The three main issues in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” are escape from reality and judgments through alter egos, day dreams and mental health, and emasculation in marriage.
Walter Mitty’s imaginary alter egos offer escape from and rebuttal to reality. When Mitty is not daydreaming, he is bossed around by Mrs. Mitty, humiliated by a well-intentioned parking attendant, mocked by a “grinning” garage mechanic, and laughed at by a female passerby. While driving his wife to a hair appointment, he imagines himself as a valiant naval captain who commands his crew and saves his plane; ironically, his crew commends him for being a man who “ain’t afraid of Hell”.
In reality, he is ordered around by his domineering wife. When she treats him like a child who should wear his gloves, Mitty imagines a scenario where he is a heroic published surgeon who dons surgical gloves and swoops in to help other physicians. After being unable to park his car and surrendering it to a “cocky” parking attendant who “backed it up with insolent skill,” Mitty fashions himself an expert shooter who is able to kill a man 300 feet away with his left hand. By the end of the story when he is scolded by Mrs. Mitty for his strange behavior, Mitty retreats to a defiant alter ego faces a firing squad—his wife?—and remains “undefeated, inscrutable.”
Mrs. Mitty’s inability to understand Mitty’s daydreaming makes her believe he has mental issues; she tells him, “It’s one of your days. I wish you’d let Dr. Renshaw look you over.” By the end when he answers her relentless questions with non sequiturs, she says, “I’m going to take your temperature when I get you home.” Author Thurber illustrates how Mitty’s mind weaves between reality and fantasy in an almost stream-of-consciousness manner. Driving a car makes him imagine himself a pilot of a fighter plane. He comes out of that daydream with sounds “fading in the remote, intimate airways of his mind.” Gloves and the mention of Dr. Renshaw inspire his fantasy of being a savior surgeon. Thoughts of an arm in sling lead him to imagine himself as a left-handed sharp shooter with an injured right arm. A magazine article on Germany at war takes him back to his first fantasy as a naval captain living dangerously. Mitty’s daydreams seem harmless and self-protective; they are absurd and almost comic, with made-up words like “anaesthetizer,” an imaginary medical machine that Mitty fixes like MacGyver.
A third issue is emasculation in marriage. Throughout the story, Mitty is ordered around by his wife, who makes him drive her to her hair appointment, wait for him, commands him to buy overshoes, barks at him for not wearing gloves, and nags him to buy biscuits for their puppy, which she probably treats better than Mitty.When he does not answer her questions to her satisfaction, he asks her, “Does it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking?” His wife just stares back at him and thinks he is not feeling well. Mitty imagines an un-emasculated version of himself: a shooter in whose arms a beautiful girl suddenly appears. This alter ego successfully defends this damsel against another man. In fact, all of Mitty’s alter egos are macho heroes that contrast the real henpecked husband.