Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
James Thurber’s expression through his characterization of the protagonist of the ineptitude, oppression, and disappointment nearly all human beings at some time feel in their lives in the real world (particularly in middle age) is so universally applicable that the name “Walter Mitty” has been canonized as a term in the English language denoting these ideas by inclusion in the Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (2002) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: Tenth Edition (1993).
The story’s four main themes are the contrast between a human being’s hopes for life and its actuality, the power of the mind or imagination, the conflict between the individual and authority, and the ascendancy of technology and materialism in the twentieth century. These themes are conveyed through the deflating disparity between Mitty’s heroic ability and stature in his five daydreams and his hesitancy, servility, and ineptitude in real life. Mitty’s first fantasy of captaining a hydroplane in a terrible ice storm is shot down, so to speak, by his domineering wife, who says that Mitty is driving the car too fast on the icy highway into town. Mitty’s second fantasy, of being a published, world-renowned medical specialist and surgeon, is punctured by having been evoked by a double subordination, to his wife and to the family doctor; in subconscious reaction to his wife’s patronizing attitude in her response to his highway...
(The entire section is 1022 words.)
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Thematically, Thurber touched upon all aspects of society, from language to love and from art to war. Often he was more politically oriented than most of his humorist contemporaries. His favorite topic was the exploitation and mistreatment of the Little Man by women, creatures that he posited may have diverged from man's evolutionary path and thus actually belong to another race (a subject explored in Norris W. Yates's The American Humorist). Machines also are a source of the Little Man's downfall. Incidentally, although not present in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," observing many of the incidents depicted in his short stories and especially prevalent in his cartoons were dogs, independent, objective observers who see through pretense and bravado to vulnerability, yet who wisely seldom offer comments.
The theme of overcoming a humdrum everyday life by opposing it with fanciful images of a fantasy life is developed from the opening lines of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" as Mitty is found at the controls of a storm-tossed seaplane. Reality soon intrudes, though, and the heroic image is replaced by a description of Mitty, the husband, driving his wife to her regular visit with the hairdresser. Adventurous segments alternate throughout the tale of the couples' trip to town, as when Mitty's fantasy about being a skilled surgeon taking command in a hospital operating room life-and-death situation dissolves when he is confronted by a parking lot...
(The entire section is 294 words.)
Walter Mitty is an ordinary character who fills his mind with fantasies in which he plays the hero, saves lives, navigates enemy territory, and proves his masculinity.
Success and Failure
The theme of success and failure is examined through Mitty's inability to live a fulfilling external life, which causes him to retreat to an internal life full of images of conquest. Walter Mitty is neither exciting nor successful in his everyday life. In fact, the world Mitty lives in seems hellish to him. His wife's nagging voice awakens him from one dream. Like his wife, parking lot attendants and policemen admonish him, and women at the grocery store laugh at him. A bumbling, ineffectual man scorned by others, he feels humiliated by the knowing grins of garage mechanics who know he cannot take the chains off his car's tires. To avoid their sneers, he imagines taking the car into the garage with his arm in a sling so "they'll see I couldn't possibly take the chains off myself.''
The failures of his everyday life are countered by the extraordinary successes he plays out in his fantasy life. Mitty is always the stunning hero of his dreams: he flies a plane through horrendous weather and saves the crew; he saves a millionaire banker with his dexterity and common sense in surgery; he stuns a courtroom with tales of his snapshooting; and he fearlessly faces a firing squad. Although he always forgets what his wife wants him to pick up at the store...
(The entire section is 581 words.)