The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Themes
by James Thurber

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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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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...

(The entire section is 1,897 words.)