Class 12 English Vistas

The Third Level

Jack Finney


This is a puzzling story, because some people may think it as time travel, while some others may think it as a way to escape the harsh realities of life. Some of you may also think this story as an episode of hallucination.

The main protagonist is Charley, a man in his early thirties who is living the life of a typical urban man who is all occupied with his job and family. The story is set in the backdrop of the Grand Central Station of New York which is the hub of transit to and from all the suburbs of New York. Charley often takes a metro rail from the Grand Central to reach his home. He prefers the tube train because it is faster than a bus.

As generally happens in most of the big cities, the Grand Central Station is constantly undergoing massive changes because of new constructions coming up to cater to the needs of a growing population. Due to this, the Station has become a maze of tunnels and staircases which is enough to confuse even a seasoned daily commuter. Charley often loses his way while negotiating through tunnels and staircases of the Grand Central.

There are two levels at the Grand Central Station but Charley thinks otherwise. Contrary to the opinions of experts and mere mortals, Charley thinks that there is an extra level, i.e. The Third Level. When his psychiatrist friend comes to know about it, he diagnoses that Charley is suffering from some insecurities and imagining about the Third Level is an attempt to escape the realities and insecurities of life. The psychiatrist even suggests that Charley’s hobby of philately is also a way to escape those insecurities. But Charley contests his friend’s diagnosis by telling that even Charley’s grandfather pursued the hobby of philately, and there was no reason for insecurity during hassle free times of his grandfather.

One day, while negotiating through the alleys of the Grand Central, Charley loses his way and enters into the Third Level. Everything at the Third Level appears to be from a bygone era, the ambience, rail engine, booking counter, costumes of commuters, and even the newspaper that is being sold at the platform. When Charley goes to the ticket counter, the booking clerk refuses to give him ticket because the currency notes carried by Charley are apparently illegal tender in the era when the Third Level really existed. After that Charley runs away from there as he does not want to be in jail.

After that, Charley spends three hundred dollars to buy two hundred dollars in the currency of the bygone era, as he plans to go there once again. But no matter how hard he tries, he is unable to find the Third Level in his next endeavours.

After that, his wife forbids him to even think about the non-existent Third Level. One day, when Charley is going through his collection of postage stamps, he finds an envelope which was sent to his grandfather’s address in 1894. After opening the envelope he finds a letter which was written by Sam in 1894 and it was for Charley. This is strange because Sam is the name of his psychiatrist friend. The letter reveals that Sam was trying to find the Third Level. As Sam had been absconding, Charley guessed that Sam must have reached the Third Level and must have escaped to his favourite destination of a bygone era.

Reading With Insight

Question 1: Do you think that the third level was a medium of escape for Charley? Why?

Answer: There can be different perspectives through which we can see this instance. We know that the modern life is full of stress and insecurities, and most of the people need some medium to escape the harsh realities of life. So, it can be said that the third level was a medium of escape for Charley. Third Level is non-existent for sure because Charley could not find it in his next attempts. We can also say that Charley may be hallucinating about the Third Level.

Question 2: What do you infer from Sam’s letter to Charley?

Answer: Sam’s letter to Charley reveals Sam’s reaction to the idea of the existence of the Third Level. Initially, he was sceptic and blamed Charley’s insecurities for this. But gradually, Sam begins to believe in the idea of existence of the Third Level. It appears that even Sam is not happy with his professional and personal life. He also needs some muse to escape various insecurities he may be suffering from.

Question 3: ‘The modern world is full of insecurity, fear, war, worry and stress.’ What are the ways in which we attempt to overcome them?

Answer: Different people have different ways to overcome insecurity, fear, war, worry and stress. Some people pursue some hobbies to engross themselves in. Some people watch movies and some others take a break to travel to their favourite tourist spots. There are some people who take the extreme step of resorting to alcohol or drug abuse. There can be many more ways to beat the stress, like yoga, breathing exercises, seeking solace in some spiritual guru, praying to the God, etc.

Question 4: Do you see an intersection of time and space in the story?

Answer: In fact, the central theme of the story is about intersection of time and space. Different levels of the Grand Central tell about different spaces. The spectacle at the Third Level, as seen by Charley, tells about the time of a bygone era.

Question 5: Apparent illogicality sometimes turns out to be a futuristic projection? Discuss.

Answer: This is true that apparent illogicality sometimes turns out to be a futuristic projection. In fact, there are many modern day technologies which looked illogical in the past. Here are some examples.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it took more than six months to travel from Europe to India. After the discovery of steam engine, the travel time reduced significantly. Now-a-days, we reach from New Delhi to London in less than ten hours, thanks to the jet engines.

Most of you must be planning to write some of the numerous competitive examinations to get a seat for your dreamed professional course. About two decades ago, applying for such exams was a tedious and time consuming task. Students from small towns often had to travel long distances to write the paper at the exam centre because there used to be very few such centres. Compare this to what happens these days. You don’t need to venture out of your home because you get the facility to apply online, i.e. through internet. Moreover, because of computer based tests, the number of centres has increased manifold and exam centres are in almost all the cities and towns of the country. All of this was beyond imagination in the not so distant past.

Question 6: Philately helps keep the past alive. Discuss other ways in which this is done. What do you think of the human tendency to constantly move between the past, the present and the future?

Answer: It is said that we need to learn from history. It can also be said that we are a product of our history. Our past has deep influence on the way we live our present lives. We also constantly think about our future, in terms of our goals, planning and certain fears. So, it is a human tendency to constantly move between the past, the present and the future.

Apart from philately, there are numerous other ways to keep the past alive. Some people love to go to visit historic monuments and museums to learn about the past. Some people watch movies and listen to songs of the bygone era. Most of the people still love to see various sequels of the movie Jurassic Park and Ice Age to relive the past.

Question 7: You have read ‘Adventure’ by Jayant Narlikar in Hornbill Class XI. Compare the interweaving of fantasy and reality in the two stories.

Answer: Both the stories show great examples of interweaving of fantasy and reality. In The Third Level, the main protagonist is transcended to the non-existent level of the Grand Central which is apparently in the distant past. In Adventure, Gangadhar Pant reaches the Bombay of the colonial era. The Third Level is about escape from realities and insecurities. The Adventure is about an alternative perspective of history which is entirely different than the widely acknowledged history as we know. In the first story, the main protagonist is probably showing certain symptoms of psychiatric problems. In the second story, the protagonist happen to be in time travel mode because he is hit on head during an accident and may have been lying unconscious during the entire period.