Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
One admirable component of the story is Thurber’s keenly observed, often ironic, small detail of human action that reveals personality. Almost imperceptible is the detail of Mitty racing the car motor when told by his wife that he needs overshoes because he is no longer a young man—a response that suggests Mitty’s furtive defiance. Another such detail is Mitty’s reaction to a police officer’s curt command “Pick it up, brother” at a traffic signal that has changed. Mitty first put on his gloves in the car as ordered by his wife, took them off when she was out of sight, but now puts them back on, suggesting that he equates the traffic officer with his wife as an authority figure, to whom he has been guiltily disobedient in the matter of his gloves. Though merely ordered to move on now that the traffic signal has turned green, Mitty (whose last name recalls the sort of gloves imposed on children) acts to rectify all misbehaviors. Mitty’s subdued rebellion is also glimpsed in carrying his new overshoes out of the store in the box rather than wearing them, for which his wife later scolds him.
Still another unobtrusive detail is Mitty’s going not to the first A & P grocery store available but to a smaller one farther up the street in his quest of puppy biscuit (a particularly unheroic task). Earlier, Mitty was embarrassed by a woman’s laughter at his isolated utterance “puppy biscuit” on the street and thus wants to gain as much...
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"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" was first published in 1939, the year World War II began. German troops invaded Poland, the Germans and the Soviets signed a Nazi-Soviet nonagression pact, and Germany and Italy formed the Pact of Steel Alliance. While the Axis powers were consolidating, Britain and France declared war on Germany. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared U.S. neutrality in the war, but the United States entered the war in 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt, at the suggestion of Albert Einstein, ordered a U.S. effort to build an atomic bomb. In Spain, the forces of fascist Francisco Franco captured Madrid, ending the Spanish Civil War. While Walter Mitty, a middle-aged man, dreams of being a captain in the First World War, the dream is triggered by his reading an article intimating World War II in Liberty magazine entitled, "Can Germany Conquer the World Through the Air?'' The articles contain "pictures of bombing planes and of ruined streets." In the late 1930s and early 1940s, American men like Walter Mitty had to confront their fears of and desires for proving their manhood in battle.
Thurber's use of wordplay and exploration of the absurdity of modern life has been noted for its affinities with modernist writing. Modernists played with conventional narrative form and dialogue, attempting to approximate subjective thought and experience. Thurber's narrative...
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In "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,'' Thurber tells the story of Walter Mitty, a man who lives in a dream world to escape from the routines and humiliations he suffers in everyday life. The action takes place over the course of a single day, during which Walter Mitty and his wife go on their weekly shopping trip. Walter slips into his daydreams, only to be awakened when he has made an error in judgment, such as speeding or driving on the wrong side of the road.
Thurber has carefully constructed the story's narrative to connect Mitty's "secret life" with his external life. In the first dream sequence, Walter is a naval commander who sails his hydroplane at full speed to avoid a hurricane. The dream abruptly ends when his wife admonishes him for driving too quickly, implying that Walter's dream led to his speeding. The second dream begins when his wife notes that he is tense, and asks him to see a doctor. Hearing the name of the doctor sends Walter Mitty into dreaming that he is a famous surgeon who assists in saving the life of a wealthy patient, a banker named Wellington MacMillan. Each of the dreams, then, begins with some detail from Walter's everyday life. Walter transforms insignificant comments, sounds or objects into major props in his heroic conquests. The same details from reality force him out of his dream world. Significantly, the story opens and closes in the middle of dream sequences, as if to emphasize their priority...
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"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is one of the best known and most popular short stories in American literature. When it was printed it aroused more reaction than anything else ever published in the New Yorker — which, considering the brouhaha over Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" (1949), and the fact that John Hersey's Hiroshima (1946) and Rachael Carson's The Silent Spring (1962) appeared in the journal, is intriguing in itself.
The tale is a classic fantasy in which the Little Man husband, Mitty, escapes from the realities of his mundane world by imagining himself performing heroic deeds in a variety of romantic situations with the action accompanied by a "pocketa-pocketa-pocketa" sound. According to Thurber, he was trying to "treat the remarkable as commonplace," in this piece. This approach to his material, and its obverse, is at the center of a great deal of his humor.
