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‘The Third Policeman’ by O’Brien Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Dec 27th, 2021


This paper will discuss the story ‘The Third Policeman’ by O’Brien. The paper will focus on the intellectual thesis that is applied in the story. The main character in this story is a single-legged young man who is also orphaned. The narrator of this story discovered the work of de Selby which involved philosophy and sciences and decided to be an amateur scholar at his boarding school. It was during this study that he broke his leg during one of the nights. When he was going back home, he met John Divney who was left in charge of their family business. The narrator’s determination for de Selby’s work led him to leave Divney and proceed with his study. At the age of thirty, the narrator had written a considerable amount of de Selby’s work although he did have funds to publish his work. The determination to have his work published led the narrator to participate in evil activities like murder to acquire these funds.

Thesis statement

The author of this story was very much interested in explaining how human beings struggle for the quest for success. Determination can drive someone to participate in many activities that will lead to his/her success. The narrator of this story was determined to write enough critics of de Selby’s work and which he succeeded in but lacked the money to publish. The narrator decided to take Divney’s advice to murder Mathers and rob him of his cash so as he could publish his work. After they had completed the brutal act, Divney decide to hide the cash box, and thus the author had to stay close to him so that one day he could locate where the cash box was hidden. This implied that the narrator had to sleep together with Divney all day. Even after discovering where the bag was hidden, the narrator involved policemen whom he came across in the course of the search for the cash box. By involving the policemen it was clear that the narrator did not matter if the police would consider his case as a crime. The author in this case implies that determination can lead someone to take any action irrespective of the consequences associated with the course of action.


Plot and setting of the story

This story of the young and orphaned man with one wooden leg is based in the countryside of Ireland. O’Brien (3) notes that “the narrator discovered the work of de Selby when he was at a boarding school and decided to be a dedicated student of this work”. After school, he returned home and met John Divney who was living there and his role was to take care of the family business. The narrator did not have an option other than to befriend this man. After their short stay, the narrator dedicated his future to the work of de Selby and therefore decided to abandon the family business.

At the age of thirty, the narrator believed that he had written quite a considerable critical work on de Selby and therefore he needed money to publish this work. This work was like a dream for the narrator and therefore under any circumstance, he had to seek ways to get the money to publish this work. Disney discovered that the narrator needed funds to publish the work he had been doing. As the two lived together, Divney discovered that a local man by the name of Mathers had some large amount of money which he carried in the pocket and therefore plotted to rob him. O’Brien (6) notes that “Divney discovered that Mathers is worth a packet of potato meal”. The narrator’s intelligence learned what plan Divney had and therefore he decided to be part of the deal to rob Mathers. O’Brien (15) notes that “the two characters decided to work together and on one night they waited for Mathers on his way home when Divney knocked him down using a bicycle pump”. The narrator continued with the brutal killing using a spade when he realized that Divney had already disappeared with Mather’s cash box. O’ Brien (16) states that “when Divney returns he refuses to reveal where the cash box is and fends off the narrator’s repeated inquiries”. The narrator was so much determined to get his share of Mather’s cash and he, therefore, decided not separate from Divney so as he did not open the cash box alone. This, therefore, prompted the narrator to stay together with Divney always including sharing the same bed with him. This was funny behavior and according to O’Brien (14) “the situation was a queer one and neither of us liked it”. From this observation, the author meant that human beings can do any act to get their expected outcome. This was indicated by how the narrator shared the same bed with Divney so as he could ensure that the cash box was opened with his presence, a situation that did not impress many of the other characters.

The relationship between the narrator and Divney did not last for long since it broke after only three years. The misunderstanding between the two former friends led Divney to disclose where he had hidden the cash box. Therefore, Divney instructed the narrator to search for the cash box under the floorboards of Mather’s old house. The narrator’s determination to get funds to publish his work continued by the way he followed Divney’s instructions to fetch for the catch box in a place that was not fully specified. Unfortunately, just before he was in a position to get the box something that looked tricky happened. O’Brien (24) describes what happened to the narrator as “it was as if the daylight had changed with unnatural suddenness, as if the temperature of the evening had altered greatly in an instant or as if the air had become twice as rare or twice as dense as it had been in the winking of an eye; perhaps all of these and other things happened together for all my senses were bewildered all at once and could give me no explanation”.

The incident that confronted the narrator seemed to be a dream because he did not believe what he had seen and he, therefore, continued to search for the cash box. The narrator learns that the box was missing and Mathers himself was in the same room. During a conversion with the ‘deceased’ Mathers’ the narrator discovered another voice that was speaking to him which he discovered was his soul, he called this speaker Joe. The narrator’s determination to get the money did not end even after realizing that the box had disappeared and therefore he bent down and continued his search. It was after Mathers realized the struggle that the narrator was undergoing that he informed him of a nearby police barracks where he could go and seek assistance. The narrator did not have another option other than to seek assistance from the police who seemed potential to resolve his problems. On his way to the barracks, O’Brien (49) observes that “I met a one-legged bandit named Martin Finnucane, who threatens to kill me but who becomes my friend upon finding out that his potential victim is also one-legged”.

