Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The vision of the afterlife in The Third Policeman dramatizes in extreme form a preoccupation common in modern literature: the absurdity and desperation of forms of certainty held to stave off the anxiety of senseless and incomprehensible existence. Flann O’Brien was gifted at mimicry, and the comic exuberance of this novel’s fantasy comes from his relish for extended parodic versions of modes of erudition common to literary scholarship or the physical sciences. In his treatment of footnote citations to de Selby, or a new atomic theory, he manages to make plausible absolutely illogical ideas. Even the most preposterous notions in this novel are presented methodically, and O’Brien’s commentary on the nature and uses of philosophies and theories is implicit in his amusing enactment of deranged logic.

The Third Policeman, however, is black comedy: fundamentally pessimistic and far less moralistic than nihilistic. This novel permits no ordinary comic ending—no reunification of characters separated by petty differences and no final assertion of the amplitude of life. Instead, The Third Policeman ends with bleak repetition. In part, this narrator’s posthumous fate may be attributable to his crime. The novel, however, envisions no alternative to his fate and presents no virtuous character ending in rewarding circumstances. Instead, the import of the comedy is on the perpetual solitude and eternal anxiety of modern existence without a sustaining theology or other guiding principle.