abstract illustration of a man's face and several accoutrements: scissors, gloves, glasses, tweezers, facemask, and a cigarette

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

by James Thurber

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What do Walter Mitty's daydreams reveal about his circumstances, beliefs, and desires?

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This is a story about a middle-aged man with a boring life who escapes into daydreams.

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Walter Mitty has become one of the most enduring characters in mid-twentieth-century American fiction because so many of his personality traits resonate with our own. Walter lives a vivid life of the imagination which contrasts with the blandness of his real-life everyday world. Escaping into his fantasies is more than...

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a coping mechanism. Walter does not simply have one doppelganger who does daring things; he creates a steady stream of alter egos who, to him, embody the courage and integrity he believes he possesses deep down.

Sadly, Walter’s personal life is far from fulfilling. He is a submissive person dominated by an insensitive wife. While she is aware that his mind wanders, she sees it as evidence of physical illness, urging him to see the doctor. Walter dreams not only of being brave and heroic; the other side of his fantasy is dying a noble death rather than eking out a tedious existence.

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Walter Mitty's daydreams tell the reader a lot about his personality.  It is clear that Walter is not an amazing physical specimen of a man, nor is he extremely intelligent.  He's not good at simple mechanics, and his coordination is not superb, which is why he isn't a great driver.  He can be forgetful at times.  All of these traits together make him a bit of a lovable klutz . . . to the reader.  To the other characters in the book though, Walter is someone to be avoided or yelled at or laughed at.  

Perhaps as a way to compensate for his shortcomings, Walter imagines a second life.  In that life he is a quick decision-maker, strong, powerful, loved by people, brave, etc.  Walter's daydreams are his way of seeing himself in a more positive light.  They are his way of making his boring and mundane daily life and job more exciting.  

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What is the significance of Walter Mitty's fantasies?

The famous short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" by James Thurber tells of a man who has one amazing, adventurous, graphic fantasy after another while out on a shopping trip with his wife. The significance of the fantasies for Walter Mitty is that they help him cope with his mundane existence and his domineering wife who makes no effort to understand him. Thurber presents Mitty as someone who is deeply dissatisfied with his life as it is, and he uses the fantasies to make his life more interesting and exciting.

In the story, each of the fantasies is set off by something in the real world that corresponds with what Mitty fantasizes about. For instance, Mitty imagines himself piloting a Navy hydroplane when he is actually driving a car, and then his wife interrupts by telling him he is driving too fast. The fantasy about Mitty as a brilliant surgeon is brought on because his wife makes a comment about his gloves, which then become surgical gloves. The courtroom drama fantasy happens because Mitty hears a newsboy shout out about a trial. He imagines himself volunteering to fly a plane over Germany after reading an article about flying in a magazine. While smoking on a street corner, Mitty imagines that it is his last cigarette while facing a firing squad.

In each of these fantasies, Mitty uses his imagination to embellish ordinary events, so that his life will be more exciting and less of a drudgery.

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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.

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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.

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What do Walter Mitty's daydreams symbolize?

In this 1939 story, Walter Mitty is, in reality, a henpecked husband driving his wife to the hairdresser while he runs mundane errands such as buying galoshes and puppy food. His dreams symbolize his desire to have a bigger, braver, and more daring life as the hero of his own life and death dramas. They show him in cliched set pieces from melodramatic movies, at a moment of crisis saving the day. He imagines being put in such dramatic settings as war zones, operating rooms, and courtrooms. His final fantasy, of facing a firing squad, also symbolizes his deep desire to escape his mundane life.

In his first fantasy, Mitty is part of a group fighting through a storm in a navy hydroplane. In reality, he is driving his car slightly too fast. In his second fantasy, rather than a man cautiously driving past the hospital and looking to park on Main Street, he is the medical specialist stepping in to save the day in the operating room amid tense surgery on a millionaire. As he tries to remember that his wife wants him to pick up puppy biscuits, Mitty imagines himself the sharpshooting but innocent defendant in a murder trial who triumphantly defends a woman from the district attorney's attack. (Earlier, Mitty had fantasized that a parking-lot attendant would have treated him less rudely had his arm been in a sling.) As he waits for his wife to finish at the hair dresser, he looks through a magazine about the war in Europe and fancies himself a brave, careless, and debonair fighter quaffing brandies before battle. In his final fantasy of the story, he faces a firing squad:

Erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.

It is hard not to have a smiling appreciation of the childlike and ordinary Mitty alleviating a boring round of errands with his romanticized, overblown fantasies. He is an everyman, dreaming of the grandeur that we all long for from time to time.

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