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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

by James Thurber

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James Thurber's use of fantasy and structure in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."

Summary:

James Thurber uses fantasy and structure in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" to contrast Walter's mundane reality with his vibrant inner life. Thurber alternates between Mitty's daydreams and real-world experiences, highlighting his escapism. This structure underscores the disparity between Mitty's heroic fantasies and his actual, unremarkable existence, emphasizing themes of dissatisfaction and the power of imagination.

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

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 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 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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What is the structure of James Thurber's "The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty"?

James Thurber's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" presents a story in which fantasy intrudes upon the boundaries of reality in an episodic fashion.

The reader can delight in Mitty's creative imagination that compensates him for his shortcomings and helps him deal with his domineering wife. For instance, in one episode, Mitty is incapable of parking his car in the parking lot, and he has to surrender his keys to the insolent attendant who backs it quickly into the spot. As he walks toward a store to purchase overshoes by his wife's order, Mitty recalls another failure of his with a different garageman, who laughed when he saw Mitty's failed attempt to remove the snow chains from his tires. "The next time, he thought, I'll wear my right arm in a sling; they'll see I couldn't possibly take the chains off myself."

The memory of his inadequacies triggers disagreeable thoughts. In one instance, Mitty walks along, trying to recall what besides shoes he is supposed to buy. When a newsboy calls out something about the Waterbury trial, Walter Mitty's imagination transforms him into a heroic defendant who has bravely defended "a lovely, dark-haired girl" that throws herself into Mitty's arms at the trial. As the District Attorney strikes at her with brutality, the heroic Mitty "let the man have it on the point of the chin" while calling the attorney a "miserable cur."

In another instance, when Mitty reaches the hotel where he has been instructed to wait for his wife, Mitty ensconces himself in a leather chair and picks up an old copy of Liberty, a magazine of general interest published during the 1930s and 1940s. When Mitty glances at an article entitled "Can Germany Conquer the World Through the Air?" Mitty's imagination is again triggered as he views photos of bombing planes and rubble in the streets. Suddenly, he is the heroic Captain Mitty who volunteers to fly a bomber plane. With a cavalier attitude, Mitty "finishes one last brandy" and hums a popular French song as he waves to the sergeant and says, "Cheerio!" However, Walter's heroic dream is interrupted by Mrs. Mitty, who scolds him for hiding in the wing chair.

Unfortunately, this episodic pattern of painful memories replaced by heroic imaginings, while humorous to readers, also hints at Walter Mitty's underlying repression. Nevertheless, after he and his wife exit the hotel and Mrs. Mitty tells him to wait while she goes to a nearby drugstore, Walter again daydreams. He waits, imagining that he faces a firing squad. He is "erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last."

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What is the structure of James Thurber's "The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty"?

This story vascillates between the everyday humdrum life of Water Mitty, the hen-pecked husband sterotype, and the extravagant adventures he lives in his daydreams. Mitty flits in and out of reality, his daydreams concocted by a stream of consciousness association triggered by the sputtering of his car's exhaust pipe, a pair of gloves, and finally a freshly lit cigarette. In such a way this docile "hubby" gets to be the captain of an icebreaker, a famous surgeon, a defendent in a murder trial and finally a fighter pilot taken captive distaining a firing squad. Mitty's imagination is his "second life," which nurtures his deflated ego and helps hims escape the insufferable mediocrity of his existence.

If you do a graph of the plot line of this story, it would look very much like a cardiograph printout, with the steady horizontal line of Mitty's real life intermittantly broken by the highs and lows of his "virtual" existence.

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What is the structure of James Thurber's "The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty"?

Walter Mitty's interactions with other people are not emotionally restorative.  

