The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Themes
The three main themes in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” are daydreaming, technology, and middle age.
- Daydreaming: The story is about a man who escapes his mundane life through daydreaming.
- Technology: Through his daydreams, Mitty imagines himself in control of technology, which is a contrast to his real life, where he feels oppressed by it.
- Middle age: Mitty is middle-aged and often feels that his life is unfulfilling in comparison to his daydreams.
Themes and Meanings
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1022
James Thurber’s expression through his characterization of the protagonist of the ineptitude, oppression, and disappointment nearly all human beings at some time feel in their lives in the real world (particularly in middle age) is so universally applicable that the name “Walter Mitty” has been canonized as a term in the English language denoting these ideas by inclusion in the Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (2002) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: Tenth Edition (1993).
The story’s four main themes are the contrast between a human being’s hopes for life and its actuality, the power of the mind or imagination, the conflict between the individual and authority, and the ascendancy of technology and materialism in the twentieth century. These themes are conveyed through the deflating disparity between Mitty’s heroic ability and stature in his five daydreams and his hesitancy, servility, and ineptitude in real life. Mitty’s first fantasy of captaining a hydroplane in a terrible ice storm is shot down, so to speak, by his domineering wife, who says that Mitty is driving the car too fast on the icy highway into town. Mitty’s second fantasy, of being a published, world-renowned medical specialist and surgeon, is punctured by having been evoked by a double subordination, to his wife and to the family doctor; in subconscious reaction to his wife’s patronizing attitude in her response to his highway driving—“It’s one of your days. I wish you’d let Dr. Renshaw look you over”—the daydreaming Mitty becomes a medical authority, a commanding figure to whom Dr. Renshaw, in the fantasy, is obsequious.
In his third daydream, Mitty, the defendant in a murder trial, is yet in control in the courtroom, bravely exploding his attorney’s alibi that Mitty’s right arm was in a sling the night of the murder (Mitty boldly announces his expert ambidextrous marksmanship) and with youthful virility adroitly punching the chin of the district attorney, who has physically accosted Mitty’s beautiful young beloved on her headlong rush to join Mitty on the witness stand. The immediately preceding scene, however, which stimulates the daydream, shows Mitty as manually incompetent (unable to park his car properly or remove tire chains), helplessly subordinate to both the parking attendant and the garage mechanic who removes the tire chains, and dimly and unhappily aware of being middle-aged in contrast to the cocky youths taking charge of his automobile.
To the more subtle domination of his wife’s making him wait in the hotel lobby, Mitty’s subconscious counters with the fourth fantasy of being a forceful, dauntless, and insouciant World War I British aviator. Finally, to the minor humiliations of being disregarded by his wife and told like a child to wait in front of the drugstore, his imagination replies with the last fantasy of Mitty’s being the victim of a firing squad, physically under some restraint but still in control of the situation by his proud and disdainful bearing.
Beyond Mitty’s subconscious search in his daydreams for power, freedom, and authority in his relations with people is a quest for mastery over technology, one of Thurber’s perceptively prophetic themes in this 1939 story. In all daydreams except the last, Mitty can expertly manipulate some technological instrument, whose complexity is usually emphasized in the description of it: the hydroplane with its “row of complicated dials,” the “huge, complicated” anaesthetizer with its “row of glistening dials,” any firearm (and especially the Webley-Vickers 50.80), and the two-man bomber, which “Captain” Mitty can heroically pilot alone. A motif of the same sound emitted by the various machines in each of the fantasies, “pocketa-pocketa,” emphasizes their technological presence.
Mitty seeks power and control over technology in daydreams because he is subject to it and to its controllers in real life, as exemplified by his various difficulties with his automobile. Even the more primitive technological device of the hotel’s revolving door seems in conspiracy to mock or subordinate him, for as he leaves, it makes a “faintly derisive whistling sound.” Besides its onomatopoeic aptness in conveying the sound of machinery, the “pocketa” motif may also suggest Mitty’s feeling of confinement or restraint by technology, of enclosure as if in a pocket.
Mitty’s feeling of oppressive enclosure in his life is expressed by the buildings of Waterbury “rising up” and “surrounding him” after his third fantasy, and the sergeant’s remark “the box barrage is closing in” in the fourth fantasy as well as Mitty’s echo, “things close in,” when rudely jolted awake by his wife in the hotel lobby. The prevalent references to flying in his fantasies are not accidental, for they reflect Mitty’s desires for escape and freedom; the magazine that he casually scans in the hotel lobby, which is the immediate cause of his fourth fantasy, has the appropriate title Liberty. In one sense, the overall pattern of Mitty’s five fantasies is unhappy because their trend is toward an increasingly certain death of the fantasy protagonist, which suggests that Mitty’s hope and the reader’s for him are waning.
