The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Analysis

James Thurber

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...

(The entire section is 353 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

In "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,'' Thurber tells the story of Walter Mitty, a man who lives in a dream world to...

(The entire section is 640 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

"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...

(The entire section is 1333 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Throughout his writing career, Thurber was concerned about the misfit in society. Usually Thurber's misfits are simple, sensitive,...

(The entire section is 160 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

1930s: The New Yorker magazine typifies East Coast intellectualism and many popular writers of the day publish stories and...

(The entire section is 172 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

Consider stereotypes of masculinity in society today. How are these stereotypes enacted in Walter Mitty's dreams? How do these stereotypes...

(The entire section is 122 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

As indicated above, even some of Thurber's later casuals reflect the sustained craftsmanship and humor of his early and middle periods....

(The entire section is 705 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Thurber's forte is the interesting combination of imaginative concepts, insights, and approaches to life expressed in strikingly clear images...

(The entire section is 265 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

In 1947, Samuel Goldwyn Studios produced a well-regarded movie-length version of Thurber's story, titled The Secret Life of Walter...

(The entire section is 57 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

James Thurber's 1933 My Life and Hard Times is a semi-fictional autobiography full of comically exaggerated incidents from his life....

(The entire section is 173 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Blair, Walter and Hill, Hamlin. America's Humor: From Poor Richard to Doonesbury. Oxford University Press, 1978....

(The entire section is 141 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.