Mrs. Mitty breaks into her husband's fantasy as he is imagining himself the commander of "a huge, hurtling eight-engined Navy hydroplane" fighting its way through a storm approaching hurricane velocity.
“Not so fast! You’re driving too fast!” said Mrs. Mitty. “What are you driving so fast for?”
Very quickly James Thurber informs us that Mitty lives in a fantasy world at least partly to escape from his domineering wife who has the annoying habit of repeating everything she says.
“You were up to fifty-five,” she said. “You know I don’t like to go more than forty. You were up to fifty-five.”
While indulging in one of his fantasies, Walter Mitty has unconsciously been pressing his foot down harder on the accelerator. His wife, a back-seat driver, has been watching the speedometer.
“You’re tensed up again,” said Mrs. Mitty. “It’s one of your days. I wish you’d let Dr. Renshaw look you over.”
This reference to Dr. Renshaw will trigger Walter Mitty's next fantasy after he has dropped his wife off in front of the building where she goes regularly to have her hair done. In his new fantasy Mitty is a world-renowned physician and surgeon called in on an emergency operation on "McMillan, the millionaire banker and close personal friend of [President Franklin D.] Roosevelt." We see how one simple cue can evoke an entire fantasy-drama in which Mitty has the leading role. This is his "secret life."
It should be noted that what must have triggered Mitty's fantasy about piloting the Navy hydroplane was that he noticed a few drops of rain on his windshield and realized that a storm was coming. It is up to him to get his wife to Waterbury, Connecticut and back to their suburban home. The threat of a storm makes him imagine the hydroplane episode, and the actual rainstorm he anticipated will begin at the end of the story and trigger another fantasy. Mitty is standing outside a drugstore waiting for his wife.
Mitty lighted a cigarette. It began to rain, rain with sleet in it. He stood up against the wall of the drugstore, smoking. . . . He put his shoulders back and his heels together. “To hell with the handkerchief,” said Walter Mitty scornfully. 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.
The story ends with these words. Many critics have guessed that this last episode expresses a death wish. Mitty knows he is not the hero he imagines himself to be in his recurring fantasies. He is an unhappy man with a nagging wife and an inferiority complex. He is bored with existence. He would like to be dead. Smoking a cigarette with his back to the wall of the drugstore makes him imagine himself standing in front of a firing squad, since he knows it is traditional to give a man a last cigarette before he is shot. There is often an element of bitterness in Thurber's humorous pieces. In his old age he was completely blind, and the New Yorker, which he had helped to create, was no longer accepting his submissions. He was quoted as saying:
I can’t hide anymore behind the mask of comedy....People are not funny; they are vicious and horrible--and so is life!