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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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

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Escapism through Imagination

Walter Mitty copes with the mundane, monotonous, and oppressive aspects of his reality by retreating into his vivid daydreams. These fantasies allow him to become heroic, expressing his unfulfilled desires for adventure, courage, and self-discovery. The theme of escapism raises questions about the significance of imagination in providing solace and respite from the challenges of daily life.

By escaping into his imaginative world, Mitty mentally distances himself from reality, and his surroundings become a mere background to his daydreams. Thurber suggests that we each can live multiple lives in this fashion, which even Mitty understands.

We only live once, Searegent," said Mitty, with his faint, fleeting smile. "Or do we?

The ambiguity of his question, "Or do we?" suggests that Mitty's imaginative worlds allow him to escape the limitations of reality and explore different aspects of himself, essentially living multiple lives.

Conformity and Rebellion

Through Mitty's character, the story explores the conflict between conformity and rebellion. Mitty is trapped in a submissive and forgettable existence, adhering to his wife's demands and societal roles. However, in his mind, he rebels against this conformity, embodying daring and defiant characters.

As the commander of a Navy hydroplane, Mitty knows no limits. However, as his wife's chauffeur, he must conform to her demands and drive according to her wishes.

You were up to fifty-five," she said. "You know I don't like to go more than forty. You were up to fifty-five.

Viewed this way, readers can examine how people secretly and silently rebel in their minds and question whether this is an actual rebellion or a form of personal escapism. This highlights the tension between societal expectations and the desire for individual autonomy.

Personal Identity

The story touches on the theme of individuality and the suppression of personal identity by societal norms and expectations. Mitty's fantasies reveal his yearning for a more fulfilling life, unencumbered by the expectations his wife and society placed upon him. With this theme, readers are encouraged to reflect on the importance of embracing one's true self and pursuing personal aspirations, regardless of external pressures.

Throughout the story, Mitty's sense of self differs starkly from how others see him. For instance, in Mitty's daydream about facing a firing squad, he exhibits courage and maintains his individuality and dignity until the end. Mitty's imaginings portray him as unyielding and unafraid, representing his inner desires to assert his identity and resist conformity. However, any objective outsider would see him as a rather meek and passive man.

Power and Powerlessness

In Mitty's daydreams, he takes on roles that bestow power and authority upon him, in stark contrast to his real-life persona, characterized by acquiescence. This theme explores the dichotomy between the power he seeks in his imagination and his perceived powerlessness in reality.At almost every turn in his real life, Mitty is powerless and without much agency. Everyone from his wife to the parking attendant tells him what to do.

You're not a young man any longer," she said. "Why don't you wear your gloves? Have you lost your gloves?

Walter Mitty reached into a pocket and brought out the gloves. He put them on, but after she had turned and gone into the building and he had driven on to a red light, he took them off again.

Mitty's wife criticizes him for not wearing his gloves, implying he is forgetful and careless. This exchange showcases a power dynamic where Mrs. Mitty takes on the role of the authoritative figure, highlighting her husband's powerlessness in the relationship. The fact that Mitty removes the gloves again after she leaves...

(This entire section contains 773 words.)

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suggests his reluctance to conform to her expectations. It is a subtle act of rebellion.

However, in his daydreams, Mitty is a voice of authority or defiance. As a defendant in court, he rejects his own lawyer's arguments. As a surgeon, everyone looks to him as an unquestioned expert. In this story, the reader is presented with a contrast between the power people often lack in reality and the power they secretly fantasize about having.

Masculinity and Gender Norms

Each of Mitty's fantasies involves him taking on traditional masculine qualities. He is fearless, authoritative, stoic, mechanically skilled, and clever. Whether fixing a broken piece of medical equipment with a pen or commanding a hydroplane crew, Mitty portrays conventional notions of masculinity.

However, beneath the surface of these heroic daydreams lies a more nuanced exploration of masculinity. In reality, Mitty appears meek, forgetful, and submissive, often criticized and dominated by his wife. This contrast between his daydreams and his real-life persona highlights the tension between societal expectations of masculinity and individual vulnerability and insecurity.

Themes

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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.

Themes

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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 FailureThe 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.

Gender RolesWalter'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.

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