The 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 1950s. 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 in New York City. 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. He observes that people wear wearing derby hats and gold watches, which they kept in their vest pockets. He also sees a Currier & Ives locomotive.
Realising that 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) 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 to 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 July 18, 1894. It seemed that Sam wasn’t as incredulous of the Third Level as he had appeared to be.
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 with a family. Peace and serenity happen to be the two things he wants rather desperately. His decision to stay back in the year 1894 reiterates his desire to live a peaceful and joyous life with his wife.
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 induced state, 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.
What stands out in the entire story is the extent of ease with which Jack Finney was 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 in the past because 1894 was much more peaceful, secure, serene. The world in 1894 hadn’t seen the repercussions of war. The insecurities that came with war, terror, and disease had gotten the better of common folks like Charlie who wanted a transient relief from the harsh realities of life.
All in all, The Third Level brings us to the 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 the past and future are real illusions. They exist in the present, which is all there is.