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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

by James Thurber

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How does Walter Mitty's dream life differ from his real life in James Thurber's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"?

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Walter Mitty fantasizes in order to escape his feeling of powerlessness and his sense that people do not respect him in his real life. In his fantasies, he is well-respected and admired, and this must give him some satisfaction that his real life, with his condescending wife and unfulfilling social interactions, does not.

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In "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," the mundane nature of Mitty's regular life is contrasted against a series of daydreams, by which these scenes of reality are actively transfigured into much more vivid renderings by his imagination. In these daydreams, Mitty has a certain glamor and importance about him: he always stands in the center of his own imagined world as someone who is able to assert agency within it. This is in stark contrast to the reality of his life, as Thurber presents it.

In real life, Mitty is quite meek, easily dominated by the stronger personalities around him (most particularly that of his wife). His daydreams reflect his frustrations with life and his desire for greater agency and force of personality. If he is the kind of person whom the world misunderstands and would label as unimportant, at least in his own imagination, he can recast himself as a person of significance.

That being said, the last question you ask is the interesting one (and the one not so easily answered), because really, modern society has not always been kind to dreamers. Some people have particularly rich internal lives and imaginations, and they are not always well understood by the people around them. From that perspective, this question emerges: is Mitty retreating to the imagination in order to escape from a world which misunderstands him, or does the world so misunderstand him precisely because he is already prone to retreating into his imagination? My own impression is that it is likely a combination of both these elements. However, given the story's brevity, I don't think a clear answer exists.

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Walter's daydreams in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" show him to be a man of importance and action.  These are qualities he lacks in his daily life.  

In his day to day existence, Walter lacks power.  The people with whom he interacts have little respect for him. Policemen bark orders at him.  He fails at parking his car and the parking lot attendant has to take over. Even random people who walk past him make fun of him.  His wife patronizes him.  She refuses to treat him with any significance.  It is clear that Walter does not command respect in his daily life. 

Walter is the antithesis of his daily existence in his dreams.  He is a person of importance, the type of person that others look at with respect and gravitas. Whether he is a pilot, an expert marksman, or a skilled surgeon, Walter's dreams are similar in how he sees himself.  In his dreams, others are in awe of him because he is daring, focused, and commands immediate respect. Walter's dreams are reflective of a world where he is connected to everything that is happening.  He is the center of attention in his dreams, as opposed to his daily life where he is on the margins.

The frequency of Walter's dreams is a response to the powerlessness he experiences in his daily existence.  His insufficiencies and lack of relevance trigger his dreams. He retreats to his dreams quite often because they are so much better than his day to day life.

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In "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" by James Thurber, why does Walter Mitty choose to daydream?  

In James Thurber's short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," Mitty is an urban man who is harassed by his wife. A bumbling, insecure man, he loses himself in heroic daydreams.

Mitty chooses to daydream to escape from the harping of his wife, who is either complaining about something he has done or ordering him to perform mediocre tasks. With this complaining, Mrs. Mitty denies her husband independence. For instance, when Mitty drops his wife off at the hairdressers, she tells him, "Remember to get those overshoes while I'm having my hair done." However, when Mitty says, "I don't need overshoes," she calmly replaces her mirror into her purse and replies in a condescending tone, "We've been all through that. . . . You're not a young man any longer."

Obediently, Mitty drops off his wife and soon begins a daydream because he wants to alleviate his repression for more adventurous and heroic imaginings. After driving aimlessly for a while, he goes past a hospital, and his imagination is ignited. Now he perceives himself as a famous medical specialist: Dr. Mitty has been called in to repair a machine that is connected to the operating table. "The new anesthetizer is giving way," an intern shouts, but the quick-thinking Mitty pulls a faulty piston out and replaces it with a fountain pen. Mitty then puts on rubber gloves, and the nurses attend him with operating instruments. Unfortunately, however, Mitty's saving operation is interrupted by a parking garage attendant. Furthermore, his subsequent daydreams are also interrupted, so Mitty fails to achieve manly success. Consequently, Walter Mitty finds the boundary between reality and fantasy becoming more and more porous as his repression deepens.

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In "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" by James Thurber, why does Walter Mitty choose to daydream?  

Walter Mitty leads a life that is probably a lot different than the one he thought he would lead at a young age.  He is a devoted family man who probably has a nice desk job, but he desires more adventure in his life.  In the opening scene, he imagines that he is a captain responsible for getting his crew through a storm.  In reality, his wife jolts him back to reality by asking him about his fast driving and telling him to wear his gloves.  In another scene, he is a world-renowned surgeon who is saving lives with fountain pens, when in reality he is annoying a parking lot attendant with his distracted nature.  Mitty likes his fantasy life because it lets him remember what it is like to have masculine dreams of saving the day and being a hero--he feels that this does not exist for him in real life.  

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Why does Walter Mitty fantasize?

Walter Mitty fantasizes because his own life is so incredibly mundane and because he seems to feel so generally dismissed and unimportant to the people in it. His wife bosses him around, telling him where to go and what to do, and there is really no room for him to disagree with her. He has to be where she wants him to be and when, as she does not like to wait for him. She treats him like a child. At the end of the story, she gets irritated with him because she could not find him at the hotel where they were supposed to meet, and she accuses him of “hid[ing] in [an] old chair.” He says that he was “thinking,” asking, “Does it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking?” Her response indicates that this never does occur to her and that she now believes he is ill.

Mitty also feels dismissed, laughed at even, by the parking-lot attendant and by a man in a “wrecking car” he recalls. They seem so adept, so smooth and confident, while he seems much less confident and more bumbling and ridiculous, so he makes a plan to wear his arm in a sling the next time he has to take his car to the garage, thinking this will stop them from laughing at him. But in his fantasies, Mitty is charming, self-assured, respected. He seems to fantasize, in part, in order to feel as though he has some control and is thought of as capable, even extraordinary, by others rather than ordinary or, worse, idiotic.

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