Explain the significance difference between the way people treat Mitty in real life and the way they treat him in his daydreams.

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Walter Mitty has little interaction with anyone but his wife. We visualize him as a thoroughly nondescript man who is virtually invisible and anonymous in the suburban setting. His biggest interaction with a character other than his wife is in the scene in which he shows his incompetence at parking the family car. The parking-lot attendant treats him with disrespect bordering on contempt.

“Back it up, Mac! Look out for that Buick!” Walter Mitty jammed on the brakes. “Wrong lane, Mac,” said the parking-lot attendant, looking at Mitty closely. “Gee. Yeh,” muttered Mitty. He began cautiously to back out of the lane marked “Exit Only.” “Leave her sit there,” said the attendant. “I’ll put her away.” Mitty got out of the car. “Hey, better leave the key.” 

Mitty is not only nondescript but seems deliberately self-effacing, as if he is hiding from the world. When he accomplishes the little errands his wife assigned him, he buries himself in a deep chair in a hotel lobby where his wife has a hard time finding him.

“I’ve been looking all over this hotel for you,” said Mrs. Mitty. “Why do you have to hide in this old chair? How did you expect me to find you?” “Things close in,” said Walter Mitty vaguely. “What?” Mrs. Mitty said. “Did you get the what’s-its-name? The puppy biscuit? What’s in that box?” “Overshoes,” said Mitty. “Couldn’t you have put them on in the store?” “I was thinking,” said Walter Mitty. “Does it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking?” She looked at him. “I’m going to take your temperature when I get you home,” she said.’

This encounter with his wife is a good example of how this one other major character treats Mitty. She is mothering, bossy, and critical. She knows him better than anyone else does, since she has apparently been married to him for a long time. She thinks he is mediocre, unsuccessful and unintelligent. She is wrong about his intellect. He has a good mind, but he is an introvert. She is an extrovert and cannot appreciate her husband's kind of creative thinking. (If Walter Mitty is regarded as a crypto-autobiographical self-portrait of James Thurber himself, his neurotic, subjective, whimsical stories, essays and drawings made him world famous and provided a comfortable income for himself and his two wives.) Perhaps Mitty would be happier if he divorced his wife. But on the other hand he might be so dependent on a practical-minded person like her that he would just marry another woman who wasn't much different. There are many marriages in which the wife takes over virtually all practical matters, including arranging social engagements. 

In his daydreams Mitty is compensating for his feelings of inadequacy and inferiority by inventing characters who treat him with respect and even with awe. A good example is in the opening scene in which Commander Walter Mitty is piloting a hydroplane in stormy waters with a hurricane brewing.

“Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!” he shouted. “Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!” repeated Lieutenant Berg. “Full strength in No. 3 turret!” shouted the Commander. “Full strength in No. 3 turret!” The crew, bending to their various tasks in the huge, hurtling eight-engined Navy hydroplane, looked at each other and grinned. “The Old Man’ll get us through,” they said to one another. “The Old Man ain’t afraid of Hell!” 

Mitty is admired for his courage as a aviator in World War I, for his expertise as a surgeon, and generally for his masterful strength of character. In real life he is probably very much like the hero of one of Thurber's other stories, "The Catbird Seat." Erwin Martin has worked in the filing department of a large firm for many years. He is quiet, patient, docile, dependable, and very regular in his habits until he is forced to deal with a horrible woman named Ulgine Barrows.

...she has fired three loyal employees, driven another to resign, and made changes in nearly every department. Now she plans to reorganize Martin's area, the filing department.

Read the study guide:
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

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