The Third Level by Jack Finney was published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1952 and deals with themes of escapism and the desire for peace. The main character deludes himself into believing he has found a secret way to travel into the past and wants to go back to 1894 to live a life of safety and serenity. He spends his time stuck in the hallucinations of his own mind and creates a fake reality that he cannot escape.
The Third Level | Summary
Charley, the protagonist, is convinced that he had found a new level in Grand Central Station. He is aware of how ridiculous this sounds, but as he has physically been to the third level of this station that, in reality, has only two, he maintains his story as truth. His psychiatrist called this a “waking dream wish fulfilment”, and this worries and angers his wife. His friends agreed with this diagnosis, saying that the speaker’s affinity for stamp collection was also a feeble attempt at a temporary escape. The speaker disagreed, deflecting this thought with the assertion that his stamp collection was started by his grandfather at a time that no escape was needed, so calling it an escape now is meaningless. This stamp collection was nothing out of the ordinary, as it was a hobby of President Roosevelt as well.
One summer night, Charley decided to save time by taking the subway instead of the bus. He was quite used to the labyrinthine nature of Grand Central Station and had found new doors and tunnels regularly. That night, he had no interest in exploring, and his main aim was to just get home to his wife. However, he came across a tunnel that headed in a weird direction, and decided to follow it. This is how he found the third level of Grand Central Station. This level was set in the past, a visible representation of the year 1894. The people were dressed in old-timey clothes, there were spittoons on the floor, and he caught sight of a small locomotive that did not belong in the present day.
He confirmed his assumptions by looking at the newspaper and when he was sure, he decided to buy train tickets that would take him far away. He wanted to move with his wife to Galesburg, Illinois. This place would be free of worry, stress, and insecurity, and the wars wouldn’t be anywhere in the near future. However, he could not buy the tickets, as he didn’t have the older style of currency. He left hastily, and the next day, he withdrew almost all his savings, converted them to the proper currency, and began searching for the third level again. He couldn’t find that passageway as much as he tried and soon gave up.
Now, however, he and his wife look for that tunnel every day. His friend Sam had found the passage to the third level and had moved to Galesburg. This revelation came about when Charley found an old stamp in his stamp collection which hadn’t been there before. Sam had addressed a letter to Charley’s grandfather, and the letter advised Charley to keep looking till he finds the third level again. Charley doesn’t give up on his search and was happy that his friend had found a way to a new life. He then reveals that the friend who moved to the year 1894 was actually Sam, his psychiatrist.
The Third Level | Analysis
This short story deals with themes of escapism, detachment from reality, and strong hallucination. It is a manifestation of a desire for peace and stability in life, and to escape from the stress and insecurity of life following the two World Wars. The protagonist is incapable of living in the present, as he is stuck in his desire to leave.
Charley had no doubts about the truth in his assertion that Grand Central Station had a third level. He was so deeply entrenched in his own delusional world that he created an entire series of events that led to him finding the Third Level. On top of that, he built imaginary conversations and a fully rounded-out train station that was era-appropriate. This whole imaginary world shows how detached he is from reality, and how he yearns for a different life.
The apparent third level of Grand Central Station is a representation of Charley’s desire to escape. This level gives him the ability to go back in time, to a place that is peaceful, and calm. He thinks of the past as a time that had no stress, and this is reinforced by his knowledge of his grandfather’s life. He says “my grandfather didn’t need any refuge from reality; things were pretty nice and peaceful in his day, from all I hear”. He is convinced that to escape from reality, it would be best to go into the past.
It is clear that the consequences of the two World Wars weigh on him in his life. He thinks about 1894 and wants to go to an era where the World Wars are 20-40 years in the future. Galesburg, Illinois in 1894 is the safe space he has chosen, a time without fear and insecurity. He yearns for a life of relaxation and so he is stuck inside his own mind, unable to think about anything else. His friends and family do not believe him, but this makes no difference to him as he has built up his own fake world that seems like reality. This story details the life that a normal person is forced to live because of the Wars. These people face the harsh reality of an unbearable life, and the protagonist is the representation of the overarching desire to take refuge from the world in order to feel some comfort and security.
The stamps and stamp collecting play an important role in this story, as this aspect truly shows how delusional the protagonist is. His hobby of stamp collecting was introduced as a “refuge from reality”, and this was the truth, though he didn’t believe it. He was obsessed with the past, in a way, and these stamps helped him maintain that attachment. And, the cherry on top is that his detachment from reality was so strong that he created an entirely new stamp and letter purely to support his desires. This stamp collection is the representation of his desire to escape the unpleasantness of his life, and it ended up being the vehicle that confirmed his beliefs.
The irony of this story is that the one who managed to escape is not Charley, but the psychiatrist who called his belief a “waking dream wish fulfillment.” This friend, Sam, was convinced that the existence of the third level was purely a psychological issue and entirely wishful thinking. Charley unconsciously made the psychiatrist find the third level in his ‘alternate reality’, and this shows how deep his desire for escape is. He created a circumstance wherein the disbelieving became the one to lead the way. Still, it was clear that no third level was ever found because Sam would have provided express instructions in his letter. The vague “Keep looking till you find the third level!” discloses that it is still just wishful thinking. Someone who had really found the way would give directions for others, as Charley did in his extensive description of the way to the third level in this story.
The Third Level | About the Author
Jack Finney was born on 2 October 1911, in Wisconsin.
He was an American author who was best known for his fiction and thrillers. Many of his stories were based on time travel, and he was widely acclaimed for his ability to build vivid images with his words. His first book “Against The House” was published in 1954, but his greatest success came with the novel “Time and Again”. This book revolved around time travel and is the “greatest time-travel story”, according to Stephen King. Additionally, several of Finney’s books have been made into movies, though he is more widely known as a short-story writer.
Some notable works of his are “Body Snatchers”, “Breakfast in Bed”, and “Assault on a Queen”
He died on 14 November 1995, in California.