Walter's interactions with people in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" are distant.  He does not experience any meaningful emotional connection.  The opening interaction with his wife shows this disconnect.  When she reprimands his driving, Walter sees her as "grossly unfamiliar, like a strange woman who had yelled at him in a crowd."  The interactions between Walter and his wife show how she does not validate his experience. She condescendingly speaks to him, suggesting he needs to see a doctor or get his temperature taken when he disagrees with her.  At the end of the story, she stops at a store and orders Walter to wait outside because she "won't be a minute." Thurber writes, "She was more than a minute."  This capstones interactions between husband and wife that lack a healthy emotional connection.

A lack of social connection reflects the same distance that Walter experiences with his wife.  For example, the police officer and the parking lot attendant bark at him in imperative sentences.  They speak to him with commands such as, "Pick it up" and "Back it up."  Such orders focus on a task as opposed to a human being.  These interactions show how others easily subdue Walter into submission.  When Walter comes out of one of his dreams saying "Puppy biscuits," he passes a woman on the street who ridicules him to the friend with whom she is walking: "A woman who was passing laughed. 'He said 'Puppy biscuit,' she said to her companion. 'That man said 'Puppy biscuit' to himself."  In his interactions with the outside world, Walter is the source of derision and is easily bullied.

The emotionally distant level of Walter's interactions justifies his retreat into daydreams.  In this world, respect and importance dominate his interactions. They show an authentication of voice, something not taking place in Walter's daily life.

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What are the characteristics of Walter Mitty in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" by James Thurber?

Walter Mitty is an ordinary man with an overly active imagination. He constantly daydreams about something more exciting than his current situation. The entire story is about a trip into town. Walter and his wife drive into town so that he can shop and she can visit the beauty salon. 

Walter has fantasies of being a pilot, a surgeon, and an assassin. These are all daydreams that help him to escape his ordinary circumstances, which don't seem especially great for him. He is a timid and forgetful person who seems somewhat unassertive, especially in his relationship with his wife. At one point he forgets what his wife has asked him to buy, because he is so caught up in his daydreaming.

While the previous answer is right to point out how this can be a problem for the character, I also believe it is a useful coping mechanism for him. In many ways his fantasies are similar to the therapeutic escape that readers experience through literature. In this sense, Walter is using daydreaming to cope with a less than perfect life. He finds adventure through imagination. 

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What are the characteristics of Walter Mitty in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" by James Thurber?

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty tells the story of a man who is always daydreaming about being someone else.  Any time in his  ordinary life, and at any moment, he can be transported by one of his waking dreams, forgetting about what he is doing in his real life, such as driving his car, or shopping for items his wife told him to buy.

Walter Mitty is constantly pulled into a fantasy life where is a successful and sought after hero.  He dreams he is a fighter pilot, a successful and skilled surgeon or about to be shot by a firing squad, all very exciting. 

The problem with Walter Mitty is that he spends way too much time in his imagination and not enough time in his real life.  In real life Walter Mitty is very inept, incapable of taking care of his own life. 

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What is the structure of James Thurber's "The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty"?

Walter Mitty is average and normal in every sense of the words.  He is so unremarkable that he is practically invisible in his daily life.  To combat this, Walter Mitty has an above average imagination.  He is constantly imaging himself as essentially the complete opposite of how he is in real life.  Whether he is imagining himself as a heroic pilot, gifted surgeon, or ace lawyer, his characters always share some common traits.  They are always alpha males at the center of everybody's attention.  Each character is pivotal to some dire situation, and without Walter's help everything will fail.  

Because Walter is married in real life, his role and personality in his marriage fit with his real life self.  He is not the alpha leader of the marriage.  Mrs. Mitty is the head of the house.  She is domineering and nags much of the time at Walter, which paints a bit of an unloving marriage.  On the other hand though, without Mrs. Mitty doing these things, the reader gets the impression that Walter would never take any sort of adult responsibility of any kind.  He would simply be lost in his daydreams all of the time.  

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What is the structure of James Thurber's "The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty"?

