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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

by James Thurber

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How does James Thurber use fantasy to convey reality in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"?

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In “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” James Thurber creates a juxtaposition of fantasy and reality to parody both the ordinariness of Mitty’s everyday life and emphasize the irony of his fantasies.

Fantasy rules over reality in Thurber’s story. The story opens with Mitty as the Commander of a “Navy hydroplane” who navigates dreadful weather with skill and courage, only to be jolted out of his dream by his wife’s nagging. The fantasy plays on the actions that he is performing in reality—for example, the reader is given to understand that in his excitement at going through the storm in his fantasy, Mitty presses down on the accelerator of his car.

Thurber constructs a fantasy world for Mitty that is the polar opposite of his everyday world, and in which Mitty is a very different person. In his fantasies, Mitty is esteemed and respected; a “lovely, dark-haired girl” flies into his arms in one dream, and his signature feature is a “faint, fleeting smile.” In reality, he is married to Mrs. Mitty, a woman he views as overbearing, and it is difficult to imagine that “faint, fleeting smile” on the face of a man who mumbles “puppy biscuits” as a sort of epiphany in the middle of the sidewalk.

The two worlds seem to be very dissimilar, but they bleed together in subtle ways. For instance, Mitty’s imaginings are usually spurred by the world around him: while driving, he imagines that he is flying a plane, and while passing a hospital, he imagines himself to be a surgeon. Mitty’s real-world shortcomings leak into the fantasies as well, though it is debatable whether Mitty notices this. He has little to no knowledge of the topics of which he speaks: he imagines fixing an “anesthetizer,” and claims that his gun is a “Webley-Vickers 50.80.” The ludicrous nature of his daydreams are lost on him even as his ignorance creeps into his fantasies.

Perhaps the best example of fantasy portraying reality comes at the end of the story, when Mrs. Mitty goes into the drugstore after scolding her husband. While waiting outside the store, this scene is described:

He took one last drag on his cigarette and snapped it away. Then, with that faint, fleeting smile playing about his lips, he faced the firing squad; erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.

Having been chastised and seemingly derided by his wife only to finally suffer the ignoble fate of being forced to wait outside for her, he feels as though he has been sentenced to death. In this way the reader can see that the fantasy is informed by Mitty’s view of his reality: embarrassed by his own failings, he retreats once more to his own world to picture himself as “erect and motionless, proud and disdainful”—descriptors that Mitty does not appear to possess in reality.

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How does James Thurber use fantasy to convey ideas about reality in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" ?

Thurber's use of fantasy is a reflection about reality.  For Walter Mitty, the need to retreat to fantasy is triggered by his conditions around him.  Thurber uses fantasy as a way to address components about Mitty's world.  For example, in the conformist world around Mitty, fantasy enables him to retain individuality.  Thurber's employment of fantasy is reflective of a Modernist point of view.  In a world in which homogeneity and materialism have reduced individuals to a common experience, it is fantasy that enables distinction to emerge.  

At the same time, Thurber is able to use fantasy to assert Mitty's sense of self.  When Mitty is dominated by his wife or repressed by the perceptions of the world around him, it is his entry into fantasy that enables him to be more and represent more than what is around him. It is here in which Thurber uses fantasy to convey ideas about Mitty's own reality.  Thurber's use of fantasy is meant to reflect the shortcomings in the world that envelops Mitty.  If Mitty's world validated his own experience, the flight into fantasy might not be as needed.  Yet, it is because Mitty's world is one in which his own voice is negated, the need for fantasy is presented.

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How does James Thurber use fantasy to convey ideas about reality in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"?

Fantasy is utilized by author James Thurber as Walter Mitty's escape from an embarrassing or humiliating situation.

"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" begins in media res of one daydream, and Mitty is summoned back to reality by the scolding of his overbearing wife: "Not so fast! You're driving too fast! [...] What are you driving so fast for?" Mitty's fantasies impinge upon reality, as in one daydream he has been driving quickly because he imagines that he is piloting an eight-engined Navy hydroplane.

Clearly, the boundaries between the two realms of fantasy and reality become extremely porous as Walter Mitty goes in and out of fantasy, just as the voice of Mrs. Mitty fades in and out. After a particularly detailed scolding about buying overshoes and wearing his gloves, and then a command from a traffic cop ("Pick it up, brother!"), Mitty lurches ahead, and then drives around aimlessly until he passes a hospital. Again, his imagination is ignited and takes control of his mind; he dreams that he is a competent surgeon. This fantasy is interrupted by the real voice of a parking-lot attendant, "Back it up, Mac! Look out for that Buick!" But, after grumbling to himself, Mitty has soon returned to his imaginary world in which he plays the roles of heroes that are desperately struggling to heal Mitty's wounded ego and manhood. Unfortunately, these fortifying daydreams are all too soon erased when Mrs. Mitty scolds anew. In the end, as he seeks refuge in a winged chair of the hotel where he is to wait for his wife, Mitty, broken by this termagant, imagines himself against a wall, facing a firing squad and a possible breakdown in real life.

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