The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Questions and Answers

James Thurber

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting The Secret Life of Walter Mitty questions.

How does Walter Mitty's character comment on society as a whole?

Walter Mitty is absent-minded. He lives in a world of daydreams. He is not in tune with the modern world in which he actually has to live. Like most absent-minded people he is incompetent to deal with reality and frequently makes mistakes. His absent-mindedness shows itself conspicuously in one part of the story where he is trying to remember one of the things his wife told him to buy. Then when he manages to remember, he says the words out loud. They are "puppy biscuit."

Modern civilization has deprived people of exciting and dangerous lives. Instead they work in offices and bring home paychecks instead of animal carcasses. Many people lose themselves in television and alcohol. Modern man’s frustration explains the popularity of TV shows like Survivor. Walter Mitty is superior to the stereotypical couch potato because Mitty can escape into his own imagination. (There really is not that much difference between the content of his fantasies and the stories shown on television.) Mitty resembles Leopold Bloom in James Joyce's Ulysses. Throughout that novel there is a comical contrast between Bloom, the modern man, and Ulysses, the intrepid hero of Homer's epic poem The Odyssey.

Sigmund Freud dealt with the alienation of modern man in one of his best-known works.

Using the concepts of the superego, the sense of guilt, and the aggressive instinct, Freud formulated the main theme of Civilization and Its Discontents: the ineradicable antagonism between the demands of the individual’s instincts and the restrictions of civilization.

And in The Future of an Illusion, Freud writes:

every individual is virtually an enemy of civilization, though civilization is supposed to be an object of universal human interest. It is remarkable that, little as men are able to exist in isolation, they should nevertheless feel as a heavy burden the sacrifices which civilization expects of them in order to make a communal life possible.

James Thurber was an exceptionally intelligent and well-read man. His humor is more subtle and cerebral than most American humor. He was quite interested in the ideas of Sigmund Freud and other psychologists. In fact, much of Thurber’s own writings and cartoons deal with various aspects of psychopathology.

What is the significance of Walter Mitty's fantasies?

It is noteworthy that Walter Mitty's fantasies are not totally fantastic, but for one thing they are appropriate to his age. We gather that he must be in his late forties or early fifties. His wife tells him to wear his gloves and galoshes and reminds him, "You're not a young man any longer." He does not imagine himself hitting home runs or racing for touchdowns, as a young man might do. In his first fantasy, Mitty is not driving a car on a shopping trip to Waterbury but has become Commander Mitty piloting a "huge, hurtling eight-engined Navy hydroplane" in a storm that is "spoiling for a hurricane." In the second fantasy, evidently inspired by Mrs. Mitty saying, "I wish you'd let Dr. Renshaw look you over," Mitty becomes a distinguished surgeon qualified to operate on a "millionaire banker and close personal friend of Roosevelt." Obviously it has taken Dr. Mitty many years to reach the top of his profession and to be able to handle all kinds of medical emergencies. His third fantasy is triggered by hearing a newsboy "shouting something about the Waterbury trial." Mitty's age is not specified, but he imagines himself a weapon's expert on trial for murdering a man named Gregory Fitzhurst. His fourth fantasy is inspired by his glancing through an article in an old copy of Liberty magazine titled "Can Germany Conquer the World Through the Air?" Mitty becomes Captain Mitty, a gallant ace pilot in World War I. In this case he makes himself a younger man serving in an earlier war, but evidently he is in command of the whole squadron. His last fantasy is inspired by the simple fact that he is standing with his back against a wall to keep out of the falling rain and sleet. He imagines himself standing before a firing squad. His age in this role in not indicated, but the fantasy seems to suggest the death wish of an aging man who is getting tired of the pointless life he has been leading in the world of reality. The firing-squad fantasy is also inspired by the fact that Mitty has lighted a cigarette. He knows it is customary for men to be given a last cigarette before being shot.

What causes Walter Mitty's fantasies?

It is interesting to identify just the things that evoke Walter Mitty's fantasies throughout the story. One which can be easily overlooked is especially subtle and seems intended to tie the story together with a beginning and an ending. In the opening paragraph Commander Mitty, in full-dress uniform, is not driving an automobile to Waterbury on a shopping trip but piloting a "huge, hurtling eight-engined Navy hydroplane" through stormy seas, shouting such absurdities as "Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!" and "Full strength in No. 3 turret!" An officer warns him, "We can't make it, sir. It's spoiling for a hurricane, if you ask me." "I'm not asking you, Lieutenant Berg," said the Commander. "Throw on the power lights! Rev her up to 8,500! We're going through!" No such boat ever existed, of course, and a hydroplane with eight engines sounds like an utter impossibility. But what is most interesting is the warning that "It's spoiling for a hurricane." 

