Style and Technique
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One admirable component of the story is Thurber’s keenly observed, often ironic, small detail of human action that reveals personality. Almost imperceptible is the detail of Mitty racing the car motor when told by his wife that he needs overshoes because he is no longer a young man—a response that suggests Mitty’s furtive defiance. Another such detail is Mitty’s reaction to a police officer’s curt command “Pick it up, brother” at a traffic signal that has changed. Mitty first put on his gloves in the car as ordered by his wife, took them off when she was out of sight, but now puts them back on, suggesting that he equates the traffic officer with his wife as an authority figure, to whom he has been guiltily disobedient in the matter of his gloves. Though merely ordered to move on now that the traffic signal has turned green, Mitty (whose last name recalls the sort of gloves imposed on children) acts to rectify all misbehaviors. Mitty’s subdued rebellion is also glimpsed in carrying his new overshoes out of the store in the box rather than wearing them, for which his wife later scolds him.
Still another unobtrusive detail is Mitty’s going not to the first A & P grocery store available but to a smaller one farther up the street in his quest of puppy biscuit (a particularly unheroic task). Earlier, Mitty was embarrassed by a woman’s laughter at his isolated utterance “puppy biscuit” on the street and thus wants to gain as much distance as possible from the site of his shame.
The story, as might be expected from one of America’s premier humorists, is constantly amusing. Mitty continually misapplies melodramatic film clichés (from war films, courtroom dramas, and the like) in his fantasies, creating, for example, a comically exaggerated Englishman whose understatement in response to an explosive demolition of the room in which he is standing, “a bit of a near thing,” is enjoyably ludicrous, as is the British “Captain” Mitty’s attempt at carefree profundity: “We only live once . . . or do we?” Other amusing touches include the hydroplane commander’s full-dress uniform in the midst of a storm and his nonsensical orders about a turret, Mitty’s made-up medical jargon for his hospital fantasy, and marksman Mitty’s incredibly exaggerated claim of how far he can accurately shoot (with any firearm) and mention of an impossible caliber.
However, the comic exaggeration—Mitty’s fixing a complex machine with a fountain pen, being the only one on the East Coast who can make the repair, or having as his patient not only a millionaire banker (a point needlessly repeated in the fantasy except as a bolster to Mitty’s ego) but a personal friend of President Roosevelt—like the other elements of humor in the story, has a serious point. At heart, all human beings need respect, dignity, and freedom. Walter Mitty is a comic Everyman.
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"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" was first published in 1939, the year World War II began. German troops invaded Poland, the Germans and the Soviets signed a Nazi-Soviet nonagression pact, and Germany and Italy formed the Pact of Steel Alliance. While the Axis powers were consolidating, Britain and France declared war on Germany. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared U.S. neutrality in the war, but the United States entered the war in 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt, at the suggestion of Albert Einstein, ordered a U.S. effort to build an atomic bomb. In Spain, the forces of fascist Francisco Franco captured Madrid, ending the Spanish Civil War. While Walter Mitty, a middle-aged man, dreams of being a captain in the First World War, the dream is triggered by his reading an article intimating World War II in Liberty magazine entitled, "Can Germany Conquer the World Through the Air?'' The articles contain "pictures of bombing planes and of ruined streets." In the late 1930s and early 1940s, American men like Walter Mitty had to confront their fears of and desires for proving their manhood in battle.
Thurber's use of wordplay and exploration of the absurdity of modern life has been noted for its affinities with modernist writing. Modernists played with conventional narrative form and dialogue, attempting to approximate subjective thought and experience. Thurber's narrative technique has been compared to the writings of William Faulkner, whose novels Absalom, Absalom! and Light in August were published in the 1930s. Thurber's playful use of words and themes of absurdity also
show the influence of the poet Wallace Stevens, whose book of verse, The Man with the Blue Guitar was published in 1937.
Towards the end of the story, Walter comments that "things close in," which, according to Carl M. Lindner, represents the suffocating effects of modern life on "the Romantic individual." That the world was changing due to technological, economic, and social developments (think of Walter's problems fixing his car, for example) is reflected in the opening of the 1939-40 New York World's Fair, whose theme was "The World of Tomorrow."
