What is the structure of the story "The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty" by James Thurber?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

James Thurber's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" presents a story in which fantasy intrudes upon the boundaries of reality in an episodic fashion.

The reader can delight in Mitty's creative imagination that compensates him for his shortcomings and helps him deal with his domineering wife. For instance, in one episode, Mitty is incapable of parking his car in the parking lot, and he has to surrender his keys to the insolent attendant who backs it quickly into the spot. As he walks toward a store to purchase overshoes by his wife's order, Mitty recalls another failure of his with a different garageman, who laughed when he saw Mitty's failed attempt to remove the snow chains from his tires. "The next time, he thought, I'll wear my right arm in a sling; they'll see I couldn't possibly take the chains off myself."

The memory of his inadequacies triggers disagreeable thoughts. In one instance, Mitty walks along, trying to recall what besides shoes he is supposed to buy. When a newsboy calls out something about the Waterbury trial, Walter Mitty's imagination transforms him into a heroic defendant who has bravely defended "a lovely, dark-haired girl" that throws herself into Mitty's arms at the trial. As the District Attorney strikes at her with brutality, the heroic Mitty "let the man have it on the point of the chin" while calling the attorney a "miserable cur."

In another instance, when Mitty reaches the hotel where he has been instructed to wait for his wife, Mitty ensconces himself in a leather chair and picks up an old copy of Liberty, a magazine of general interest published during the 1930s and 1940s. When Mitty glances at an article entitled "Can Germany Conquer the World Through the Air?" Mitty's imagination is again triggered as he views photos of bombing planes and rubble in the streets. Suddenly, he is the heroic Captain Mitty who volunteers to fly a bomber plane. With a cavalier attitude, Mitty "finishes one last brandy" and hums a popular French song as he waves to the sergeant and says, "Cheerio!" However, Walter's heroic dream is interrupted by Mrs. Mitty, who scolds him for hiding in the wing chair.

Unfortunately, this episodic pattern of painful memories replaced by heroic imaginings, while humorous to readers, also hints at Walter Mitty's underlying repression. Nevertheless, after he and his wife exit the hotel and Mrs. Mitty tells him to wait while she goes to a nearby drugstore, Walter again daydreams. He waits, imagining that he faces a firing squad. He is "erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last."

parkerlee eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This story vascillates between the everyday humdrum life of Water Mitty, the hen-pecked husband sterotype, and the extravagant adventures he lives in his daydreams. Mitty flits in and out of reality, his daydreams concocted by a stream of consciousness association triggered by the sputtering of his car's exhaust pipe, a pair of gloves, and finally a freshly lit cigarette. In such a way this docile "hubby" gets to be the captain of an icebreaker, a famous surgeon, a defendent in a murder trial and finally a fighter pilot taken captive distaining a firing squad. Mitty's imagination is his "second life," which nurtures his deflated ego and helps hims escape the insufferable mediocrity of his existence.

If you do a graph of the plot line of this story, it would look very much like a cardiograph printout, with the steady horizontal line of Mitty's real life intermittantly broken by the highs and lows of his "virtual" existence.

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

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