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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

by James Thurber

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What is the irony in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"?

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Walter Mitty struggles with his wife's emasculating behavior. His visions of being heroic are all a way of escaping her control and asserting himself.

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In his mind, Walter imagines that he is the most capable man in the world. In his real life, he is quite incompetent. One might think that, at least occasionally, Walter would try to be competent and successful in his real life, but he doesn't do this. In fact, he purposely tries to avoid succeeding. It is ironic (situational) that he would go to such lengths to avoid success. Consider the scene in which he can't get the chains off his tires. Instead of learning from his mistake or learning from a professional, he chooses to avoid even trying in the future: 

The next time, he thought, I'll wear my right arm in a sling; They won't grin at me then. I'll have my right arm in a sling and they'll see I couldn't possibly take the chains off myself. 

Walter chooses to be heroic in his mind, but would rather appear like an invalid in his real life. 

Note the final line of the story. It ends with "Walter Mitty, the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last." "Inscrutable" means impossible to understand or interpret. The reader tries to determine what makes Walter tick. Has his wife's nagging forced him into the escape of his own imagination? Or has his inattention to his real life caused his wife's nagging? Is Walter happy? Is this retreat of imagined worlds enough for him? Is he miserable? These kinds of unresolved questions are a kind of irony that would best be described as romantic or a type of metafiction. Readers attempt to determine what made Walter into the dreamer that he is. He is "inscrutable" and therefore impossible to understand fully. With this final line, the author calls attention to the unresolved, inscrutable Walter Mitty. 

This story might also qualify as Socratic irony. This is feigned ignorance. Socrates would pretend to be ignorant in order to manipulate the person he was having a dialogue with. Perhaps Walter is pretending to be incompetent in his real life in order to live almost exclusively in the much more exciting realm of his dreams.

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It isn't especially ironic that poor Walter would escape momentarily from his dull life and nagging wife in daydreams. In fact, we might expect him to do something to relieve his misery. It is ironic, however, that mousy Mr. Mitty can weave such colorful and incredibly detailed romantic adventures. For a man who shows no signs of creativity in his real life, the richness of his imagination is remarkable. It is ironic (situational irony) that in order to engage his talents and enjoy his life, Mitty has to stop living it from time to time.

Another type of irony found in the story is dramatic irony. We understand much more about her husband's activities than does Mrs. Mitty. For example, in the beginning of the story, Mrs. Mitty demands to know why Walter is driving so fast. This is amusing because we know Commander Mitty is driving fast because he is powering a navy hydroplane through stormy winter seas trying to escape an impending hurricane! 

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Where is the symbolism in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"?

Walter Mitty's wife emasculates and infantilizes him in several ways. She insists on him wearing overshoes, the way a mother would in 1939 when James Thurber published this story. When she tells him to wear his gloves, as well, he thinks about defying her until a policeman speaks sharply to him, and he puts them back on. Mitty has become childlike and trained to defer to the authority of others. He can't even park his car competently and must defer to the parking lot attendant by giving him the key. Mitty waits for his wife in a chair when she is at the beauty salon, and he takes care to ensure that he is sitting where she can see him, just as a mother would insist of a child. The last item he picks up for her is "puppy biscuit," a term a child would use. When he speaks up for himself she promises to take his temperature when they get home, as one would do for a child.

The overshoes and gloves, the handing over of the car key, buying puppy biscuits, and waiting for her with docility all symbolize the emasculating and infantilizing power his wife wields over him.

The type of men Mitty fantasizes becoming all point toward his desire to reclaim his manhood: a surgeon, an unrepentant criminal, a war hero, and a man fearlessly awaiting a firing squad.

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Where is the symbolism in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"?

One piece of symbolism that I like to point out to students is the symbolism that is carried in the overshoes and gloves that Mrs. Mitty is so adamant that Walter has and use. Both items are protective covering type items. They are symbolic of how Mrs. Mitty attempts to shield and protect Walter from just about everything.

