The Third Level Summary
This is a summary of the short story ‘The Third Level’, from the Class 12 English Vistas textbook. ‘The Third Level’, by Jack Finney, is a short story about modern-day problems and how a common man tends to escape the harsh realities through various means.
The story starts with Charley stating that even though everyone who knows the New York Central railroad will swear that there are only two levels, he believes there is a third level because he has been there. He retells the entire experience to a psychiatrist, who tells him that the third level was a walking-talking dream wish fulfilment. He says that Charley was unhappy and thus invented the third level to escape the insecurity, fear, war, worry and misery of the real world. Charley’s other friends agreed with this theory and even pointed at Charley’s grandfather’s stamp collection which he maintained, calling it a temporary refuge from reality.
One night, Charley had worked late and was in a hurry to go home. He decided to take the subway from Grand Central since it was faster than the bus. He turned into the Grand Central and went down the stairs to the first level. He got lost after going down to the second level. The corridor he found himself in was angled to the left and had a downward slant – all of which struck Charley as wrong – but he kept walking nonetheless. He did not see anyone else until he heard a hollow roar ahead. The tunnel turned left and he went down a short flight of stairs, to find himself on the third level of the station.
The third level was smaller, there were fewer ticket windows and train gates, and the information booth in the centre was wooden and looked old. Charley described the man in the booth as wearing a green eyeshade and long black sleeve protectors. He also noticed that there were open-flame gas lights at the third level. He saw a man from across the station, wearing a derby hat, a black four-button suit with tiny lapels and had a handlebar moustache as well as a pocket watch. Then Charley noticed that everyone in the station was dressed like it was the 1890s.
Charley noticed that the locomotive was a small Currier & Ives locomotive. He then walked over to the newsboy and saw that the newspaper was ‘The World’ – a newspaper that hadn’t been published for years. He noted the headline and mentioned checking the Public Library later, to find that that particular edition of ‘The World’ had the date June 11, 1894.
He tried to buy two tickets to Galesburg, Illinois, for himself and his wife. Charley felt that Galesburg is a wonderful town. Moreover, life in Galesburg in 1894 would be peaceful and quiet, with the First World War years ahead in the future, and no war, turmoil or stress. However, the clerk rejects his money since old cash was required to buy the tickets. So Charley decided to come back to the third level the next day, with converted currency. He knew his savings would work for him well since everything would be cheaper in Galesburg.
However, he could not find the corridor that led him to the third level again. When his wife Louisa came to know about this, she got worried and asked him to not look for the third level again. Additionally, at the same time, his friend Sam disappeared, and Charley and Louisa started looking for him on weekends. Sam was the one who knew about the third level and Galesburg.
One day, while going through his stamp collection, Charley found a first-day cover, one that shouldn’t have been there. The letter had been mailed to his grandfather’s house in Galesburg and was dated July 18, 1894. Charley opened the envelope to find it astonishingly addressed to him. The letter was from Sam, telling him that he had reached Galesburg and that he had been right about the third level all along. Sam explained how wonderful life was in Galesburg and invited Charley and Louisa there. Charley inquired in the stamp and coin shop he visited and found out that Sam had bought old currency money worth eight hundred dollars, which was an amount more than enough for Sam to establish a feed and grain business. Finally, it is revealed that Charley’s psychiatrist was Sam himself.
The story combines fiction and reality in the vision of a highly futuristic time travel narrative. Despite his young age, Charley was worried about living in this war-torn world. He wished to live in a tranquil and idyllic location. Charley aspired to be moved to the third level, to the world of 1894, which is said to be a much nicer and quieter place. Sam’s letter raises the question of whether the third level exists in reality or merely in Charlie’s head. The story also explores the issue of escapism, not just as a psychological escape from the harsh realities of today’s world, but also as a wish to remain with the past or to keep the past alive in the complications of the present.