The author continues to explain how the narrator’s quest for success went on with much more determination. According to O’Brien (54) “it is just not normal for a murder to take himself to the police to request the police to help him search something that he had stolen from his victim”. This is because murder is a crime that is associated with stiff punishment. Additionally, after the murder, the narrator escaped with Mather’s cash which is also another serious crime. The narrator did not care what consequences he would face by reporting to the police and therefore he continued his journey to the police barracks to seek assistance. Lastly, he arrived where the barracks was situated but its appearance disturbed him, according to O’Brien (55) “It looked as if it were painted like an advertisement on a board on the roadside and indeed very poorly painted. It looked completely false and unconvincing”.

The appearance of the police barracks did not scare the narrator and therefore he entered. It was in the barracks that he came across two of the three policemen who were based in that barracks and whose names were Policeman MacCruiskeen and Sergeant Pluck. His close interaction with the two officers helped him learn that they spoke in non sequitur and they had a big obsession for bicycles. The two policemen were social to the narrator and they introduced many concepts of life, O’Brien (65) notes that “they introduced me to various peculiar or irrational concepts, artifacts, and locations, including a contraption that collects sound and converts it to light based on a theory regarding omnium, the fundamental energy of the universe”. Additionally, the narrator was introduced to another underground chamber of life that contained a box that would produce anything that someone required. All these concepts of life confuse and disturb the narrator both mentally and spiritually.

During the conversation with the two policemen, it was discovered that Mathers had been killed and his body dumped into a ditch. O’Brien (73) states that “the first suspect for that crime was the serial killer Martin Finnucane, but the narrator decided to take the burden of killing Mathers by himself by saying that he was the prime suspect”. The narrator decided to plead guilty to Sergeant Pluck because he was nameless. Sergeant Pluck interpreted this as if the narrator was invisible to the law and therefore it was difficult to charge him. Sergeant Pluck tried to guess the narrator’s name and which he could succeed, therefore he argued that, since the narrator was nameless, he was not a real creature and therefore he could be hanged with no consequences of repercussions. According to O’Brien (75), Sergeant Pluck told the narrator that “the particular death you die is not even a death (which is an inferior phenomenon at best) only an insanitary abstraction in the backyard”.

The narrator noted how serious the case was and decided to seek help from Finnucane, but his rescue failed when MacCruiskeen came riding a bicycle whose color was unknown and which he said that it drove those people who ‘saw it mad’. When he was just about to be hanged, the two policemen were stopped by some sounds that came from the underground chamber. O’Brien (169) notes that “he faces the gallows, but the two policemen are called away by dangerously high readings in the underground chamber”. This incident saved the narrator’s life and he was, therefore, able to escape the next day on a bicycle which he found in the same barracks.

As the narrator was riding to escape the police barracks, he came across Mather’s house and saw some light in the house. But since the narrator had not settled his mind down, he was disturbed by what he had seen and therefore decided to enter that house. It was in this house that the narrator met the all-powerful third policeman whose name was Fox and had the same face as Mathers. O’Brien (170) notes that “Fox had a ‘secrete police station’ which was in the wall of Mather’s house”. Fox further continued to tell the narrator that, he was the one who was controlling the sound from the underground chamber which saved the narrator’s life. During this conversation, Fox told the narrator that he had found the cash box and after realizing how the narrator had struggled to get it, he decided to send it to the narrator’s home where it was ‘waiting for him. Fox also disclosed to the narrator that, the cash box did not have money but instead it contained omnium. According to Fox, O’Brien (171) notes that “this omnium could become anything that he could desire”. This incident reminded the narrator of the incident whereby he first met the two policemen at the barracks. The message from Fox elated the narrator of the chances of succeeding and he, therefore, decided to go back home and meet Divney once again. It was on his arrival that noticed big life changes; he realized that only a few days had passed in his life but Divney’s life was sixteen years older and that he even had a wife and children. Disney was in a position to see the narrator but the rest could not see him, a situation that caused Divney to have a heart attack. Divney shouted at the narrator telling him that he was ought to be dead because the cash box did not have money but instead it had a bomb that exploded when the narrator was about to get it. From these sentiments, the narrator decided to go leaving Divney on the floor dying.

The previous incidents confused the narrator by leaving him sad without any thought. He, therefore, decided to walk away and on his way he came across the police barracks which had the same description as it was in the book, this lead to the story circling itself and restarting the thoughts of the narrator once more. O’Brien (172) stated that “on the road, the narrator met John Divney and at this time they could not speak nor look at each other”. They continued walking and finally, they both entered the police barracks together where they met Sergeant Pluck, their host continued with the earlier conversation that he had with the narrator and the story ended with an original greeting he had with the narrator.

