Revisiting ‘The Third Level’ by Jack Finney

Past is a good place to visit, but certainly not a good place to stay. The Third Level by Jack Finney is an engrossing story set in the 1950’s. The story is studded with numerous undertones of irony. It takes you back in time.  It was a world when people hadn’t seen two of the bloodiest wars in the history of mankind. The story brings to light the fact that figments of someone’s imagination can be used for shying away from reality, which in all fairness, is harsh enough. Let us take a closer look at the story.


The Third Level tells the story of a 31-year-old guy named Charlie. (Not Charlie Sheen). One fine evening, while rushing home, he decides to take the subway from the Grand Central Station. He ends up finding himself on the Third Level of the Grand Central Station (There were only two levels). There Charlie observes spittoons lying on the floor. People wearing derby hats and having gold watches which they keep in their vest pockets. Charlie witnesses a Currier & Ives locomotive.

Understanding he’s gone back in time, Charlie tries to buy tickets to Galesburg. During the lunch hour, the next afternoon, Charlie withdraws all his savings (Nearly 500 US Dollars) in order to buy old style currency notes. Charlie narrates this incident to Sam, his friend who works as a psychiatrist. Sam concludes that the Third Level is nothing, but a mere figment of Charlie’s imagination. The miseries which the modern world, full of war, worry and terror, had on offer made Charlie hallucinate about the existence of the Third Level.

Charlie succeeds in finding an evidence related to the Third Level’s existence. He discovers a letter addressed to him by his psychiatrist friend Sam. The letter was dated 18th July, 1894. It seemed that Sam wasn’t as incredulous of the third level as he appeared to be.

Character Sketch of the protagonist:

Charlie’s a 31-year-old guy. He wore a Tan Gabardine suit (I remember Roger Moore wearing Tan Gabardine suits when he portrayed James Bond on-screen). He’s an ordinary guy running a family. Peace and serenity happen to be the two things he wants rather desperately. His decision to stay back there in the year 1894 reiterates his desire to live a peaceful and a Joyous life with his wife.

The Verdict

The story clearly explores the concept of time travel. Jack Finney explores the mentality of a common man. He succeeds in exposing the vulnerable side of a common man. A myriad of problems conspired to corrupt Charlie’s mind. It further robbed him of his senses, and in his panic, he hallucinated about the third level at the Grand Central Station. Even though it was hard for Charlie to believe his eyes, he decided to stay there, in the year 1894.

The feature that stands out in the entire story is the extent of ease with which Jack Finney has been able to bring out a common man’s craving for peace and security. Like any common man, Charlie too appreciated the so called ‘pleasures’ of everyday life and the security of the familiar. He wanted to stay there because 1894 was much more peaceful, secure, serene. The world hadn’t seen the repercussions of war. War, terror, disease, insecurity had got the better of common people like Charlie who wanted a transient relief from the harsh realities of life.

All in all, The Third Level brings us to a conclusion that people find it hard to make peace with unpleasant things they come across in life. The story further makes the reader realize that past and future are real illusions. They exist in the present, which is what there is and all there is.




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