The Third Level


The Third Level

By Jack Finney

The Third Level Introduction

The harsh realities of war are depicted in Jack Finney's novel The Third Level. War has irreversible consequences, leaving people in an uncertain state. It's also about modern issues and how the average person tries to avoid reality through various means. In this storey, a man named Charley has a hallucination and ascends to the third level of Grand Central Station, which has only two levels.

The Third Level Summary

The plot revolves around Charley, a 31-year-old man who had an unusual experience. He arrived at the third level of the Grand Central Station (which does not exist) one day after work via the Subway. He recalls the entire experience with his psychiatrist friend Sam. Charley believed he had travelled through time and arrived somewhere in the 1890s, before the world saw two of its bloodiest wars. As soon as he realised what time it was, he decided to buy two plane tickets to Galesburg, Illinois, one for himself and one for his wife. Unfortunately, the currency in use at the time was different.

As a result, the following day, he withdrew all of his savings and had them converted, even if it meant incurring losses. He went in search of the third level, but he couldn't find it. It worried his wife and the psychiatrist Sam, who told him that he is hallucinating in order to escape reality and the miseries of modern life. Charley thus resorts to his stamp collection to distract himself when he unexpectedly finds a letter from his friend Sam, who had recently gone missing. Sam wrote that he had always wanted to believe in the concept of third level, and now that he has found it, he encourages Charley and Louisa to never give up their search.

The Third Level Lesson Explanation

THE presidents of the New York Central and the New York, New Haven and Hartford railroads will swear on a stack of timetables that there are only two. But I say there are three, because I’ve been on the third level of the Grand Central Station. Yes, I’ve taken the obvious step: I talked to a psychiatrist friend of mine, among others. I told him about the third level at Grand Central Station, and he said it was a waking dream wish fulfillment. He said I was unhappy. That made my wife kind of mad, but he explained that he meant the modern world is full of insecurity, fear, war, worry and all the rest of it, and that I just want to escape. Well, who doesn’t? Everybody I know wants to escape, but they don’t wander down into any third level at Grand Central Station.

  • Stack- a pile of objects, typically one that is neatly arranged
  • Timetables- a schedule showing the departure and arrival times of trains, buses or aircraft
  • Waking dream- an involuntary dream occuring while a person is awake
  • Wander- walk; roam

The narrative begins with the mention of a third level at Grand Central Station (which only has two levels in real). Even the Presidents of the New York Central and the New York, New Haven, and Hartford railroads would express great confidence in the existence of only two levels, but the protagonist has been to the third level. Charley, the protagonist, discussed the situation with his psychiatrist friend. He explained that Charley was having a waking dream wish fulfilment, also known as a hallucination. Charley was unhappy, according to the psychiatrist (the fact her wife did not like). After further explanation, it became clear that the burden of all modern problems is pushing him to experience the apparent perception of something not present. He has a tendency to run away from reality. Charley agreed with his psychiatrist friend, but he still thought going to the third level of Grand Central Station was strange.

But that’s the reason, he said, and my friends all agreed. Everything points to it, they claimed. My stamp collecting, for example; that’s a temporary refuge from reality. Well, maybe, but my grandfather didn’t need any refuge from reality; things were pretty nice and peaceful in his day, from all I hear, and he started my collection. It’s a nice collection too, blocks of four of practically every U.S. issue, first-day covers, and so on. President Roosevelt collected stamps too, you know.

  • Refuge- the state of being safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger, or difficulty

Charley begins to believe that he has been going through all of this to escape the harsh realities of modern life. It was also agreed upon by his friends. Even his stamp collecting serves as a form of asylum for him in order to feel safe. On the other hand, he begins to believe otherwise. His grandfather began collecting stamps when there were no consequences of war and there was peace, harmony, and security. His grandfather could not have been insecure. Furthermore, the collection was incredible, with blocks of four of nearly every US issue. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a stamp collector.

Anyway, here’s what happened at Grand Central. One night last summer I worked late at the office. I was in a hurry to get uptown to my apartment, so I decided to take the subway from Grand Central because it’s faster than the bus.

