The Third Level Essay

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 21 October 2016

The Third Level

Charley, a young New York commuter wandering Grand Central station, accidently finds a portal that leads to 1894. Seizing the opportunity, Charley attempts to escape the rat race by buying a one-way ticket to his childhood town of Galesburg. Not having proper currency for the period, he is forced to postpone his plans to escape to the past. Both Charley’s wife and psychiatrist are worried he’s losing his grip on reality. Unable to rediscover the mysterious 3rd Level of Grand Central, Charley searches for proof of his experience. His proof eventually comes from a very unexpected source. This short story is one of the best examples of a concise, entertaining story about time travel as you are ever likely to find. At only SIX pages in length, Finney manages to not only capture the reader’s imagination, but too also provide a clear example of time travel that doesn’t confuse the reader.

What is the explanation of The third level by Jack Finney?
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Charley, the main character of the story finds a portal which leads to 1894. He tries to go to his hometown, Galesburg. But, as because he didn’t have any currency of 1894, he had to postpond his plans for the future. He exchanged his 3 hundred dollar bills for less than 2 hundred dollars of that of 1894’s currency. However, he never finds the third level again. When he tells this to his wife and his psychiatrist friend about this, both think that alike philately, this is also another way to take refuge from the realities of the world. However, the proof of the third level’s existence comes from the most unexpected source, his psychiatrist friend – Sam. Sam sends Charlie a letter telling him about the third level. When Sam heads over to 1894 through the third level, he sends a first day cover to his Grandfather’s address.

His Grandfather thinking that the first day cover was sent to him by himself, adds it to his collection of stamps and never opens it thinking that there is nothing in that envelope but blank paper. In the story, you will find a line ‘…he started my collection’. It means that Charlie’s Grandfather had a collection of stamps along with first day covers which was passed over to Charlie. When Charlie was looking at his collection, he found the letter which Sam had written to him and that letter gave solid proof of the third level’s existence. You might be confused by the last part of the story, but it’s really simple you see… the concept is something like something you do in the past which has direct effect on the present.

Charlie received the letter because Sam wrote it to him in 1894. Charlie didn’t exist in 1894 because in 1894, he wasn’t born. So, Sam had to think and write a letter to Charlie’s Grandfather who’s hobby was to collect stamps alike Charlie and Sam knew that if somehow he could make his Grandfather into adding the letter to his collection, then it would straightly go off to Charlie as Charlie’s collection was started by Charlie’s grandfather. So, I think it’s clear that Charlie got that letter only when Sam sent it to him. He didn’t receive it until Sam actually went to 1894 and wrote a letter to Charlie’s grandfather. It’s like this…something someone does in the past which has a direct ( in this case immediate) effect on the present you are living in.



Charley’s convinced there are three, not just two, levels at Grand Central Station. Charley’s psychiatrist, and his friends, thinks his delusion is a “waking-dream wish fulfillment,” and like his stamp collection, a temporary refuge from a world full of insecurity, fear, war, and worry. Charley explains that one evening while hurrying home, he decided to take the subway from Grand Central Station, and became lost. He eventually found himself on a strange third level with spittoons on the floor, oddly dressed people, and a locomotive from 1894.

Understanding he’d somehow gone back in time, Charley tries to buy tickets to Galesburg, IL, “a wonderful town … with big old frame houses, huge lawns and tremendous trees whose branches meet overhead and roof the streets.” Because the clerk won’t accept his 1950-style money, Charley leaves the station. During his lunch break the next day, Charley withdraws nearly all their savings and buys old-style currency. But he can never again find the entrance to the third level at Grand Central Station. Charley finds evidence the third level actually exists when he discovers a letter to him, dated July 18, 1894, from Galesburg, IL. It seems Charley’s psychiatrist was not as incredulous of the third level as he appeared.


The story third level clearly explores the science fiction genre of ‘time travel’; Jack Finney, the recipient of the world fantasy award interweaves fantasy with the reality in the most futuristic projection of time travel. Charley wishes to be transported to the third level, the world of 1894 which is supposedly much happier and quieter place to be. It is one of the most concise and entertaining story about time travel. The question whether the third level exist in real or only in charley’s mind can be inferred from Sam’s letter. The story also dwells on the theme of escapism, not only as a psychological refuge from the grim realities of the present day world but also as a desire to stay with the past or to keep the past alive in the complexities of the present. In the story charley not only expresses desire to escape but also prepares and tries very hard, a desire which is not contested by the wife either. Sam is also happily escaped with no plans to resort to his old profession along with scores of other people who cross the grand central everyday… to escape seems to be an all pervasive feeling.

Questions with the clues to the answers (well…really comprehensive clues)

(Q.) Why did the narrator meet a psychiatrist?
(2 Marks)
(Ans) The narrator met a psychiatrist because he was sure he had been on the third level of the Grand Central Station. He was also aware of the fact that only two levels of the station existed and the presidents of the rail road would even swear on a stack of timetables to prove this point. The need to meet a psychiatrist became urgent because he was in a dilemma.

