Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Thurber’s best-known story, is, like most of his fiction, short, requiring only five or six pages. As Mitty and his wife are on their way to do some errands, he indulges in a daydream in which he is a brave military commander piloting a hydroplane, but his wife interrupts by exclaiming that he is driving too fast. This pattern is repeated several times. When she urges him to make an appointment with his physician, he becomes an eminent surgeon at work, until a parking-lot attendant’s contemptuous commands call him back temporarily to reality. In reality, Mitty does not do anything very well.
Very little actually happens in Thurber’s story. Mrs. Mitty has an appointment at a hairdresser’s; Mitty himself buys a pair of overshoes. While trying to remember what his wife has asked him to buy, he becomes a cocky defendant in a murder case. He manages to buy some dog food and sinks into a chair in a convenient hotel lobby and imagines himself a bomber pilot under fierce attack. His returning wife wakes him with the admonition that she is going to take his temperature when they get home. At the end of the story, Mrs. Mitty goes into a drugstore, and he becomes a “proud and disdainful” man facing a firing squad.
Part of Thurber’s technique is to present Mitty as a man who fails even as a dreamer. His daydreams are cluttered with clichés. Whether he is a murder defendant or an Army officer, he bears the same “Webley-Vickers automatic.” In both of his military dreams he is an officer who can lead his men “through hell.” In reality, he is a man trying to deal with the fears and difficulties of a drab and disappointing life. As such, he is only an exaggerated version of a person whom everyone will recognize.
Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Although Walter Mitty’s daydream life has much exciting action, his waking life, as recounted in the story, is routine, uneventful, and, at a deep subconscious level, unsatisfying. In his waking life, Mitty motors on a wintry day with his wife into Waterbury for the regular weekly trip to shop and for Mrs. Mitty’s visit to the beauty parlor. After dropping his wife off at the salon, Mitty drives around aimlessly for a brief time, then parks the car in a parking lot, purchases some overshoes at a shoe store, with some difficulty remembers to buy puppy biscuit, and goes to the hotel lobby where he always meets his wife. After a short time Mrs. Mitty appears, complaining to Mitty about the difficulty of finding him in the large chair where he has “hidden” himself, and then for a “minute” (actually much longer) leaves Mitty standing in front of a nearby drugstore while she goes to accomplish something she forgot. Interspersed with these events are Mitty’s five daydreams or fantasies, which not only are induced by the events of his waking life but also affect them.