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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

by James Thurber
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What do Walter Mitty's daydreams symbolize?

Walter Mitty's daydreams symbolize his desire to have something more than a humdrum, cautious, middle-class life dominated by his wife. He dreams of being a bigger-than-life hero.

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In this 1939 story, Walter Mitty is, in reality, a henpecked husband driving his wife to the hairdresser while he runs mundane errands such as buying galoshes and puppy food. His dreams symbolize his desire to have a bigger, braver, and more daring life as the hero of his own life and death dramas. They show him in cliched set pieces from melodramatic movies, at a moment of crisis saving the day. He imagines being put in such dramatic settings as war zones, operating rooms, and courtrooms. His final fantasy, of facing a firing squad, also symbolizes his deep desire to escape his mundane life.

In his first fantasy, Mitty is part of a group fighting through a storm in a navy hydroplane. In reality, he is driving his car slightly too fast. In his second fantasy, rather than a man cautiously driving past the hospital and looking to park on Main Street, he is the medical specialist stepping in to save the day in the operating room amid tense surgery on a millionaire. As he tries to remember that his wife wants him to pick up puppy biscuits, Mitty imagines himself the sharpshooting but innocent defendant in a murder trial who triumphantly defends a woman from the district attorney's attack. (Earlier, Mitty had fantasized that a parking-lot attendant would have treated him less rudely had his arm been in a sling.) As he waits for his wife to finish at the hair dresser, he looks through a magazine about the war in Europe and fancies himself a brave, careless, and debonair fighter quaffing brandies before battle. In his final fantasy of the story, he faces a firing squad:

Erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.

It is hard not to have a smiling appreciation of the childlike and ordinary Mitty alleviating a boring round of errands with his romanticized, overblown fantasies. He is an everyman, dreaming of the grandeur that we all long for from time to time.

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