Because he was dealing with a common experience, one that his audience would find particularly familiar, all that Thurber had to do was to establish a pattern; he did not need to expand the plot very far (as was done in the movie version, or in a recent retelling in the British novel Billy Liar). The fantasy tone of the tale is offset to some extent by the inclusion of specific unifying details, such as the appearance of a Webley-Vickers automatic pistol in two of the dream sequences. The use of such details is also realistic in two ways. First,...
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Throughout his writing career, Thurber was concerned about the misfit in society. Usually Thurber's misfits are simple, sensitive, imaginative men caught in a mundane world that they do not completely understand and over which they have little or no control. Typically, the world is too caught up in its own concerns to have much patience with such men, or to recognize their nature. Instead, it merely steamrolls over them. By extension, in examining the place of the imaginative Little Man in society, Thurber is metaphorically considering the conflict between an artist and his society. Another extension of this concept appears in the relationship between men and women in the author's stories, with the practical women dominating their wimpish spouses. In "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (March 18, 1939), these concerns come together as forces that, consciously or unconsciously, exert pressure on Mitty to make him conform to their images respectively of a solid, no-nonsense member of society or a manageable spouse.
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Compare and Contrast
1930s: The New Yorker magazine typifies East Coast intellectualism and many popular writers of the day publish stories and articles in it that exemplify an urban sense of sophistication and humor.
1997: Under the editorship of the controversial Tina Brown, The New Yorker struggles to maintain its reputation, yet circulation is up over recent years to 860,000.
1939: The theme of the 1939-40 New York World's Fair is "The World of Tomorrow," which highlights Americans' belief in emerging science and technology as a cure-all.
Today: Forbes magazine reports that in 1994 orthopedic surgeons pay annual malpractice premiums ranging from $33,000 to $117,000. The large number of medical malpractice suits in U.S. courts points to a growing cynicism Americans feel towards medicine and technology.
1940s: During World War II, many women enter jobs vacated by men who have joined the war effort.
Today: Although efforts to pass an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution failed in 1982, women such as Katharine Graham, publisher and CEO of the Washington Post, demonstrate women's increasing roles in political, social and cultural arenas.
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Topics for Further Study
Consider stereotypes of masculinity in society today. How are these stereotypes enacted in Walter Mitty's dreams? How do these stereotypes differ from his everyday behavior?
Do you think Thurber's characterization of Mrs. Mitty is sexist? What sort of picture of marriage emerges in the story, and how does that picture compare with what is considered a "typical" marriage in American society today?
List the details which connect Walter's fantasies and his reality together. Analyze the significance of these details to the story's overall theme.
Investigate American society during the end of the depression and the beginning of World War II. Do you think Thurber accurately portrays middle-class life during that time in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"? Why or why not?
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As indicated above, even some of Thurber's later casuals reflect the sustained craftsmanship and humor of his early and middle periods. "Midnight at Tim's Place" (November 29, 1958), for instance, is a tightly written piece about a conversation in a bar. As light and well-paced as his stories from thirty years previous, this tale is about a young couple who intrude upon the narrator and his wife to involve them in a domestic quarrel. During the evening the young husband recounts an audience that he recently had with his old philosophy professor. The young man, suffering from depression, sought enlightenment only to be dismayed at finding the professor wearing two hats. When this detail is revealed, there is a long pause. "In his study?" the narrator asks incredulously. The timing and incongruity of the narrator's response is pure Thurber. There are two possible implied concepts underlying the question: Either it is completely unrelated to the event described and humor comes from the suddenness and incongruity, or it implies that wearing two hats is acceptable, although not, perhaps, in the study, an amusing thought. In either case the narrator's reaction is the focus of the humor.
Thurber then takes his story a step further, though; the narrator's wife, in her realistic fashion, is seized by the thought of the number of hats involved. Once more the Little Man and the Thurber Woman are present. The piece also contains the puns, literary allusions, and...