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In "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,'' Thurber tells the story of Walter Mitty, a man who lives in a dream world to escape from the routines and humiliations he suffers in everyday life. The action takes place over the course of a single day, during which Walter Mitty and his wife go on their weekly shopping trip. Walter slips into his daydreams, only to be awakened when he has made an error in judgment, such as speeding or driving on the wrong side of the road.
Thurber has carefully constructed the story's narrative to connect Mitty's "secret life" with his external life. In the first dream sequence, Walter is a naval commander who sails his hydroplane at full speed to avoid a hurricane. The dream abruptly ends when his wife admonishes him for driving too quickly, implying that Walter's dream led to his speeding. The second dream begins when his wife notes that he is tense, and asks him to see a doctor. Hearing the name of the doctor sends Walter Mitty into dreaming that he is a famous surgeon who assists in saving the life of a wealthy patient, a banker named Wellington MacMillan. Each of the dreams, then, begins with some detail from Walter's everyday life. Walter transforms insignificant comments, sounds or objects into major props in his heroic conquests. The same details from reality force him out of his dream world. Significantly, the story opens and closes in the middle of dream sequences, as if to emphasize their priority over reality for Walter. It is left to the reader to consider the importance of the last scene, in which Walter bravely faces a firing squad without a blindfold. Thurber's narrative proficiency is such that he actually writes six stories within one. None of the mini-narratives have decisive conclusions: each of the dream sequences, like the entire story, is an abbreviated short story with no clear beginning or end.
Point of View
Linked to his use of narration, Thurber uses an unusual point of view in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." The story is told in the third-person, but the reader has access to Mitty's thoughts. The dream sequences complicate this third-person limited point of view. During these sections of the story, readers are inside of Walter's fantasy. His conscious thoughts are on display. He wonders what he was supposed to buy at the store. Readers also have access to another level of Mitty's consciousness during the dream sequences. Here, Walter's thoughts are projected into narrative action. Thurber shifts from one level of awareness to another without confusing the reader.
Thurber has been praised for his use of extravagant wordplay and literary allusions. Noted primarily for his light sketches and humorous line drawings, Thurber did not receive a great deal of serious critical appraisal during his career. However, later critics have commented on his bitter political and social commentary and the latent, darker themes in his work. Through his use of humor and wit, Thurber was able to explore the conflicts and neurotic tensions of modern life. Mitty's misuse of words such as "coreopsis" and "obstreosis" in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is a typical example of how Thurber employed speech to great effect. Humorous distortions of medical terms, technological advancements, and items of warfare make Mitty's portrayal accurate, lifelike, and believable. During his courtroom daydream, Mitty is called upon to identify a gun known as a "Webley-Vickers 50.80." This is another instance where Thurber twists words to enrich the depiction of Mitty's character. Carl M. Lindner asserts that this distortion of a brand-name (probably Smith and Wesson—a well-known gun manufacturer) demonstrates Mitty's "ignorance of the heroic experience" and amuses readers at the same time. Thurber used such distortions of speech and reality to effectively depict the absurdities of the human condition.
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"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is one of the best known and most popular short stories in American literature. When it was printed it aroused more reaction than anything else ever published in the New Yorker — which, considering the brouhaha over Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" (1949), and the fact that John Hersey's Hiroshima (1946) and Rachael Carson's The Silent Spring (1962) appeared in the journal, is intriguing in itself.
The tale is a classic fantasy in which the Little Man husband, Mitty, escapes from the realities of his mundane world by imagining himself performing heroic deeds in a variety of romantic situations with the action accompanied by a "pocketa-pocketa-pocketa" sound. According to Thurber, he was trying to "treat the remarkable as commonplace," in this piece. This approach to his material, and its obverse, is at the center of a great deal of his humor.
Because he was dealing with a common experience, one that his audience would find particularly familiar, all that Thurber had to do was to establish a pattern; he did not need to expand the plot very far (as was done in the movie version, or in a recent retelling in the British novel Billy Liar). The fantasy tone of the tale is offset to some extent by the inclusion of specific unifying details, such as the appearance of a Webley-Vickers automatic pistol in two of the dream sequences. The use of such details is also realistic in two ways. First, dreams frequently include elements that are incorporated from outside the dreamer (the ring of a telephone, for instance). Second, the details tie Mitty to reality, as when the use of the word "cur" in one imaginative segment suddenly propels Mitty back into reality and he remembers the item that he had not yet bought — puppy biscuits.