(Q.) What, according to the psychiatrist, was Charley’s problem? (2 Marks)
(Ans) Charley told the psychiatrist about his belief in the existence of the third level at the Grand Central Station but was told that it was only a waking- dream wish fulfillment. The third level was the work of his mind, his desire and fantasy. The psychiatrist also added that Charley was unhappy because of the insecurity, fear, war, worry and that he just wanted to escape just like everyone else. And the third level offered him that escape just like his hobby of collecting the stamps which was interpreted as ‘ a temporary refuge from the reality’.

(Q.) What does Charley think of Grand Central?
(2 Marks)
(Ans) Charley thought that Grand Central was growing like a tree, pushing out new corridors and stair cases, like roots. According to him, the grand central was so big that it could lose his way very easily and each time discovered some new part of it suggesting its meandering ways. Charley thought that there was probably a long tunnel that nobody knew about, feeling its way under the city, on its way to Times Square, and maybe another to Central Park. He thought Grand Central had been an exit, a way of escape.

(Q.) What was the most shocking and disturbing discovery/ revelation made by Charley? (2 Marks)
(Ans) The most shocking and disturbing discovery Charley made was that the note had been sent by his friend Sam who had recently disappeared. Charley found out that he had exchanged a large sum of present time dollars and bought eight hundred dollars worth of old-style currency which he wanted to invest in the business in 1894 at Galesburg. He also admitted that Sam was his psychiatrist who could not go back to his ‘old business’ (psychiatry) in 1894. It was shocking because Sam had initially dismissed charley’s claims of third level as a ‘waking dream fulfillment’ whereas his letter in the end becomes the clenching evidence of the third level.

(Q.) What was Charley’s argument when the psychiatrist told him that the stamp collecting was a temporary refuge from reality? (2 Marks)
(Ans) Charley argued that his own grandfather lived at a time when things were pretty nice and peaceful and he was the one who had actually started his collection of stamps. Charley refused to believe that his stamp collection was ‘a temporary refuge’ from reality. He considered third level to be true. He further gave the example of the President Roosevelt who also shared his hobby and was far removed from any desire to escape.

Q.) What idea did Charley have about the tunnel and why didn’t he tell the psychiatrist about it? (2 Marks)
(Ans) Charley felt there was a tunnel that nobody knew about, which was feeling its way under the city at that moment too, on its way to Times Square, and maybe another to Central Park. Grand Central, he felt, was like an exit, a way of escape and perhaps that’s how he got into the tunnel. He didn’t want to tell the psychiatrist, for he would not have believed him and would have wanted to treat him it as it would further prove that charley was imagining the third level since he nurtured a desire to escape.

Q.) Describe briefly the scene at the station as seen by Charley. (2 Marks)
(Ans) Charley noticed that everyone at the station was dressed like eighteen-ninety something. He never saw so many beards, side burns, and fancy moustaches in his life. A woman he saw was wearing a dress with leg-of-mutton sleeves and a skirt to the top of her high-buttoned shoes. On the tracks, he saw a locomotive, a very small Currier and Ives locomotive with a funnel shaped stack. The open gaslight and brass spittoons at the third level clearly gave it a look of 1894.

(Q.) Why did Charley go to the newsboy?
How did charley confirm that he has been to the third level? (same answer) (2 Marks)
(Ans) Charley had walked up to the newsboy to confirm what he thought was true, i.e. the third level of the Grand Central as he saw existing in the year 1894. He saw the newsboy selling the newspaper, The World, which hadn’t been published for years and which carried the lead story about President Cleveland. Later, he found a copy of the same newspaper in the Public Library Files dated June 11, 1894.

(Q.) Describe Galesburg, as it existed in the year 1894?
(2 Marks)
(Ans) Galesburg was a wonderful town with big old frame houses, huge lawns, and tremendous trees whose branches met overhead and roofed over the streets. In 1894, summer evenings were twice as long, and people sat on their lawns, the men smoking. It was the peaceful and tranquil place without wars and worry.

(Q.) In which context did Charley say, “eggs were thirteen cents a dozen in 1894”? (2 Marks)
(Ans) Charley had got his three hundred dollars out of the bank and got them changed into old-style currency so that he could go back to the third level and buy the tickets to Galesburg. For his three hundred dollars he had got only two hundred dollars old-style currency but he didn’t mind that. The only consolation was that in the year 1894, the two hundred dollars would have more value, as things were much cheaper than they were now.

(Q.) What did Charley suspect when his friend Sam Weiner disappeared? (2 Marks)
(Ans) Despite Charley’s efforts to go to the third level, he was unable to find it again. He shared his experience with his wife, who got worried. He went back to his stamps. His friend Sam had disappeared and nobody knew where he was but Charley was certain that he had found the third level and gone there. Charley’s description of the place had fascinated him and he had gone there, in 1894.

(Q.) What was written on the paper that Charley found inside the envelope? (2 Marks)
(Ans) Charley read the note that said the fact that the third level existed, was true. The note signed by Sam also read that he had been at Galesburg for two weeks and was enjoying himself there. Sam had urged Charley and his wife Louisa to keep looking for the third level till they could find it and join him. It was worth the effort.