He begins by explaining what happened, beginning with his decision to take the Subway to his apartment instead of the usual bus after a late-night shift. In order to save time, he did this.

Now, I don’t know why this should have happened to me. I’m just an ordinary guy named Charley, thirty-one years old, and I was wearing a tan gabardine suit and a straw hat with a fancy band; I passed a dozen men who looked just like me. And I wasn’t trying to escape from anything; I just wanted to get home to Louisa, my wife.

  • Gabardine- a smooth, durable, twill-woven worsted or cotton cloth

He describes himself as a normal 31-year-old man dressed in a tan gabardine suit and a straw hat with a fancy band. It was so common that he could see other men like him at the station. He describes how he was in his normal state of mind, not wanting to flee anywhere. At that hour, all he wanted was to be with his wife Louisa. He's still confused as to why this happened to him.

I turned into Grand Central from Vanderbilt Avenue, and went down the steps to the first level, where you take trains like the Twentieth Century. Then I walked down another flight to the second level, where the suburban trains leave from, ducked into an arched doorway heading for the subway and got lost. That’s easy to do. I’ve been in and out of Grand Central hundreds of times, but I’m always bumping into new doorways and stairs and corridors. Once I got into a tunnel about a mile long and came out in the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel. Another time I came up in an office building on Forty-sixth Street, three blocks away.

  • Suburban- residential
  • Ducked- lower the head or body quickly
  • Arched- curved
  • Bumping- knock or run into something

Charley gets to the part of the storey where he enters Grand Central from Vanderbilt Avenue and takes the stairs to the first level, where trains like the Twentieth Century are boarded. Then he descended another floor to the second level, where the suburban trains depart. He then entered an arched doorway and became disoriented. It was nothing out of the ordinary for him because even if he had visited the station a thousand times, he would occasionally come across new corridors and doorways. He once entered the wrong lobby and ended up at the Roosevelt Hotel, and another time he ended up in an office building three blocks away.

Sometimes I think Grand Central is growing like a tree, pushing out new corridors and staircases like roots. There’s probably a long tunnel that nobody knows about feeling its way under the city right now, on its way to Times Square, and maybe another to Central Park. And maybe because for so many people through the years Grand Central has been an exit, a way of escape maybe that’s how the tunnel I got into… But I never told my psychiatrist friend about that idea.

He was mystified that Grand Central was growing at such a rapid pace, much like a tree and its roots. He thinks it's no big deal that they have a secret tunnel under the city leading to Times Square or perhaps Central Park. He believes it is because Grand Central is a point of departure for a large number of people, and he has also managed to escape reality for the same reason. Despite the fact that he never told his psychiatrist about it.

The corridor I was in began angling left and slanting downward and I thought that was wrong, but I kept on walking. All I could hear was the empty sound of my own footsteps and I didn’t pass a soul. Then I heard that sort of hollow roar ahead that means open space and people talking. The tunnel turned sharp left; I went down a short flight of stairs and came out on the third level at Grand Central Station. For just a moment I thought I was back on the second level, but I saw the room was smaller, there were fewer ticket windows and train gates, and the information booth in the centre was wood and old looking. And the man in the booth wore a green eyeshade and long black sleeve protectors. The lights were dim and sort of flickering. Then I saw why; they were open-flame gaslights.

The unusual corridor he had entered began angling left and slanting downward, which he found strange, but he continued walking. There was no one else around except him, and the sound of his feet echoed. He finally heard people talking from a distance, so he turned left and walked down the stairs again, only to reach the Grand Central's third level. He thought he'd made it back to the second level, but the room was smaller, there were fewer ticket windows and train gates, and the information booth in the centre was made of wood and looked old. The man in the booth was also unusual, and the station was dimly lit due to open-flame gaslights.

