abstract illustration of a man's face and several accoutrements: scissors, gloves, glasses, tweezers, facemask, and a cigarette

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

by James Thurber

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Analysis

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

James Thurber's portrayal of Walter Mitty highlights the universal theme of escapism as a coping mechanism to counter life's monotonous routine and as a way to suppress personal insecurities. By exploring the human psyche through Mitty's flights of fancy, Thurber reminds readers of the delicate balance between imagination and the limits of reality. Mitty's yearning for excitement and adventure reflects the innate human desire for meaning and significance, underscoring the importance of embracing one's true self and passions.

Beyond its individual character study, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" critiques societal norms that stifle individuality and creativity. Mitty's subjugation to his domineering wife symbolizes the oppressive forces that prevent people from exploring their full potential. The story advocates for pursuing personal dreams and aspirations and urges readers to consider their place in relation to societal expectations.

Moreover, the work resonates with audiences across generations due to its timeless themes. Mitty is undoubtedly in good company when it comes to being dissatisfied with everyday life. In a rapidly changing world, where the pressures of modernity can lead to disconnection and disengagement, Mitty's struggle serves as a reminder of the importance of maintaining a connection with one's inner self. It encourages readers to embrace their imaginations, celebrate individuality, and seek moments of respite in their busy lives.

Throughout the story, certain recurring symbols offer insights into Mitty's character and inner life. The "puppy biscuits" might symbolize his wife's control over him, as she entrusts him with a mundane task like buying dog treats. In contrast, the "hydroplane" reflects his desire for excitement and adventure. When he daydreams about being a naval commander, Mitty imagines piloting a hydroplane through dangerous weather. This represents his yearning for freedom and courage in the face of adversity.

Mitty's imaginings reflect a secret desire for a grandiose life. They are full of the same cliches and tropes someone might encounter in an adventure novel or film. As a wartime pilot, Mitty single-handedly engages the enemy. As a surgeon, he makes ingenious lifesaving decisions under pressure, all while speaking in meaningless medical jargon. In this way, the story recognizes that a person's fantasies are limited by their imagination rather than by reality.

Despite the brevity of this short story, a degree of character development still exists. Walter Mitty's character undergoes subtle changes throughout the narrative. In the beginning, he appears as a passive, forgetful man, dominated by his wife.

However, as the story progresses, his daydreams become more audacious, reflecting his inner desires for bravery and self-assertion. For example, when he envisions himself as a surgeon, he becomes authoritative and commanding. This character development highlights the power of imagination in transforming an individual's self-perception and potential.

Thurber often includes modernist elements and themes in his works. This story is no exception. Modernist literature regularly delves into characters' inner thoughts, emotions, and consciousness. Readers have intimate access to Mitty's daydreams, presenting a detailed examination of his imaginative world and desires. This introspective approach allows the audience to connect with the protagonist on a deeper level. It emphasizes the complexities of the human psyche.

Furthermore, modernist works challenge traditional linear storytelling by employing fragmented narratives. Thurber seamlessly weaves Mitty's daydreams with his uninteresting reality, blurring the boundaries between the two. This fragmented structure reflects the fractured nature of modern life, where individuals experience a constant interplay between the real and the imagined.

As in many modernist pieces, the story's ending contains some ambiguity. Readers are left wondering whether Mitty's final daydream is indeed a defiant act of bravery or a sign of resignation. It may be both. This ambiguity invites the audience to reflect on the complexities of the human condition and the uncertain nature of existence.

Historical Context

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War Fantasies
"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.

Modernism
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."

Literary Style

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Narration
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.

Wordplay
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.

Literary Techniques

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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."

Social Concerns

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Throughout his writing career, Thurber was concerned about the misfit in society. Usually Thurber's misfits are simple, sensitive, imaginative men caught in a mundane world that they do not completely understand and over which they have little or no control. Typically, the world is too caught up in its own concerns to have much patience with such men, or to recognize their nature. Instead, it merely steamrolls over them. By extension, in examining the place of the imaginative Little Man in society, Thurber is metaphorically considering the conflict between an artist and his society. Another extension of this concept appears in the relationship between men and women in the author's stories, with the practical women dominating their wimpish spouses. In "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (March 18, 1939), these concerns come together as forces that, consciously or unconsciously, exert pressure on Mitty to make him conform to their images respectively of a solid, no-nonsense member of society or a manageable spouse.

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.

Adaptations

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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.

Media Adaptations

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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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Sources
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.

Further Reading
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.

Bibliography

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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.

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