Walter Mitty must have noticed a few raindrops on his windshield, giving warning that it was going to rain before they got their errands run and returned home. At the very end of the story, while Mitty is waiting for his wife outside the drugstore, "Walter Mitty lighted a cigarette. It began to rain, rain with sleet in it. He stood up against the wall of the drugstore, smoking." This is an admirably artistic way to begin and end the story. The approaching rainstorm and the rain and sleet finally falling seem to round out what could otherwise be an open-ended tale with many other untold fantasies preceding and following those that are dramatized. The end is vaguely reminiscent of James Joyce's story "The Dead," which ends with this beautiful passage:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead. 

How do Walter Mitty's fantasies relate to his consciousness?

Walter Mitty has a secret life in which he escapes his boring existence in his imagination. In “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” James Thurber reveals only five of his character’s daydreams. But the reader realizes that these five are only glimpses into a stream of consciousness in which many other episodes have taken place before and many more will take place after the story ends. The first and last scenes have a relationship which rounds out the story with an appropriate beginning and a subtle closure.

As the story opens, “Commander” Mitty is piloting a huge Navy hydroplane through stormy seas. Lieutenant Berg (whose name may have been suggested by the idea of icebergs) is alarmed. He says:

“We can’t make it, sir. It’s spoiling for a hurricane, if you ask me.”

The Commander’s fantasy is rudely interrupted:

“Not so fast! You’re driving too fast!” said Mrs. Mitty. “What are you driving so fast for?”

He realizes he is only driving the family car to Waterbury, Connecticut on their weekly shopping trip. Mrs. Mitty is not so much a domineering woman as she is a realist who keeps bringing her husband down to earth.

This particular episode in Mitty’s secret life was triggered by the fact that he could see that a storm was brewing. He noticed threatening clouds and may have seen a few drops on the windshield. He was responsible for getting to and from town safely. Actually this in itself was enough of a challenge because he was not a very good driver.

The story was first published in The New Yorker on March 18, 1939. The prospect of war in Europe was on everybody’s minds. It started in Europe when Hitler invaded Poland a few months later and France and England both declared war. It was only a matter of time before America would get involved, as it had become involved in World War I. The threat of war prompts the military themes of three of the five daydreams in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” including the opening scene and the final scene in which he is about to be shot by a firing squad. When Mitty is waiting for his wife in the hotel lobby, he glances through an article in Liberty magazine titled “Can Hitler Conquer the World Through the Air?” It shows the popular concern about the imminence of another great war.

Then in the final episode, the storm which Mitty had foreseen finally breaks.

Walter Mitty lighted a cigarette. It began to rain, rain with sleet in it. He stood up against the wall of the drugstore, smoking . . . He put his shoulders back and his heels together . . . "To hell with the handkerchief,” said Walter Mitty scornfully.

Mitty thinks of the firing squad because he knows that men who are about to be shot stand against a wall and receive a final cigarette. Their eyes are usually covered as an act of mercy.

The ending is appropriate because the storm symbolizes the prevailing mood of the times. We all know how the war ended, but nobody in 1939 knew what was going to happen except that it would be bad. Mitty himself was too old to get involved in combat. But his fantasies suggest that he would welcome almost anything that would allow him to escape from his humdrum routine and his prying, mothering, omnipresent wife.

Is Walter Mitty an introvert or an extravert?

Walter Mitty is an introvert. He might be said to be a typical James Thurber character. Other examples of such characters, all of which can be found in the best collection of Thurber’s short pieces, The Thurber Carnival, are Mr. Martin in “The Catbird Seat,” the unnamed protagonist of “One is a Wanderer,” Samuel O. Bruhl, the antihero in “The Remarkable Case of Mr. Bruhl,” and Thurber himself in “A Note at the End.” And there are many typical James Thurber characters in the generous selection of cartoons included in The Thurber Carnival, for James Thurber was at least as famous for his drawings as for his stories, essays, and miscellaneous humor pieces.

It was the distinguished psychoanalyst Carl Jung who coined the terms “introvert” and “extravert” in his book Psychological Types (1921). According to Jung:

