James Thurber Short Fiction Analysis
James Thurber is best known as the author of humorous sketches, stories, and reminiscences dealing with urban bourgeois American life. To discuss Thurber as an artist in the short-story form is difficult, however, because of the variety of things he did that might legitimately be labeled short stories. His essays frequently employ stories and are “fictional” in recognizable ways. His “memoirs” in My Life and Hard Times are clearly fictionalized. Many of his first-person autobiographical sketches are known to be “fact” rather than fiction only through careful biographical research. As a result, most of his writings can be treated as short fiction. Thurber seemed to prefer to work on the borderlines between conventional forms.
There is disagreement among critics as to the drift of the attitudes and themes reflected in James Thurber’s work. The poles are well represented by Richard C. Tobias on the one hand and the team of Walter Blair and Hamlin Hill on the other. Tobias argues that Thurber comically celebrates the life of the mind: “Thurber’s victory is a freedom within law that delights and surprises.” Blair and Hill, in America’s Humor (1978), see Thurber as a sort of black humorist laughing at his own destruction, “a humorist bedeviled by neuroses, cowed before the insignificant things in his world, and indifferent to the cosmic ones. He loses and loses and loses his combats with machines, women, and animals until defeat becomes permanent.” While Tobias sees women as vital forces in Thurber’s work, Hill and Blair see Thurber as essentially a misogynist bewailing the end of the ideal of male freedom best portrayed in 1950’s Western film and pathetically reflected in the fantasies of Walter Mitty. In fact, it seems that critics’ opinions regarding Thurber’s attitudes about most subjects vary from one text to the next, but certain themes seem to remain consistent. His weak male characters do hate strong women, but the males are often weak because they accept the world in which their secret fantasies are necessary and, therefore, leave their women no choice but to try to hold things together. When a woman’s strength becomes arrogance as in “The Catbird Seat” and “The Unicorn in the Garden,” the man often defeats her with the active power of his imagination. Characterizing Thurber as a Romantic, Robert Morsberger lists some themes he sees pervading Thurber’s writing: a perception of the oppression of technocracy and of the arrogance of popular scientism especially in their hostility to imagination; an antirational but not anti-intellectual approach to modern life; a belief in the power of the imagination to preserve human value in the face of contemporary forms of alienation; and a frequent use of fear and fantasy to overcome the dullness of his characters’ (and readers’) lives.
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is Thurber’s best-known work of short fiction. Its protagonist, the milquetoast Walter Mitty, lives in a reverie consisting of situations in which he is a hero: commander of a navy hydroplane, surgeon, trial witness, bomber pilot, and condemned martyr. The dream is clearly an escape from the external life which humiliatingly interrupts it: his wife’s mothering, the arrogant competence of a parking attendant and policeman, the humiliating errands of removing tire chains, buying overshoes, and asking for puppy biscuits. In his dreams, he is Lord Jim, the misunderstood hero, “inscrutable to the last”; in his daily life he is a middle-aged husband enmeshed in a web of the humdrum. Tobias sees Mitty as ultimately triumphant over dreary reality. Blair and Hill see him as gradually losing grip of the real world and slipping into psychosis. Whether liberated or defeated by his imagination, Mitty is clearly incompetent and needs the mothering his wife gives him. Often described as an immoral and malicious woman, she is actually just the wife he needs and deserves; she seems to exist as a replacement ego to keep him from catching his death of cold as he somnambulates. The story’s artfulness is readily apparent in the precise choice and arrangement of details such as sounds, objects, and images that connect fantasy and reality. The technical devices are virtually the same as those used by William Faulkner and Joyce to indicate shifts in levels of awareness in their “free-association internal monologues.” Mitty has become a representative figure in modern culture like T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock and Faulkner’s Quentin Compson, although perhaps more widely known. While many of Thurber’s stories are similar to this one in theme and form, they are astonishingly diverse in subject, situation, and range of technique.
“The Black Magic of Barney Haller”
Another large group of Thurber stories might be characterized as fictionalized autobiography. One of the best...
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