Point of view

The main character in this story is portrayed as the killer. The narrator can be interpreted as a dead creature throughout the story because of the strange things that had been happening in his life throughout the story. The narrator appears to be in a hell of the sort that came about as a result of the punishment he was undergoing from killing Mathers. By using the strange happenings, which came across the narrator’s life; the author meant that the world of the dead is characterized by many evil happenings which cannot have direct interpretations. This could be illustrated by the way the narrator’s life was saved from being hanged by the two policemen in the barracks, the readings from the underground chambers saved his life by stopping the policemen from hanging him. From this incident, it was not clear how the readings acted on the policemen thereby creating an opportunity for the narrator to escape by a bicycle that had good perfection. It was clear that; there are no rules or laws that work effectively in the world of the dead (Clissman, 45). This is because, in reality, murder is a crime and those who are found guilty like in the case of the narrator should be punished. However, in this story, the narrator was not punished even after pleading guilty but instead, the police suspected Finnucane as the one who had committed the murder and it was only later that they decided to hang him.

When the narrator escaped from being hanged by the two policemen in the barracks, he left and came across Mather’s house where he entered and found the third policeman by the name of Fox. Fox told the narrator that he was the one who was the architect of the underground readings and that his police station was in the wall of Mather’s house. The narrator was disturbed by this incident and therefore, he decided to go and find out the truth from Divney. From this incident, the author expressed the difference between reality and fiction. The author uses the narrator to illustrate how facts differ from fiction. This was because the narrator could not believe what his eyes had seen compared to what he expected. From a real perspective, it was impossible to have a police station in someone’s wall like it was the case for Fox’s police station. In addition, Fox did not know about the narrator when he committed the crime of killing Mathers, it, therefore, seemed as fiction to the narrator because a stranger had saved his life and even sent what he had been struggling to search for to his own home. This incident disturbed the narrator since it seemed as if all that Fox told him appeared to be true and therefore, the narrator had to go back home and unite with Divney so as they could share what was in the cash box.

Another incident of fiction was when the Divney revealed to the narrator that the cash box was under Mather’s floorboard. The narrator’s determination to get the cash box led him to Mathers’ house to search for this cash box. When the narrator entered the house, he was worried by the fact that Mathers was himself in the house and there was a sound that was speaking to him which he named the speaker to be Joe. Fiction in this incident was portrayed because the narrator was very sure that he together with Divney had killed Mathers and therefore under no circumstance could Mathers be in that particular house. The author uses the narrator, in this case, to illustrate how people struggle to establish the difference that exists between facts and fiction. This was because even after the ‘deceased Mathers’ told the narrator that he could go to a nearby police barracks and seek help in the search for the cash box, the narrator did not hesitate and therefore proceeded to the police barracks.


  • Suspense

This is a style of narration whereby, the audiences are left in a situation of wishing to know more of a certain incident that ends abruptly. The whole of this story has been associated with suspense because after every, incident, one would wish to know what followed. Firstly, one would eagerly wish to know if the narrator succeeded to get the cash box so as he could publish his earlier work. But this story does not give the end of the narrator. Suspense is also employed in the incident when the narrator met on the same road with his old friend Divney, the story ends at a situation whereby the two met on the road and that neither spoke nor looked at each other. This is suspense because one would wish to know if the two former friends who killed Mathers together united in the search of the cash box, but the story ends abruptly with the two friends following different routes. The author of this style used this style to illustrate that there is a need to differentiate between facts and fiction. By leaving the audience in such situations, the audience can think hard to establish the truth of this story.

  • Irony

This is a style of narration whereby the characters in a story do things opposite of what they are expected to do. The author used irony in different parts of the story as most of the characters in this story did not do what they were not expected to do. For instance, the narrator was informed by Divney that the cash box did not contain money but rather a bomb that exploded immediately after it was opened. One would expect the narrator to start to sympathize with his old friend but instead, the narrator went on with the search of the cash box. Another incident of irony was portrayed when, the narrator decided to go back to the barracks to search for the cash box, this was the same barracks where the narrator narrowly escaped to be hanged by the two policemen. As an audience, one would expect that the narrator could not agree to come into an encounter with the two policemen because they would kill him, but this did not happen. The author used this style to illustrate the difference that exists between reality and fiction.


It is usually hard for one to differentiate between facts and fiction even in the modern days. Normally, many incidents of life appear to be fiction such that one considers them to be fact. This has been illustrated by the story above whereby the main character in the story has been confronted by many such scenarios that led him to struggle in the truth-finding. Another lesson that can be learned from the story above is that; the life of the dead is usually complicated. The narrator of this story lived a life of the dead whereby all the activities that he did appeared not to have any rules and regulations to control them. Most of the characters in this story were confronted by such scenarios that made them appear to live as if they were dreaming. Lastly, it can be learned that there are spirits who control the dead with an example of how the narrator’s life was saved by some readings which came from the underground chambers; these readings can be considered to be spirits. The author used these readings to mean that there are spirits who control the dead and therefore make the life of the dead appear as if it is real.

Works Cited

  1. Clissman, Anne. Flann O’Brien: A critical introduction to his writings. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 2005.
  2. O’Brien, Flann. The Third Policeman. London: Flamingo/Harper Collins, 1993.
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