“I don’t need overshoes,” said Mitty.

She put her mirror back into her bag. “We’ve been all through that,” she said, getting out of the car. “You’re not a young man any longer.”

Mrs. Mitty believes that her husband needs constant oversight, guidance, protection, and help. She works to do much of that herself. For example, she won't even let Walter take his own temperature. If she can't be the one to protect Walter, then she'll get someone or something to do it for her. It's why she makes Walter take the car to a mechanic for something as simple as removing the chains. The gloves and overshoes are the same concept. They are another layer that insulates Walter from the big, bad, harmful world that she thinks Walter can't operate in. That constant oversight and overbearing protection is one reason why Walter has such extreme fantasies about his life.

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Where is the symbolism in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"?

I would want to answer this question by pointing out the way in which Mitty, in his desperate desire to escape from his humdrum existence and his terrible wife, gives normal, everyday objects and actions symbolic significance as they trigger off his series of daydreams. Note the way in which driving past the hospital after he has dropped off his wife symbolically gives rise to his daydream about performing a major operation. Likewise hearing a newsboy talking about a trial triggers his daydream of standing up in court and testifying. At each stage of the story, Mitty is forced to take the boring, monotonous details of his existence and give them symbolic significance to enable him to embark on his flights of fancy and get the release and freedom that he does not have in life. Thus the symbolism in this excellent short story lies in the symbolism that Mitty gives objects and actions, such as in the last daydream:

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. He took one last drag on his cigarette and snapped it away. Then, with the 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.

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Is there a central allegory in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"?

The central allegory in the story is probably the disconnect between a comfortable, safe lifestyle, and the desire for adventure and danger that most people feel at some point in their lives. Walter Mitty seems to have a good life; he is not poor or wanting for essentials, he is married, and he seems healthy enough. However, he is not happy; his subconscious wants something more out of life and he finds himself daydreaming about adventurous scenarios in which he is the hero of the hour:

Walter Mitty drove on toward Waterbury in silence, the roaring of the SN202 through the worst storm in twenty years of Navy flying fading in the remote, intimate airways of his mind.
(Thurber, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," bnrg.cs.berkeley.edu)

Mitty seems almost unconscious of these daydreams; the only time he acknowledges them is when his wife wakes him in a hotel lobby, when he quietly admonishes his wife: "Does it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking?" This is his only pushback against society and its intended role for him; otherwise, he meekly complies with everything people say and do. The allegory, therefore, is of the individualist spirit that resides in all people, and the forces of convention that seek to keep everyone confined to a safe societal role.

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Is there anything symbolic or ironic in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty?

There's a lot of irony in the story.  Irony is traditionally defined in modern literature as "the technique of indicating an intention or attitude opposed to what is actually stated."  (http://www.enotes.com/literary-terms/irony).  Just about every fantasy Walter Mitty has is irony.  His attitude in the fantasy is one of decisiveness while in real life he allows his wife to order him around.  In the fantasies he intentionally makes himself the center of attention whether as the captain or on the witness stand, and yet in real life he wants to avoid attention, and when others do pay attention to him, like the person on the street who laughed about him saying "puppy biscuits", it's for ridicule.  It's ironic that a man who wants to be so strong and commanding (and who in his fantasies *sees* himself as strong and commanding) is such a wimp.

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Is there anything symbolic or ironic in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty?

The root of the term "irony" comes from ancient Greek theater, where a stock character, called the "eiron" played a foolish overlooked character. The "alazon" would be a character who brags or schemes to take advantage of the town or whatever. The alazon would think the eiron was too foolish or insignificant to worry about. Ultimately the eiron would foil the plans of the alazon. Thus, the least likely character would be the bravest, most clever etc.....

This fits all of the fantasies that Walter enjoys. His life is completely unimportant and he is powerless to change it. So imagines ironic, important endings to his sad trivial life.

"puppy biscuit"

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