(Q.) What happened when Charley went to buy the tickets?
(2 Marks)
(Ans) The clerk at the ticket counter stared hard at Charley and also glanced
at his fancy hat bands. But he figured the fare. When Charley was about to pay the fare for two tickets, he told him that it wasn’t money and if Charley tried to cheat him, he wouldn’t get far. Charley went away from there as fast as he could.

(Q.) Do you think that the third level was a medium of escape for Charley? Why? (2 Marks)
(Ans) According to Charley’s psychiatrist Sam, it was just a waking dream wish fulfillment and provided escape from modern day fear, insecurity, worry, etc. On the other hand, the vivid description that Charley provides indicates that the place really existed and later Sam exchanging money, disappearing and sending a letter in the first day cover perhaps prove that it was not an escape but a reality.

(Q.) What do you infer from Sam’s letter to Charley?
(7 Marks)
(Ans) Charley, the main character of Jack Finney’s ‘The Third Level’ gave up hope of ever finding the third level again. He resumed his stamp collecting to pass his time. It was then that he noticed a first day cover which he had not seen before and should not have been there. It bore the stamp of July 18, 1894 and had been posted from Galesburg, Illinois. As Charley read the contents of the letter, he was shocked and surprised to read that it was Sam, his friend who had posted it to him.

Earlier he had only hoped that Charley was right about the third level but now he actually believed in it. He had found it and had been there for two weeks. He admired the place as it was peaceful, people were warm and friendly. He urged Charley and Louisa to continue their search for the place and not to give up.The letter brought out the difference between the two worlds –the peaceful one of the pre-world war era and the modern world full of stress, worry and insecurities. People led a life of fun, enjoyment and little pleasures meant a lot to them in 1894. The letter also corroborates charley’s belief in the third level.

(Q.) ‘The Third Level’ written by Jack Finney is a story that illustrates an intersection of time and space. Elaborate. (7 Marks)
(Ans) In ‘The Third Level’, Jack Finney treats his favourite subject ‘Time’ in a new dimension. The Third Level is a point where the past and the present meet.Charley, the protagonist loses his way. He finds himself in what he thinks is the third level of the Grand Central Station in New York. He realizes that something is different and discovers that he has somehow reached the year 1894.It is the period Finney would want to be in. The responses and happiness of the three characters in the story revolve around the third level.

Charley is excited and wants two tickets for Galesburg, a peaceful town in the pre-war period. Sam, Charley’s psychiatrist friend attributes it to his desire to escape from the stress of life. Later on, Sam drew all his life’s savings from the bank and exchanged it for 1894 currency. He was able to cross time and reach a quieter, more peaceful past where his services as a psychiatrist were not required. Louisa did not believe that one could cross over the time dimension till Charley received a letter from Sam. Jack Finney leaves the readers wondering what ‘The Third Level’ really is. Even though Charley is able to find proof and make the transition back and forth in time, Sam, his friend is already there and enjoying himself. The reader gets transported into the shadowy, eerie world of dreams, desires and reality.

Jack Finney, “The Third Level”
In the 1950s, people were scared. The possibility of the atom bomb was fresh in everyone’s mind. Kids had to do duck and cover drills at school. The Sputnik had been launched into the skies by the Russians.The Cold War was heating up. Demagogues were saying communists may be hiding in our own government. In this atmosphere, Jack Finney wrote a book about escape. In “The Third Level,” a collection of short stories, Finney writes about people who are upset with the world they live in, they seek some idyllic place in the country’s recent past. In the story “The Third Level,” it’s a mysterious level of Grand Central Station that leads to a town in Ohio in 1894; in “Second Chance” a restored car brings a man back to the 1920s; and in “Of Missing Persons” offers an escape into ‘romantic Verna’ a planet of paradise.

In most of the stories, Finney indulges in the pleasures of escape. Everyone wants out and many people find it. In a couple of stories, he views escape in a different way. In “I’m Scared” the collective wish to escape has fractured Time and strange things begin to happen. In the final story of the book, “Contents of a Dead Man’s Pocket,” Finney turns the concept of escape around. A man loses a piece of paper on a ledge high above a New York City street. Dedicated to his work, he goes out there, only to succumb to fear after the window of his apartment closes. From then on, he’s desperately trying to escape into his own life.

The stories do suffer a bit in that all the themes have been used time and again since then. The “The Twilight Zone” used some of these same ideas in a couple of episodes. Stephen King upped the tension a bit and rewrote “Contents of a Dead Man’s Pocket” as “The Ledge.” (By the way, in “Danse Macabre,” King talks a lot about Finney, including a comparison with “Twilight Zone” in which Finney comes out on top.) And time travel has become a cliche in so many stories. Nevertheless, it’s a charming book and well worth your time. I don’t think “The Third Level” is in print anymore, but the collection “About Time” includes most of his time travel stories. It’s a shame “Contents of a Dead Man’s Pocket” isn’t in print, however.

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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 21 October 2016

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