocabulary from “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket”. Here is a list of a few vocabulary words commonly taught with the story, and an example of a visual vocabulary board.

“Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket” Vocabulary

  • flimsy
  • convoluted
  • deftness
  • projection
  • interminable
  • rebounded
  • unimpeded
  • imperceptibly

(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Copy Assignment", change the description of the assignment in your Dashboard.)

Student Instructions

Demonstrate your understanding of the vocabulary words in “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket” by creating visualizations.

  1. Choose three vocabulary words from the story and type them in the title boxes.
  2. Find the definition in a print or online dictionary.
  3. Write a sentence that uses the vocabulary word.
  4. Illustrate the meaning of the word in the cell using a combination of scenes, characters, and items.
    • Alternatively, use Photos for Class to show the meaning of the words with the search bar.
  5. Save and submit your storyboard.

(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)

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Before reading, have students research a few of the more common phobias: arachnophobia (spiders), agoraphobia (crowds), mysophobia (germs), and acrophobia (heights).

The story taps into one of these most basic phobias: the fear of heights. Have students research some of the symptoms of this phobia (and other phobias), including:

Creating a Good Balance: Ambition and Clouded Judgment

Have students list and brainstorm common dreams and goals they and others have throughout their lives. In addition, have them brainstorm some dangers of “too much ambition”. These could include:

Have students come up with real-life examples or hypothetical scenarios where too much ambition could seriously interfere with the work-life balance.

Essential Questions For “Contents of the Dead Man’s Pocket”

  1. Why is having ambition important?
  2. When can ambition turn into a dangerous thing for a person?
  3. Why is it important to maintain a healthy balance between work and having fun?
  4. What are some reasons why people risk their lives? What are “good” reasons and what are “bad” reasons to risk one’s life?

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•   (English) Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket   •   (Español) Contenido del Bolsillo del Hombre Muerto   •   (Français) Contenu de la Poche de L'homme Mort   •   (Deutsch) Inhalt der Tasche des Toten Mannes   •   (Italiana) Contenuto del Pocket Dell'Uomo Morto   •   (Nederlands) Inhoud van de Dead Man's Pocket   •   (Português) Conteúdo do Bolso do Homem Morto   •   (עברית) תכולת הכיסים של האיש מת   •   (العَرَبِيَّة) محتويات جيب الرجل الميت   •   (हिन्दी) मृत आदमी की जेब की सामग्री   •   (ру́сский язы́к) Содержание Кармана Мертвеца   •   (Dansk) Indholdet af Død Mands Pocket   •   (Svenska) Innehållet i en död Mans Pocket   •   (Suomi) Sisältö Kuolleiden Miehen Taskut   •   (Norsk) Innholdet i Dead Man Pocket   •   (Türkçe) Ölü Adamın Cep İçeriği   •   (Polski) Zawartość Kieszonki Martwego   •   (Româna) Conținutul Pocket Mortului   •   (Ceština) Obsah Mrtvému ​​kapsy   •   (Slovenský) Obsah Kapsy Mŕtveho Muža   •   (Magyar) Tartalma a Holtak Pocket   •   (Hrvatski) Sadržaj Mrtvačkog Džepa   •   (български) Съдържание на Джоба на Мъртвеца   •   (Lietuvos) Turinys Numirėlio Pocket   •   (Slovenščina) Vsebina Pocket The Dead Man   •   (Latvijas) Saturs Miroņa Pocket   •   (eesti) Sisu of the Dead Man Pocket