The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The Universal Appeal of the Main Character

(Short Stories for Students)

Walter Mitty is one of literature's great dreamers. He spends much of his time escaping into fantasies in which he is brilliant and heroic, and his life is dramatic and adventurous. The enduring popularity of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is undoubtedly due in great part to readers' ability to identify with Mitty; after all, most of us find our lives at times mundane and unsatisfying, and use daydreams to enter a more interesting world.

Mitty is, of course, an extreme case when it comes to daydreaming. In the single afternoon covered by the story's action, he imagines he is a prominent surgeon operating on a millionaire; a skilled marksman providing testimony in a sensational trial; a courageous warrior of the air (twice); and a condemned man bravely facing a firing squad.

Numerous critics have pointed to Mitty as a prime example of modern man, trapped in a world that is full of dull responsibilities and offers few possibilities for adventure—or, at least, offers these possibilities only to the few. Mitty dreams of flying planes in hazardous conditions and causing scenes in courtrooms, but his life consists of buying overshoes and waiting for his wife to have her hair done. In his fantasies, not only is his life exciting, but his imagined persona is heroic and resourceful as well. In his daydreams he is a figure larger than life, unflappable and in control of every situation; in reality he is a character critics have dubbed the "little man,'' ineffectual and somewhat ridiculous. He inspires feelings of superiority in garage attendants. When he remembers that he is supposed to buy puppy biscuit, he says the words aloud, leading a passer-by to laugh and remark to her companion, "That man said 'Puppy biscuit' to himself." Even a revolving door seems to mock him; it makes a "faintly derisive'' noise when pushed. Mitty's mental meanderings also have something to do with asserting his manhood, at least a stereotypical idea of manhood. He fantasizes about excelling at what are considered "masculine" pursuits having to do with guns and bombs; in reality, he has trouble taking the chains off his car's tires.

Scholar Carl M. Lindner asserts in an essay in The Georgia Review that the forces that induce Mitty to daydream include the development of urban, industrial society. When the United States was a young country, with an untamed frontier, there were far more opportunities for heroic action—or, at least, there seemed to be, Lindner notes. Also, literature and legend immortalized many frontier heroes, whether fictional creations such as James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo or real historical figures such as Davy Crockett (whose accomplishments were heavily exaggerated, so that he now seems almost like a fictional character). "With the frontier gone, and physical and psychological space limited, the typical male is reduced to fantasy-visions as outlets for that action which is now denied him," Lindner states. Whether Mitty actually would become a hero if possibilities for action were available to him is open to question; he appears to lack capability as well as opportunity. Some critics have contended Mitty's inability to deal with life is the natural result of the modern world's stresses on the individual. In James Thurber's vision, this world is "Hell for the Romantic individual," comments Lindner. However, in the estimation of another critic, Ann Ferguson Mann, Mitty has merely abdicated responsibility for his life. In her essay in Studies in Short Fiction, Mann writes: "What Thurber's story can show us, while it delights us with its clever humor, is that what traps the Walter Mittys of this world and insures that they will remain 'little men' is their own limited view of themselves and others."

Mann's view diverges from a widely held assertion that holds Mitty's wife responsible for his predicament as well as blaming contemporary society. In his stories and cartoons, Thurber often portrayed women, especially wives, as dominating and...

(The entire section is 5,552 words.)