The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty book cover
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Critical Overview

(Short Stories for Students)

"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is Thurber's best-known short story. Walter Mitty has become a well-known character in American fiction. The tenth edition of the Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary defines a "Walter Mitty" as "a commonplace unadventurous person who seeks escape
from reality through daydreaming." Waller Mitty, the average, ineffectual American is a recurring character-type in Thurber's fiction. Critics refer to this type of character as the "Thurber male."

However, critics are divided on how to interpret this Thurberian character. On the one hand, Richard C. Tobias's The Art of James Thurber views Thurber as a cerebral comic writer, whose protagonists defeat humdrum reality with their imaginations. On the other hand, Walter Blair and Hamlin Hill discuss Thurber's bleak comic sensibility in their book, America's Humor. Characters like Mitty, Blair argues, let their neurotic fears defeat them, and are unable to cope with the world. In The Georgia Review, Carl M. Lindner sees Walter Mitty as the latest in a line of American male heroes, such as Rip Van Winkle and Tom Sawyer. Like these archetypal comic figures, Mitty chooses to escape society rather than confront it. Refusing to accept adult responsibility, Lindner argues, these figures of masculinity regress to boyish behavior.

Critics disagree about Thurber's portrayal of women as well. Commentators such as Blair and Hill consider him a misogynist—a person who hates women. Viewing Mrs. Mitty as the one responsible for Walter's loss of independence and his inability to function, such critics believe Thurber was opposed to strong, empowered female characters. Tobias, on the other hand, praises Thurber's assertive female characters. Critics who analyze Thurber's stories as lightly comic and triumphant are more likely to regard favorably his depictions of women; those who concentrate on his darker themes point to his negative portrayals of women.

Another issue which recurs in critical discussion is Thurber's view of modern life and his technique in portraying it. His writing has been compared to that of modernist writers such as William Faulkner,...

(The entire section is 511 words.)