There were brass spittoons on the floor, and across the station a glint of light caught my eye; a man was pulling a gold watch from his vest pocket. He snapped open the cover, glanced at his watch and frowned. He wore a derby hat, a black four-button suit with tiny lapels, and he had a big, black, handlebar mustache. Then I looked around and saw that everyone in the station was dressed like eighteen-ninety-something; I never saw so many beards, sideburns and fancy mustaches in my life. A woman walked in through the train gate; she wore a dress with leg-of-mutton sleeves and skirts to the top of her high-buttoned shoes. Back of her, out on the tracks, I caught a glimpse of a locomotive, a very small Currier & Ives locomotive with a funnel-shaped stack. And then I knew.

  • Spittoons- a metal or earthenware pot typically having a funnel-shaped top, used for spitting into
  • Vest- a garment worn on the upper part of the body
  • Snapped- break suddenly and completely
  • Locomotive- a powered railway vehicle used for pulling trains

Charley could see brass spittoons everywhere when a flash of light caught his attention and he saw a man removing his gold watch from his vest. He was dressed in an antique style. He was shocked when he noticed that everyone was dressed as if they were from the nineteenth century. It was essentially the time before bloody wars. There were so many beards and fancy moustaches all around, which the protagonist had never seen before. He even saw a very small Currier & Ives locomotive, which confirmed his time period.

To make sure, I walked over to a newsboy and glanced at the stack of papers at his feet. It was The World, and The World hasn’t been published for years. The lead story said something about President Cleveland. I’ve found that front page since, in the Public Library files, and it was printed June 11, 1894.

He went over to the newspaper boy who was selling The World, a newspaper that had been discontinued years ago, to confirm his suspicions. There were some headlines about President Cleveland at the time. On the front page, the date was also June 11, 1894. He was now sure.

I turned toward the ticket windows knowing that here-on the third level at Grand Central, I could buy tickets that would take Louisa and me anywhere in the United States we wanted to go. In the year 1894. And I wanted two tickets to Galesburg, Illinois. Have you ever been there? It’s a wonderful town still, with big old frame houses, huge lawns, and tremendous trees whose branches meet overhead and roof the streets. And in 1894, summer evenings were twice as long, and people sat out on their lawns, the men smoking cigars and talking quietly, the women waving palm-leaf fans, with the fire-flies all around, in a peaceful world. To be back there with the First World War still twenty years off, and World War II over forty years in the future… I wanted two tickets for that.

He immediately went to the ticket counter to purchase tickets for him and his wife to Galesburg, Illinois. It was a lovely town with lots of greenery. He was well aware that from here, one could purchase tickets to anywhere in the United States. He describes what life was like in 1984 before the two World Wars. Evenings were twice as long as they are now, and men and women lived in harmony.

The clerk figured the fare he glanced at my fancy hatband, but he figured the fares and I had enough for two coach tickets, one way. But when I counted out the money and looked up, the clerk was staring at me. He nodded at the bills. That ain’t money, mister,he said, and if you’re trying to skin me, you won’t get very far, and he glanced at the cash drawer beside him. Of course the money was old-style bills, half again as big as the money we use nowadays, and different-looking. I turned away and got out fast. There’s nothing nice about jail, even in 1894.

  • Clerk- administrator

As the clerk calculated the fare, he noticed Charleyâ€TMs fancy hatband. Charley had only enough money for a one-way trip. Just as he was about to withdraw money, the clerk informed him that this is not acceptable legal tender and that even if he tried to be clever, he would not be able to get away with it. He took a look in his cash drawer and noticed that the currency used back then was different and nearly double the size. He fled because he did not want to go to jail.

And that was that. I left the same way I came, I suppose. Next day, during lunch hour, I drew three hundred dollars out of the bank, nearly all we had, and bought old-style currency (that really worried my psychiatrist friend). You can buy old money at almost any coin dealers, but you have to pay a premium. My three hundred dollars bought less than two hundred in old-style bills, but I didn’t care; eggs were thirteen cents a dozen in 1894.

The day came to an end when he came out. The following day, he went to withdraw his entire savings and had them converted into old money by paying a premium. It cost him a lot of money and even worried his psychiatrist friend, but he persisted. Back then, a dozen eggs cost thirteen cents.

