The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber

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Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 4,434 words.)