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Walter Mitty’s dominant character trait is that he is a lonely dreamer. He creates an imaginary world where he is successful and happy, and brave as exciting things happen. These daydreams allow him to forget that his is an average, ordinary person leading a normal, boring life. He is constantly emasculated by his wife, who does not understand him and certainly does not appreciate that he has bigger dreams than a humdrum life. She seems completely unaware of his daydreams, and he does not share them. He does not feel comfortable sharing his life and feelings, or thoughts, with his wife. This is why he escapes into an imaginary world.
Using the vernacular of the time period in which Thurber's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" was written, Walter Mitty is a husband who is "hen-pecked." In contemporary times, Mitty would probably be considered repressed.
Mrs. Mitty is a dominant force in her marriage, a self-centered woman who belittles her husband with scoldings and the assignment of menial tasks. A petty and unimaginative woman, Mrs. Mitty fails to recognize creativity in her husband and instead disparages his flights of fancy at every turn.
Because he is constantly belittled and because he is unable to assert himself, even with garage attendants, Mitty escapes into the world of his imagination, where he can be heroic and creative rather than mediocre. Yet, the boundaries between reality and Mitty's fantasies are very porous and Mitty moves dangerously back and forth in them. For instance, after dropping off Mrs. Mitty at the hairdresser's, Mitty drives past a hospital and then imagines that he is a renowned and highly skilled surgeon to whom others must defer.
A nurse hurried over and whispered to Renshaw, and Mitty saw the man turn pale. "Coreopsis has set in, " said Renshaw nervously. "If you would take over, Mitty?"
Perhaps with a supportive wife, Mitty could remain in reality and achieve some self-esteem by acting in a community theater or by being involved in some other creative exercise. Instead, however, he is relegated to running trivial errands for his wife and being scolded. When, for instance, she has searched for Mitty at the hotel where she has instructed him to meet her when he is finished with his errands, she mundanely asks, "Why do you have to hide in this old chair? How did you expect me to find you?" and then inquires as to why he has not put on his overshoes. Mitty replies, "Does it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking?"
With no comprehension of thinking as a creative and meaningful activity, the trivial and mundane Mrs. Mitty belittles her husband's sensitive confession by merely looking at him and saying with insensitivity, "I'm going to take your temperature when I get home."
Mrs. Mitty's insensitivity to the needs of Walter Mitty cause him to retreat once more into his daydreams, where he can escape her authority, an authority which for him has come to represent that of the real world. Now he faces a firing squad, the firing squad of mediocrity to which he has been condemned.
Walter Mitty would be described objectively by most people as "absent-minded." They would not understand what was going on inside his head; they would only observe that he was forgetful, inattentive, and rather incompetent. He obviously has a rich fantasy life, but no one, including his own wife, knows or cares anything about that. He regards his fantasizing as "thinking."
"I was thinking," said Walter Mitty. "Does it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking."
For most men Walter Mitty's type of "thinking" might be counter-productive, but if Mitty is James Thurber's alter-ego the fantasies can be put into words and turned into cash. Thurber was one of the most popular writers in America for many years.
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