Near the story’s conclusion, Mitty’s wife, who perhaps could aid him, does not. In response to an unexpected though oblique assertiveness from her husband, she continues in her failure to achieve sympathetic understanding of what ails her spouse. Instead, she remains aligned with the oppressive forces of technology and materialism, failing to sense that her husband is not suffering from a physical or material ailment, and so does not need to see Dr. Renshaw or to have his temperature taken, her materialistic solutions proposed at the story’s beginning and ending. Rather, with some pathos, Mitty remains alone, awaiting his daydream firing squad; he is “inscrutable,” because no one around him recognizes his inner frustration and pain. However, his daydreams, paradoxically, do allow a measured triumph as well. In a sense he is a limited victor in his fantasies, but a victor, even in the last, which recalls a similar idea in Thurber’s fable “The Moth and the Star”—that triumphs of the imagination have their own compelling reality.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 294
Thematically, Thurber touched upon all aspects of society, from language to love and from art to war. Often he was more politically oriented than most of his humorist contemporaries. His favorite topic was the exploitation and mistreatment of the Little Man by women, creatures that he posited may have diverged from man's evolutionary path and thus actually belong to another race (a subject explored in Norris W. Yates's The American Humorist). Machines also are a source of the Little Man's downfall. Incidentally, although not present in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," observing many of the incidents depicted in his short stories and especially prevalent in his cartoons were dogs, independent, objective observers who see through pretense and bravado to vulnerability, yet who wisely seldom offer comments.
The theme of overcoming a humdrum everyday life by opposing it with fanciful images of a fantasy life is developed from the opening lines of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" as Mitty is found at the controls of a storm-tossed seaplane. Reality soon intrudes, though, and the heroic image is replaced by a description of Mitty, the husband, driving his wife to her regular visit with the hairdresser. Adventurous segments alternate throughout the tale of the couples' trip to town, as when Mitty's fantasy about being a skilled surgeon taking command in a hospital operating room life-and-death situation dissolves when he is confronted by a parking lot attendant who clearly is capable of managing Mitty's car better than Mitty himself can. As the story progresses, Mitty also imagines himself in the role of the world's greatest pistol shot, a bomber captain on a mission over enemy territory, an army captain about to lead his men into combat, and a proud, disdainful figure facing a firing squad.
Last Updated on August 27, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 579
Walter Mitty is an ordinary character who fills his mind with fantasies in which he plays the hero, saves lives, navigates enemy territory, and proves his masculinity.
Success and Failure
The theme of success and failure is examined through Mitty's inability to live a fulfilling external life, which causes him to retreat to an internal life full of images of conquest. Walter Mitty is neither exciting nor successful in his everyday life. In fact, the world Mitty lives in seems hellish to him. His wife's nagging voice awakens him from one dream. Like his wife, parking lot attendants and policemen admonish him, and women at the grocery store laugh at him. A bumbling, ineffectual man scorned by others, he feels humiliated by the knowing grins of garage mechanics who know he cannot take the chains off his car's tires. To avoid their sneers, he imagines taking the car into the garage with his arm in a sling so "they'll see I couldn't possibly take the chains off myself.''
The failures of his everyday life are countered by the extraordinary successes he plays out in his fantasy life. Mitty is always the stunning hero of his dreams: he flies a plane through horrendous weather and saves the crew; he saves a millionaire banker with his dexterity and common sense in surgery; he stuns a courtroom with tales of his snapshooting; and he fearlessly faces a firing squad. Although he always forgets what his wife wants him to pick up at the store and he waits for her in the wrong part of the hotel lobby, Walter is alert, courageous and at the center of attention in his dreams. Thurber suggests that this ordinary man who hates the reality of middle-class life and his own shortcomings prefers to live in his imagination.
Walter's failures in life and his successes in dreams are closely connected with gender roles. Everyday life for him consists of being ridiculed by women, such as the one who hears him mutter "puppy biscuit'' on the street and his wife who nags him. Among women, Walter is subservient and the object of derision. Among men, Walter fails to meet traditional expectations of masculinity. He is embarrassed by his mechanical ineptitude: when he tries to remove the chains from his tires, he ends up winding them around the axles, and he has to send for a towtruck. The mechanic who arrives is described as "young" and "grinning." The description implies that the man, younger and more virile, is laughing at Walter's ignorance of cars and makes Walter feel emasculated, or less of a man. Walter resolves that the next time he takes the car to the shop to have the chains removed, he will cover his shame by wearing his right arm in a sling.
Walter compensates for his failure to fulfill conventional expectations of masculinity in his daydreams. All of his fantasies center around feats of traditionally masculine prowess, and many of them involve violence. He can hit a target three hundred feet away with his left hand, fix sophisticated machinery with a common fountain pen, and walk bravely into battle in his fantasy worlds. Thurber' s exploration of sex roles in modern America can be understood in various ways: Thurber might be suggesting that men have become weak and ineffectual and women overly aggressive, or he may be pointing to a lack of opportunities for men to perform meaningful, heroic action in modern, suburban, middle-class America.