Interestingly, as Thurber's career evolved, two major elements of his style developed in different directions, yet they were interrelated. His penchant for rewriting never diminished. Although occasionally pieces such as "File and Forget" (January 8, 1949, reprinted in Alarms and Diversions), were dashed off in the course of one afternoon, even these exceptions were not the rarities that they seemed, according to Thurber. In an interview with George Plimpton and Max Steele, he explained that "File and Forget" came easily "because it was a series of letters just as one would ordinarily dictate." Even so, he acknowledged, the last letter took him a week — "It was the end of the piece and I had to fuss over it." He also recounted that his second wife took a look at a first version of something that he had written and said, "'Goddamn it, Thurber, that's high school stuff.' I have to tell her to wait until the seventh draft, it'll work out all right. I don't know why that should be so, that the first or second draft of everything I write reads as if it was turned out by a charwoman." It took Thurber about eight weeks and fifteen complete rewrites before he was satisfied with "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," which is approximately four thousand words long.
There are two reasons for Thurber's rewrites. To begin, he has said that "the whole purpose is to sketch out proportions. I rarely have a very clear idea of where I'm going when I start. Just people and/or a situation. Then I fool around — writing and rewriting — until the stuff jells." The second reason has to do with the author's "constant attempt . . . to make the finished version smooth, to make it seem effortless . . . With humor you have to look out for traps. You're likely to be very gleeful with what you've first put down, and you think it's fine, very funny. One reason you go over and over it is to make the piece sound less as if you were having a lot of fun with it yourself. You try to play it down."
As he grew increasingly blind, Thurber relied on a secretary to do the mechanical transcribing of his work. By the time he became totally blind he was so skilled at rewriting and his memory was so accurate that he could compose a two thousand-word story in his mind at night and then edit it as he dictated it to this secretary the next morning. Thus, the loss of his sight had little affect on his ability to polish, although there does seem to have been a reduction in the visual images incorporated in his stories that paralleled his diminishing vision.
Many critics have discussed Thurber's style and themes. Richard C. Tobias, for example, has written about the humorist's use of comic masks to explore common twentieth-century American subjects in his first efforts, how he uses conventional, social, and literary types later, and how he develops old comic plots in new ways. Like his colleagues White and Perelman, Thurber loved language — the way it sounds, the way it is used to mean something. His style depends on his precise usage, and much of his humor is based on an application of the literal meaning of words. Some of the techniques that Thurber employed include puns, artistic allusions, an exquisite sense of timing, and so forth. He also utilized both hyperbole and understatement, frequently emphasizing a point by juxtaposing these devices. He was also fond of reversal and other ironic forms.
Typically, Thurber's settings, circumstances, and characters were normal, conventional middle-class American. Among his greatest talents was the ability to take these elements and to emphasize one or two minor details in his description to create an indelible image of the situation.
Thurber told Plimpton and Steele that "the act of writing is something the writer dreads or actually likes, and I actually like it. Even rewriting's fun." (Parenthetically, he did not consider himself an artist, because he did his cartoons "for relaxation, and . . . I do them too fast for them to be called art.") Moreover, in "The Case for Comedy," he had concluded, "As brevity is the soul of wit, form, it seems to me, is the heart of humor and the salvation of comedy." He had no trouble following Ross's admonition to "Use the rapier, not the bludgeon." However, in "Preface to a Life," which was added to the book version of My Life and Hard Times (1933), Thurber described himself as a typical professional writer of light pieces running from a thousand to two thousand words thusly: "The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats. Afraid of losing themselves in the larger flight of the two-volume novel, or even the one-volume novel, they stick to short accounts of their misadventures because they never get so deep into them but that they feel they can get out. This type of writing is not a joyous form of self-expression but the manifestation of a twitchiness at once cosmic and mundane."
Ross and Thurber felt great affection for one another, and there can be no doubt that Ross's tutelage was a major factor in developing the humorist's precise style. The other primary influence on Thurber's style was E. B. White. No longer under the time pressures of newspaper writing, Thurber could take advantage of White's guidance while writing segments of "The Talk of the Town." A simpler style emerged. As he admitted in an interview, "After the seven years I spent in newspaper writing, it was more E. B. White who taught me about writing, how to clear up sloppy journalese. He was a strong influence, and for a long time in the beginning I thought he might be too much of one. But at least he got me away from the rather curious style I was starting to perfect — tight journalese laced with heavy doses of Henry James."
