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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

by James Thurber

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What is the significance of the action of the women passing by on the sidewalk in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty?

This is one of Thurber's most famous stories. It has been more widely read than any other he ever wrote. It is a fantasy about a dull, ordinary man whose life was so uninteresting and routine that he had to make up exciting fantasies in his mind to liven things up for himself. It is an amusing story for us to read, but Walter Mitty's secret life was not humorous to him. He was so unimaginative that he had no sense of humor and could not laugh at himself. He did not realize that his wife knew the secret of his imaginary adventures, because she sensed what he was doing when she heard him muttering "Puppy biscuit" aloud on the street. She knew he'

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Walter Mitty is doing some shopping for his wife. He is trying to remember one of the items she told him to get. A passing newsboy is shouting something about a trial in Waterbury and Mitty relapses from the real world, in which he has to do some shopping, into...

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Walter Mitty is doing some shopping for his wife. He is trying to remember one of the items she told him to get. A passing newsboy is shouting something about a trial in Waterbury and Mitty relapses from the real world, in which he has to do some shopping, into his fantasy world. He becomes a debonaire man of the world on trial for murder. A woman he is trying to protect by taking the blame for her crime throws herself into his arms, and the District Attorney strikes her. 

A woman’s scream rose above the bedlam and suddenly a lovely, dark-haired girl was in Walter Mitty’s arms. Without rising from his chair, Mitty let the man have it on the point of the chin. “You miserable cur!” . . .

“Puppy biscuit,” said Walter Mitty. He stopped walking and the buildings of Waterbury rose up out of the misty courtroom and surrounded him again. A woman who was passing laughed. “He said ‘Puppy biscuit,’ ” she said to her companion. “That man said ‘Puppy biscuit’ to himself.” 

This shows the complexity of Mitty's interrelations with reality and his fantasy life. It also shows the real setting, a street in the shopping district of a large town in Connecticut, in contrast with the fantasy setting of a courtroom in which Mitty himself is on the witness stand. The woman who tells her companion, "He said 'Puppy biscuit'" sounds a little like his wife in that she repeats things just like Mrs. Mitty. The woman tells her companion: "He said 'Puppy biscuit....That man said 'Puppy biscuit' to himself." It is, of course, Mitty's calling the District Attorney "You miserable cur!" in his fantasy that reminds him of the other thing he is supposed to buy. One sentence is particularly striking:

He stopped walking and the buildings of Waterbury rose up out of the misty courtroom and surrounded him again. 

He is probably used to talking to himself. The woman would not have laughed if she had heard him say, for instance, something like, "You miserable cur!" but it seems funny to hear a man say "Puppy biscuit" aloud on the street. It shows how far into his fantasies Walter Mitty was able to go. He may have been a nondescript male walking down the sidewalk, but in his fantasy, which was more real than his monotonous reality, he was a fascinating, fearless man of the world on trial for his life. Evidently Mitty's fantasy of being on trial is partly due to his knowing that his wife is going to grill him about whether he remembered what she wanted him to get.

In a way he hated these weekly trips to town—he was always getting something wrong. Kleenex, he thought, Squibb’s, razor blades? No. Toothpaste, toothbrush, bicarbonate, carborundum, initiative and referendum? He gave it up. But she would remember it. “Where’s the what’s-its-name?” she would ask. “Don’t tell me you forgot the what’s-its-name.” 

The words "Puppy biscuit" also show that the Mittys have a puppy at home. Thurber was a dog-lover. His drawings of dogs were seen in editions of The New Yorker for many years. They were so familiar to New Yorker readers that they seemed almost symbolic of the spirit of the magazine. The kind of dog he usually drew was a big dog with long ears, possibly a hunting dog like a retriever. The dog always looks sad and befuddled in Thurber's drawings, and he seems to reflect Thurber's own personality and world view. Everybody who read The New Yorker understood that in writing about the secret life of Walter Mitty, James Thurber was really writing about the secret life of James Thurber. He frequently wrote humorous stories and sketches in which he confessed being out of step with the rest of the world. He was undoubtedly influenced to some extent by the Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock. 

 

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