How does James Thurber use fantasy to convey ideas about reality in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"?

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ariel-mcgavock | (Level 1) Associate Educator

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In “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” James Thurber creates a juxtaposition of fantasy and reality to parody both the ordinariness of Mitty’s everyday life and emphasize the irony of his fantasies.

Fantasy rules over reality in Thurber’s story. The story opens with Mitty as the Commander of a “Navy hydroplane” who navigates dreadful weather with skill and courage, only to be jolted out of his dream by his wife’s nagging. The fantasy plays on the actions that he is performing in reality—for example, the reader is given to understand that in his excitement at going through the storm in his fantasy, Mitty presses down on the accelerator of his car.

Thurber constructs a fantasy world for Mitty that is the polar opposite of his everyday world, and in which Mitty is a very different person. In his fantasies, Mitty is esteemed and respected; a “lovely, dark-haired girl” flies into his arms in one dream, and his signature feature is a “faint, fleeting smile.” In reality, he is married to Mrs. Mitty, a woman he views as overbearing, and it is difficult to imagine that “faint, fleeting smile” on the face of a man who mumbles “puppy biscuits” as a sort of epiphany in the middle of the sidewalk.

The two worlds seem to be very dissimilar, but they bleed together in subtle ways. For instance, Mitty’s imaginings are usually spurred by the world around him: while driving, he imagines that he is flying a plane, and while passing a hospital, he imagines himself to be a surgeon. Mitty’s real-world shortcomings leak into the fantasies as well, though it is debatable whether Mitty notices this. He has little to no knowledge of the topics of which he speaks: he imagines fixing an “anesthetizer,” and claims that his gun is a “Webley-Vickers 50.80.” The ludicrous nature of his daydreams are lost on him even as his ignorance creeps into his fantasies.

Perhaps the best example of fantasy portraying reality comes at the end of the story, when Mrs. Mitty goes into the drugstore after scolding her husband. While waiting outside the store, this scene is described:

He took one last drag on his cigarette and snapped it away. Then, with that faint, fleeting smile playing about his lips, he faced the firing squad; erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.

Having been chastised and seemingly derided by his wife only to finally suffer the ignoble fate of being forced to wait outside for her, he feels as though he has been sentenced to death. In this way the reader can see that the fantasy is informed by Mitty’s view of his reality: embarrassed by his own failings, he retreats once more to his own world to picture himself as “erect and motionless, proud and disdainful”—descriptors that Mitty does not appear to possess in reality.

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