Compare and Contrast
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1930s: The New Yorker magazine typifies East Coast intellectualism and many popular writers of the day publish stories and articles in it that exemplify an urban sense of sophistication and humor.
1997: Under the editorship of the controversial Tina Brown, The New Yorker struggles to maintain its reputation, yet circulation is up over recent years to 860,000.
1939: The theme of the 1939-40 New York World's Fair is "The World of Tomorrow," which highlights Americans' belief in emerging science and technology as a cure-all.
Today: Forbes magazine reports that in 1994 orthopedic surgeons pay annual malpractice premiums ranging from $33,000 to $117,000. The large number of medical malpractice suits in U.S. courts points to a growing cynicism Americans feel towards medicine and technology.
1940s: During World War II, many women enter jobs vacated by men who have joined the war effort.
Today: Although efforts to pass an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution failed in 1982, women such as Katharine Graham, publisher and CEO of the Washington Post, demonstrate women's increasing roles in political, social and cultural arenas.
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Thurber's forte is the interesting combination of imaginative concepts, insights, and approaches to life expressed in strikingly clear images that depend on a careful manipulation of words. Because his writing appeared in magazines, his style is journalistic in nature; that is, it is most effective when he captures and condenses the essence of a thought within the limits imposed by the short story format. Because of his immense popularity, it is no surprise that there would be attempts to transpose his work to the movie screen or to television, but as might be expected, the very elements that characterize his writing work against a successful translation of that work into other media. His most famous creation, Walter Mitty, appeared in the film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), directed by Norman Z. McLeod and starring Danny Kaye, but the result is only moderately effective. His play The Male Animal was a Broadway hit, and possibly because he had been working in a visual medium to begin with, the 1942 screen adaptation (directed by co-author Elliott Nuggent and starring Henry Fonda, Olivia de Havilland, and Jack Carson) is entertaining and was well received. A second cinematic treatment, the mediocre musical She's Working Her Way Through College, was released in 1952 (it was directed by H. Bruce Humberstone and starred Virginia Mayo and Ronald Reagan). On the other hand, the 1969 television series based on My World — and Welcome to It, starring William Windom, while occasionally amusing, demonstrated again that the humor in Thurber's sketches could not be sustained indefinitely since the original content was not intended to be sketched.
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In 1947, Samuel Goldwyn Studios produced a well-regarded movie-length version of Thurber's story, titled The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The movie stars Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo and is available through RKO distributors and on video.
Radio Yesteryear Audio released a book-on-tape titled The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: And You Could Look It Up, in August, 1988.
Bibliography and Further Reading
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Blair, Walter and Hill, Hamlin. America's Humor: From Poor Richard to Doonesbury. Oxford University Press, 1978.
Mann, Ann Ferguson. "Taking Care of Walter Mitty," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 19, Fall, 1982, pp. 351-57.
Morseberger, Robert E. James Thurber, Twayne, 1988.
Tobias, Richard Clark. The Art of James Thurber, Ohio State University Press, 1969.
Yates, Norris. "James Thurber's Little Man and Liberal Citizen,'' in Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Charles S. Holmes, Prentice-Hall, 1974, pp. 28-36.
De Vries, Peter. "James Thurber: The Comic Prufrock," in Thurber A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Charles S. Holmes, Prentice-Hall, 1974.
Elias, Robert H. "James Thurber: The Primitive, the Innocent, and the Individual," in Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Charles S. Holmes, Prentice-Hall, 1974, pp. 87-100
Elias explores how Thurber's heroes, including Walter Mitty, preserve their individuality in a hostile world.
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Fensch, Thomas, ed. Conversations with James Thurber. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989.
Grauer, Neil A. Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.
Holmes, Charles S. The Clocks of Columbus: The Literary Career of James Thurber. New York: Atheneum, 1972.
Kinney, Harrison. James Thurber: His Life and Times. New York: Henry Holt, 1995.
Kinney, Harrison, and Rosemary A. Thurber, eds. The Thurber Letters: The Wit, Wisdom, and Surprising Life of James Thurber. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.
Rosen, Michael J., ed. Collecting Himself: James Thurber on Writing and Writers, Humor, and Himself. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.
Tobias, Richard C. The Art of James Thurber. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1970.