My name is Caleb Michael Sarvis. I’m a writer, a thinker, and currently a self-reflective incubator. Welcome to a blog series in which I’ll be analyzing both the practical and interesting ways imaginary characters can play in fiction, including The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien, 2014’s Best Picture Winner Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), and other short fiction.

The Third Policeman

In Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, an unnamed narrator obsessed with the teachings of a fictional scholar named de Selby experiences the imaginary character in multiple forms. The most obvious and apparent would be Joe, the vocal representation of his soul. Joe is a voice that lacks confusion and the need of self-assurance. In the novel, the narrator participates in a series of both events and conversations that appear to be complete nonsense, and Joe is always there to be the voice of what appears to be reason. While he doesn’t directly oppose the narrator (the two policemen act as a natural antagonist), he does appear at interesting (and sometimes inconvenient) moments. Joe first appears as the narrator is about to steal from Mathers, a man he killed with his friend Divney,

“          In my distress I thought to myself that perhaps it was [Mather’s] twin brother but at once I heard someone say:

            Scarcely. If you look carefully at the left-hand side of his neck you will notice that there is sticking-plaster or a bandage there. His throat and chin are also bandaged.

            Forlornly, I looked and saw that this was true. He was the man I had murdered beyond all question. He was sitting on a chair four yards away watching me. He sat stiffly without a move as if afraid to hurt the gaping wounds which covered his body. Across my own shoulders a stiffness had spread from my exertions with the spade.

            But who had uttered these words? They had not frightened me. They were clearly audible to me yet I knew they did not ring out across the air like the chilling cough of the old man in the chair. They came from deep inside me, from my soul. Never before had I believe or suspected that I had a soul but just then I knew I had. I knew also that my soul was friendly, was my senior in years and was solely concerned for my own welfare. For convenience I called him Joe. I felt a little reassured to know that I was not altogether alone. Joe was helping me,” (O’Brien 25).


By the end we learn that our narrator has just died in this moment. His “friend” Divney replaced the black cash box with a bomb and when the narrator reached for it, the entire house of Mathers blew up. This is why he sees Mathers’ ghost, and why his soul appears now rather than before. However, there’s reason to suspect that Joe’s appearance prolongs our narrator’s revelation. Had Joe not shown up, the narrator might have realized his own end sooner, and thus we’d have no story. O’Brien’s decision to include this imaginary character gives the story a mechanism by which to push the character forward. If the story is a bicycle (and in this book, it very well could be considering the policemen’s obsession with bicycles), then Joe is the chain that allows everything to move at once. The less obvious character of imagination is the narrator himself, or at least, the state of his own existence operates as sort of an imaginary character. Throughout the book, the narrator comes across several different clues that suggest that he may not exist himself, and while he’s capable of figuring it out, Joe is usually there to oppose this thinking as nonsense. The reader is first clued into the narrator’s lack of existence when the ghost of Mathers inquires his name,

“          I was surprised at this question. It had no bearing on my own conversation but I did not notice its irrelevance because I was shocked to realize that, simple as it was, I could not answer it. I did not know my own name, did not remember who I was. I was certain where I had come from ow what my business was in that room. I found I was sure of nothing save my search for the black box. But I knew that the other man’s name was Mathers and that he had been killed with a pump and a spade. I had no name,” (O’Brien 31).


Our name is one our simplest mode of identification, it’s our first thought when someone asks, “Who are you?” and O’Brien’s decision not to give his narrator a name immediately breathes conflict into the story. One on hand, the narrator has now become his own antagonist, because the conflict of this novel is pure interiority. He is almost unaware of his own existence, and based on the way he describes Mathers’ death (“he had been killed…”), he seems to have forgotten that he was a part of that murder. On the other hand, the imaginary character, Joe, doesn’t assist in easing the narrator’s plight. If he truly is the narrator’s soul, wouldn’t he know the answer to that question? Wouldn’t he either offer that information, or better yet, explain to the narrator that he is dead? It doesn’t make sense, unless we embrace the imaginary character (Joe) as an agent of conflict, and the fact that he is a real character because he knows the truth (that our narrator doesn’t exist anymore), and actively withholds it. There’s a process to be had. Like the wheels of a bicycle, the story moves forward by ending up where it starts. The story needs a person to push the pedals, someone to push the narrator on this cyclical adventure so that we realize he’s in his own anti-heaven. Nameless, and unaware of his own history, the narrator is disinterested. He doesn’t care to be enlightened, but rather is only interested in monetary value, something Joe never chooses to assist him with. The narrator simply wants the financial support to write his book on de Selby, who ironically, appears to be quite interested in existence. This sort of unfocused wandering (the narrator invents a watch to be missing, and then believes he is actually missing a watch later on) underscores the spirit quality of the narrator. Later in the story, when the narrator reaches the police station, Sergeant Pluck quite plainly suggests that the narrator might not exist at all when the narrator claims to be the owner of a gold watch,