But I’ve never again found the corridor that leads to the third level at Grand Central Station, although I’ve tried often enough. Louisa was pretty worried when I told her all this, and didn’t want me to look for the third level any more, and after a while I stopped; I went back to my stamps. But now were both looking, every weekend, because now we have proof that the third level is still there. My friend Sam Weiner disappeared! Nobody knew where, but I sort of suspected because Sam’s a city boy, and I used to tell him about Galesburg “ I went to school there ” and he always said he liked the sound of the place. And that’s where he is, all right. In 1894.

Despite his best efforts, he was unable to find his way back to the third-level corridor. When his wife Louisa found out about it all, she became very concerned. After a while, he returned to using stamps to find distractions. Sam, the psychiatrist, disappeared without a trace. Charley had a strong suspicion he'd gone to Galesburg. He is transported to the year 1894.

Because one night, fussing with my stamp collection, I found Well, do you know what a first-day cover is? When a new stamp is issued, stamp collectors buy some and use them to mail envelopes to themselves on the very first day of sale; and the postmark proves the date. The envelope is called a first-day cover. They’re never opened; you just put blank paper in the envelope.

  • Fussing- show unnecessary or excessive concern about something

Charley came across a first-day cover one night. It is an envelope (with a stamp) that stamp collectors mail to themselves on the first day of its sale to commemorate the occasion. They are simply blank on the inside and are not intended to be opened.

That night, among my oldest first-day covers, I found one that shouldn’t have been there. But there it was. It was there because someone had mailed it to my grandfather at his home in Galesburg; that’s what the address on the envelope said. And it had been there since July 18, 1894 ” the postmark showed that ” yet I didn’t remember it at all. The stamp was a six-cent, dull brown, with a picture of President Garfield. Naturally, when the envelope came to Granddad in the mail, it went right into his collection and stayed there ” till I took it out and opened it. The paper inside wasn’t blank. It read:

That night, he found one of his grandfather's old first day covers, much to his surprise. According to the address on the envelope, it had been mailed to his father at his home in Galesburg. It had been there since July 18, 1894, according to the postmark. The stamp featured a portrait of President Garfiled. It was a six-cent stamp in a dull brown colour. His grandfather had kept it in his stamp collection, and Charley had only recently discovered it. The paper on the inside, with a letter written on it. The letter was formatted as follows:

941 Willard Street Galesburg,


July 18, 1894


I got to wishing that you were right. Then I got to believing you were right. And, Charley, it’s true; I found the third level! I’ve been here two weeks, and right now, down the street at the Daly’s, someone is playing a piano, and they’re all out on the front porch singing Seeing Nelly Home. And I’m invited over for lemonade. Come on back, Charley and Louisa. Keep looking till you find the third level! It’s worth it, believe me!

The letter discussed how the writer wished his third level storey was true until he began to believe it was true. He'd discovered the third level and had been staying there for two weeks. He describes the place where he was at the time. He asks that Charley and Louis never give up their search for the third level and come back.

The note is signed Sam.

At the stamp and coin store I go to, I found out that Sam bought eight hundred dollar’s worth of old-style currency. That ought to set him up in a nice little hay, feed and grain business; he always said that’s what he really wished he could do, and he certainly can’t go back to his old business. Not in Galesburg, Illinois, in 1894. His old business? Why, Sam was my psychiatrist.

Charlie found from the coin store where he used to go that Sam had purchased old currency worth $800, which was to be used in a hay, feed, and grain business, which was something he had always wanted to do. He couldn't go back to his old job, especially in Galesburg, Illinois. The storey concludes on a mysterious note in which Charlie wonders if Sam is a psychiatrist.

About the Author

Walter Braden "Jack" Finney was an American writer who was born on October 2, 1911, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and died on November 14, 1995, in Greenbrae, California. His most well-known works are science fiction and thrillers such as The Body Snatchers and Time and Again. The former served as the inspiration for the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers and its sequels.