Walter lives in his dreams.  Specifically set with his daydreams, Walter uses these as a vehicle for excitement, passion, intensity, and adventure.  A life that is steeped in the routine and the mundane, Walter Mitty sees his dreams as a way out of this crushing monotony.  The relationship with his wife reflects this, as she is one who is not very responsive to his needs and constructs a world of monotonous drudgery and denigration.  To a great extent, Walter's construction and passion for his daydreams is because of his marriage which represents a world without heart and intensity.  The dreams are his only way out of a world where escape is so needed.

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What is the structure of James Thurber's "The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty"?

Walter Mitty is a meek, mild-mannered little man, a milquetoast character who is completely dominated by his wife. It is a classic role reversal where Mrs. Mitty figuratively wears the pants in the family, and Walter is her subserviant minion. Walter is forgetful; he has to be reminded constantly by his wife of what his next step must be. He is incompetent--a poor driver and incapable of the fairly routine procedure of removing his snow chains. He talks to himself, bringing laughter when he blurts out "puppy biscuits" on the busy sidewalk. However, he is a colossal dreamer, master of all the daydreams in which he stars. It is his way of escaping his nagging wife and the dreary routine of his unhappy, little life in which he is--unlike his daydreams--always Walter Mitty, the defeated.

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What is the structure of James Thurber's "The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty"?

Marital conflict is a recurring theme throughout “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Mitty is first pulled from his daydream of commanding a hydroplane in the Navy by his wife complaining that he is driving too quickly. He doesn’t bother to respond to his wife and continues to drive in silence. In fact, it isn’t until her tenth sentence of the story that Mitty responds to her, and when he does it is a protest: “I don’t need overshoes.” She ignores this and reminds him that he is no longer a young man, and his response is to race the engine. His methods of revenge against her actions are petty—after his wife suggests that he wear his gloves, he dons them and promptly takes them off after driving away.

Mrs. Mitty does not appear in the story again until the very end, but her presence is felt throughout. After a man parks Mitty’s car for him, Mitty recalls resentfully that she makes him go to a garage to have the chains taken off his car after he got them tangled around the axles. Later, having forgotten what his wife told him to get at the store, Mitty’s frustration appears to be entirely directed at her and the inevitable questions that will occur if he cannot remember what he needs to purchase.

Mitty’s resentment is on display throughout the story: it fuels his constant need to escape from reality. His incompetence in the real world, often pointed out by his wife, must be countered by Mitty’s brilliance in his daydreams.

Mrs. Mitty’s point of view is not given, but it is not difficult to understand her frustration. Having pointed out that her husband was driving too fast for her comfort—something that, it is implied, she has reminded him of previously—he doesn’t deign to respond. Of course she nags him to do the errands and reminds him to put on his gloves; it is difficult to imagine Mitty getting anything done without her guidance, much as he dislikes it. Mrs. Mitty seems to get the short end of the stick, if anything.

At the end of the story, having been left outside of a drugstore for a moment (he notes that it has been “more than a minute”), Mitty imagines walking toward a firing squad. The subtext is fairly clear: Mitty would prefer an honorable death by firing squad to his wife’s nagging.

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What is the structure of James Thurber's "The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty"?

The focus of James Thurber’s story is the interior life of one man. Walter Mitty probably looks like an ordinary, middle-class, American man to those who pass him on the street. Inside his own mind, however, he is leading an exciting, dangerous life. From the limited information that the narrator provides, it does not seem that Walter takes many specific actions that would lead others to suspect that he is not content with his life. His wife occasionally challenges his absent-mindedness. The narrator is omniscient, however, so they can tell the reader what is going on inside Walter’s head. Walter is revealed as having a very active imagination, which he puts to use especially when he is bored or confronted with a less-than-ideal situation.

We might consider Walter’s fantasies extreme, but one of the things that Thurber encourages us to think about is the difference between appearance and reality. If Walter is truly an ordinary man, then it would follow that any such person could also be having vivid fantasies as they go about their daily business. In this way, the author reminds us how truly mysterious all human beings are: we can never know what is happening inside another person.

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