Walter Mitty is a timid, absentminded, henpecked man who escapes from reality in daydreams. When the story opens he is driving a car but fantasizing that he is Commander of a hydroplane (which is defined as "an airplane that can land or take off from the water; it moves at great speed on the water").
"We're going through!" The Commander's voice was like thin ice breaking. He wore his full-dress uniform, with the heavily braided white cap pulled down rakishly over one cold gray eye. "We can't make it, sir. It's spoiling for a hurricane, if you ask me." "I'm not asking you, Lieutenant Berg," said the Commander.
Mitty's daydream is interrupted by his shrewish wife.
"Not so fast! You're driving too fast!" said Mrs. Mitty. "What are you driving so fast for?"
She has the annoying mannerism of repeating herself.
"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."
So, in real life Mitty is timid and submissive, while in daydreams he is fearless and authoritative. His daydreams are obviously a way of compensating for his feelings of inferiority.
Mitty leaves his wife off at the building where she goes to have her hair done. James Thurber confessed in one of his essays that he always had trouble with automobiles. In "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," the protagonist is fantasizing about being a famous surgeon while he is in the process of parking the car in a lot. As a famous surgeon he is also a genius with handling medical technology.
A huge, complicated machine, connected to the operating table, with many tubes and wires, began at this moment to go pocketa-pocketa-pocketa. "The new anesthetizer is giving away!" shouted an intern. "There is no one in the East who knows how to fix it!" "Quiet, man!" said Mitty, in a low, cool voice. He sprang to the machine, which was now going pocketa-pocketa-queep-pocketa-queep. He began fingering delicately a row of glistening dials. "Give me a fountain pen!" he snapped.... He pulled a faulty piston out of the machine and inserted the pen in its place. "That will hold for ten minutes," he said. "Get on with the operation."
His daydream is rudely interrupted.
"Back it up, Mac! Look out for that Buick!" Walter Mitty jammed on the brakes. "Wrong lane, Mac," said the parking-lot attendant, looking at Mitty closely. "Gee. Yeh," muttered Mitty. He began cautiously to back out of the lane marked "Exit Only." "Leave her sit there," said the attendant. "I'll put her away.... Hey, better leave the key."
In real life Mitty is incompetent with machinery of any kind, but in his fantasies he is an expert. The fact that he really knows very little about medicine or medical technology is shown by his invention of medical and technical terms. One is "Obstreosis of the ductal tract. Tertiary." Another is "streptothricosis."
The name Walter Mitty suggests a nervous, timid man. The real-life events in this story involve a middle-aged couple driving into town on a mundane shopping trip. Mitty is supposed to pick up a box of puppy biscuits while his wife is having her hair done. But in Mitty's fantasy world, all sorts of hair-raising incidents are occurring. He is commanding a hydroplane in a storm, performing a surgical operation under adverse conditions, testifying in a murder case, flying a plane in World War I, and finally standing in front of a firing squad. He is incompetent because he is absent-minded and absent-minded because he feels incompetent.