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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

by James Thurber

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What does "pocketa-pocketa" signify in Walter Mitty's dreams?

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The “pocketa-pocketa” part of his dreams is Mitty’s way of imagining the sound certain things make—it’s the sound of engine of the hydroplane, or the sound of anaesthetizing machine, or the sound of flame throwers. It’s significant that he always imagines the same sound; because the sound is (perhaps) based on the sound his car makes, it serves an indicator of how reality and fantasy interpenetrate in Mitty’s mind. It also suggests that, while his fantasies are very different, there is a certain common thread to them all. Mitty, in his fantasies, is always impossibly heroic and tremendously skilled. But while he definitely lives in a dream world, he is not divorced from reality. Mitty is very much aware of the real circumstances of his life. Another way of understanding the “pocketa-pocketa” sound is to see it as a kind of marker: in its lack of specificity and its repetition, the sound indicates that the fantasy really is a fantasy. It’s what differentiates Mitty’s overactive imagination from actual psychosis.

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"[T]a-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa" is an example of what's called onomatopoeia. This can be defined as a word or expression that imitates, resembles, or suggests the sound that it describes. Popular examples include "bang," "boom," and the three alleged components of a famous brand of breakfast cereal, "snap, crackle, and pop."

In "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," our hero experiences five vivid daydreams. In the first, he imagines himself to be a brave airman on a dangerous mission:

The pounding of the cylinders increased: ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa. The Commander stared at the ice forming on the pilot window.

We can see here the use of onomatopoeia. "Ta-pocketa" imitates the sound of the plane's pounding cylinders. It's also used elsewhere in the story to imitate the sound of gunfire and the noise of a machine. But that's in Walter Mitty's fantasy world; in the real world, it's the sound that his car makes.

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