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.