The introvert is not forthcoming, he is as though in continual retreat before the object. He holds aloof from external happenings, does not join in, has a distinct dislike of society as soon as he finds himself among too many people. In a large gathering he feels lonely and lost. The more crowded it is, the greater becomes his resistance. He is not in the least “with it,” and has no love of enthusiastic get-togethers. He is not a good mixer. What he does, he does in his own way, barricading himself against influences from outside. He is apt to appear awkward, often seeming inhibited, and it frequently happens that, by a certain brusqueness of manner, or by his glum unapproachability, or some kind of malapropism, he causes unwitting offence to people. His better qualities he keeps to himself, and generally does everything he can to dissemble them. He is easily mistrustful, self-willed, often suffers from inferiority feelings and for this reason is also envious. His apprehensiveness of the object is not due to fear, but to the fact that it seems to him negative, demanding, overpowering or even menacing.
The introvert sees everything that is in any way valuable to him in the subject; the extravert sees it in the object. This dependence on the object seems to the introvert a mark of the greatest inferiority, while to the extravert the preoccupation with the subject seems nothing but infantile autoeroticism. So it is not surprising that the two types often come into conflict. This does not, however, prevent most men from marrying women of the opposite type. Such marriages are very valuable as psychological symbioses so long as the partners do not attempt a mutual “psychological” understanding.

Examples of how Walter Mitty “sees everything that is in any way valuable to him in the subject” can be seen in all the episodes in which he is fantasizing about doing heroic or noble deeds. They are all triggered by objective reality and then translated into subjective experiences. For example, his wife tells him he should see Dr. Renshaw, and he quickly begins imagining that he himself is a distinguished surgeon. Mitty pictures their family doctor in his fantasy as “haggard and distraught.”

“Hello, Mitty,” he said. “We’re having the devil’s own time with McMillan, the millionaire banker and close personal friend of Roosevelt. Obstreosis of the ductal tract. Tertiary. Wish you’d take a look at him.”

As another example, Walter Mitty is driving to town and notes that it looks like rain, and he becomes Commander Mitty piloting a hydroplane through hurricane weather. The object becomes subjective. Jung states in Psychological Types that modern art has become more and more subjective. In painting many artists still use the object but do all sorts of weird things with it in order to express their own thoughts and feelings. Pablo Picasso is a prime example in his expressionist paintings such as the famous “Guernica.” Mitty is like Picasso in being more interested in his own thoughts, feelings, impressions and reactions than in the objective world in which he has to park cars and buy puppy biscuits.

Where Jung writes “This does not, however, prevent most men from marrying women of the opposite type,” he seems to be saying that most introverted men marry women of the opposite type. Or else he only means that introverted men are usually content with being married to extraverted women. At least we see many marriages in which the husband is quiet and introspective while his wife handles all the domestic and social arrangements. She may even tell her husband what suit to wear to work and what necktie should go with it. Jung calls this "psychological symbiosis." If the Mittys have a “symbiotic” relationship, what does Walter contribute? He is probably the one who earns the income—although it is his wife who spends most of it. He is the only one who can drive a car. Her concern about her husband may be largely a matter of dependence. Even her social life would be crimped if she were a widow or, worse yet, a divorcee rather than part of a couple. And this would be a serious matter for an extravert. 

How can this novel be read as commentary on modern American life?

"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" can be read not only as a study of a single eccentric character, but also as a commentary on modern life in America. Life for many Americans has become monotonous and meaningless, in spite of the fact that they enjoy such a high standard of living. Thoreau said many years ago that most men lead lives of quiet desperation. If that was true in Thoreau's time, how much more so is it true today? Thoreau's friend Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Things are in the saddle and ride mankind." If that was true in the days when horses provided most transportation and lighting was provided by lamps and candles, how much more so is it true today? Mitty is typical of many American men. He goes from home to office and back to home five days a week, probably doing work that feels unfulfilling and meaningless. On Saturdays he mows the lawn, washes the car, and goes shopping for all the products that have become necessities. George Simenon, a great French writer, wrote about American life during the years he was living in this country, including in Connecticut, Walter Mitty's bailiwick:

He had followed the parkway as far as New York, and all the way, there had been a constant stream of cars, two and sometimes three lanes of them in both directions--a movement so implacable it looked like a headlong flight. Their brows furrowed, their muscles tensed, the drivers, often with whole families in the back seats, charged straight ahead as if their lives were in jeopardy, some of them not knowing where they were heading, or heading nowhere in particular, just desperately filling the empty hours with noise and speed.

John Updike, who lived in the same middle-class suburbia as Walter Mitty, wrote:

Most of American life consists of driving somewhere and then returning home, wondering why the hell you went.

The most comprehensive picture of this upper-middle-class American Siberia is presented in the many stories of John Cheever, including "The Country Husband,""The Swimmer," and "The Sorrows of Gin." Gin or whiskey was the universal antidote for boredom and loveless marriages among the affluent middle-class types who had fled from Manhattan to the neighboring states and had brought all their troubles with them. 

Walter Mitty in 1939 was like a pioneer. The real exodus from New York did not start until after World War II ended in 1945. The exodus accelerated with the advent of the Cold War. People who could afford to move to the country thought it might be better not to be living in such a prime target area for atomic missiles as Manhattan.