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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

by James Thurber

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What causes Walter Mitty's daydreams in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"?

Walter Mitty's daydreams in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" are caused by boredom and his dissatisfaction with everyday life. They are an escape into a world in which exciting things happen.

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I believe that there are two possible answers to this question. One answer focuses on the more immediate question of what causes or triggers each imaginary fantasy, and the other answer looks toward the deeper seated root cause of why Mitty is having so many daydreams in the first place.

Mitty's daydreams aren't random. They are triggered by something in the environment around him. When he sees a hospital, he imagines that he is an expert surgeon. When he hears about a court trial, he is a fantastic lawyer. When he sees pictures of bombers, Mitty becomes a brave pilot. When he lights up a cigarette, he imagines himself standing before a firing squad.

The fact that Mitty is having daydreams shouldn't surprise or shock readers. We've all had daydreams, and more than likely, they involve us doing something in and around the environment that we were present in at that moment. What readers should notice is just how often Mitty has his daydreams. They are constant. It's possible that Mitty has some kind of underlying mental disorder and simply can't prevent his mind from wandering all over the place. It might be interesting to explore what mental disorder is the root cause of Mitty's daydreams.

If his daydreams are not caused by a medical condition, then most readers come from the angle that the underlying reason for his daydreams is that Mitty is seeking escapism. He is treated as somewhat inept in his real life by his wife. She orders him around about everything, and his daydreams clearly put himself in a position of power in which he is the alpha giving everyone else the orders. Mitty would simply rather live in his dreams than in his reality, and that is what triggers daydream after daydream.

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Walter Mitty's daydreams are a form of escape from the boredom of everyday life. His real life is characterized by boredom, routine, lack of satisfaction, and a nagging wife. His dreams, on the other hand, involve being a bomber pilot, facing a firing squad, and being on the witness stand in the courtroom revealing that he is a talented marksman, and having an attractive young woman fall into his arms.

Real life is juxtaposed against a world of excitement and fantasy, and since Walter is unable to create any excitement in his real life, he escapes into these fantasy worlds at every given opportunity.

His wife, who seems to have no understanding of her husband's lack of satisfaction with his life, treats his fantasies with disdain, informing him at one point that she will need to take his temperature when they get home. I would argue that his unhappiness in his marriage makes his boredom with his life worse, which in turn leads to more of the daydreams which his wife so derides.

In a nutshell, Walter's daydreams are caused by the same factor which makes some people escape into books, others gamble, and yet others have extramarital affairs. He is looking for an escape from the mundane nature of his everyday life.

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All of Walter's daydreams are ultimately caused by his dull daily existence, but small moments in the story also show the small moments that trigger his imagination.

For example, Walter drives past the hospital, which makes him imagine being a famous surgeon called in for an important case. He hears a paper boy talking about a famous court case, and then he imagines himself being called to the stand in a murder investigation. While it's not clear if all of his daydreams are caused by things like this (his firing squad daydream, for example, seems to have no direct connection to his surroundings), it is clear that his overactive imagination is stimulated by what he sees and hears, even if he himself is not aware of the fact.

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In the short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," it's clear that Mitty's demanding wife and overall disappointing life are the causes of his daydreams.

Each daydream is caused by something his wife did or said. 

For example, the first daydream of him piloting a submarine is interrupted by his wife who tells him to slow down and then, in a nagging voice, says, "What are you driving so fast for?" While this event happens after his daydream, it's still his wife who precipitates it.

Then she suggests that he get medical attention for his daydreams.

Each daydream deals with his attempt to escape his wife's control, but at the end, as he has probably done his whole marriage, he succumbs to both his wife and his imaginary firing squad.

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