“          Here the Sergeant laughed indulgently and shook his head.

            ‘I know that you mean,’ he said. ‘But the law is an extremely intricate phenomenon. If you have no name you cannot own a watch and the watch that has been stolen does not exist and when it is found it will have to be restored to its rightful owner. If you have no name you possess nothing and you do not exist and even your trousers are not on you although they look as if they were from where I am I sitting. On the other separate hand you can do what you like and the law cannot touch you,’” (O’Brien 61-62).


Obviously, the narrator is confused by this claim. He doesn’t understand how Sergeant Pluck can think this way when he is right there communicating with him. This is also another perfect moment for Joe to reveal to the narrator that he is dead and that none of this is real. However, Joe doesn’t speak up, continues to withhold information, and progress the story forward. The plot wouldn’t work without Joe’s subtle opposition. O’Brien’s decision to include Joe in the story allows him to give the reader insight into the true nature of the story: that this is purgatory. There’s a moment when the policemen bring the narrator into their secret place, “eternity,” and Joe again works against the narrator’s thoughts. Their dialogue reveals the truth of the narrator’s current state of existence while also proving to help him,


“          You don’t mean to say that you believe in this eternity business?

            What choice have I? It would be foolish to doubt anything after yesterday.

            That is all very well, but I think I can claim to be an authority on the subject of eternity. There must be a limit to this gentleman’s monkey-tricks.

            I am certain there isn’t.

            Nonsense. You are becoming demoralized.


            Surely, I argued, if we concede that eternity is up the lane, the question of the lift is a minor matter. That is a case for swallowing a horse and a cart and straining at a flea.

            No. I bar the lift. I know enough about the next world to be sure that you don’t get there and come back out of it in a lift. Besides, we must be near the place now, and I don’t see an elevator shaft running up into the clouds.

            Gilhaney had no handlebars on him, I pointed out.

            Unless the word ‘lift’ has a special meaning. Like ‘drop’ when you are talking about a scaffold. I suppose a smash under the chin with a heavy spade could be called a ‘lift’. If that is the case then you can be certain about eternity and have the whole of it yourself and welcome,” (O’Brien 125-126).


In this exchange between the narrator and his soul, Joe, O’Brien explores the meaning of the word “eternity.” In one sense, the characters believe they are pursuing the heavenly eternity, as advertised in the bible, hence the discussion about an elevator reaching into the clouds. However, Joe gives the hint that this may not be the eternity the narrator is expecting. He references the murder of Old Man Mathers at the end, one the narrator is supposed to be responsible for, and by doing this clues the reader in that the narrator might actually be headed towards purgatory or hell. The inclusion of the imaginary character gives the writer an additional avenue in which to develop interiority and engage in a philosophical discussion with the reader. Joe’s “existence” allows the writer to explore the very nature of existence, and what it means to be here one minute, and then gone the next. Whether it’s Old Man Mathers, who’s brutally murdered, or the narrator, who’s blown up (or almost hung, depending on your stage at reading), the line between our world and the next one doesn’t seem to matter. Not only does Joe operate as the beholder of the narrator’s revelation, but having this agency gives the writer another character with which to apply pressure. By including an imaginary character, the writer enhances the interest of the story without sacrificing an economy of language.

O’Brien, Flann. The Third Policeman. UK: Dalkey Archive Press.

1967. Print.

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