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Thurber's forte is the interesting combination of imaginative concepts, insights, and approaches to life expressed in strikingly clear images that depend on a careful manipulation of words. Because his writing appeared in magazines, his style is journalistic in nature; that is, it is most effective when he captures and condenses the essence of a thought within the limits imposed by the short story format. Because of his immense popularity, it is no surprise that there would be attempts to transpose his work to the movie screen or to television, but as might be expected, the very elements that characterize his writing work against a successful translation of that work into other media. His most famous creation, Walter Mitty, appeared in the film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), directed by Norman Z. McLeod and starring Danny Kaye, but the result is only moderately effective. His play The Male Animal was a Broadway hit, and possibly because he had been working in a visual medium to begin with, the 1942 screen adaptation (directed by co-author Elliott Nuggent and starring Henry Fonda, Olivia de Havilland, and Jack Carson) is entertaining and was well received. A second cinematic treatment, the mediocre musical She's Working Her Way Through College, was released in 1952 (it was directed by H. Bruce Humberstone and starred Virginia Mayo and Ronald Reagan). On the other hand, the 1969 television series based on My World — and Welcome to...
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In 1947, Samuel Goldwyn Studios produced a well-regarded movie-length version of Thurber's story, titled The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The movie stars Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo and is available through RKO distributors and on video.
Radio Yesteryear Audio released a book-on-tape titled The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: And You Could Look It Up, in August, 1988.
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What Do I Read Next?
James Thurber's 1933 My Life and Hard Times is a semi-fictional autobiography full of comically exaggerated incidents from his life.
T. S. Eliot's 1917 modernist poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, explores the emptiness of modern life through its depiction of Alfred Prufrock, who struggles with the nature of his existence. Critic Peter DeVries referred to James Thurber as a "comic Prufrock," noting Thurber's ability to capture human weaknesses, and to balance tragedy and comedy in his work, all elements found in the Prufrock poem
Mark Twain's 1885 novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is a classic of American humor. The novel about a young boy who chooses to escape his home rather than be "civilized'' is Twain's most popular work.
John Updike's Rabbit, Run, published in 1960, is the story of blue-collar Harry "Rabbit'' Angstrom, who runs away from adult relationships.
David Riesman's sociological study of the modern condition and the American individual, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character, provides historical and social insights into the problems of twentieth-century life.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Blair, Walter and Hill, Hamlin. America's Humor: From Poor Richard to Doonesbury. Oxford University Press, 1978.
Mann, Ann Ferguson. "Taking Care of Walter Mitty," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 19, Fall, 1982, pp. 351-57.
Morseberger, Robert E. James Thurber, Twayne, 1988.
Tobias, Richard Clark. The Art of James Thurber, Ohio State University Press, 1969.
Yates, Norris. "James Thurber's Little Man and Liberal Citizen,'' in Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Charles S. Holmes, Prentice-Hall, 1974, pp. 28-36.
De Vries, Peter. "James Thurber: The Comic Prufrock," in Thurber A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Charles S. Holmes, Prentice-Hall, 1974.
Elias, Robert H. "James Thurber: The Primitive, the Innocent, and the Individual," in Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Charles S. Holmes, Prentice-Hall, 1974, pp. 87-100
Elias explores how Thurber's heroes, including Walter Mitty, preserve their individuality in a hostile world.
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Fensch, Thomas, ed. Conversations with James Thurber. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989.
Grauer, Neil A. Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.
Holmes, Charles S. The Clocks of Columbus: The Literary Career of James Thurber. New York: Atheneum, 1972.
Kinney, Harrison. James Thurber: His Life and Times. New York: Henry Holt, 1995.
Kinney, Harrison, and Rosemary A. Thurber, eds. The Thurber Letters: The Wit, Wisdom, and Surprising Life of James Thurber. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.
Rosen, Michael J., ed. Collecting Himself: James Thurber on Writing and Writers, Humor, and Himself. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.
Tobias, Richard C. The Art of James Thurber. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1970.
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