Walter Mitty is one of literature’s great dreamers. He spends much of his time escaping into fantasies in which he is brilliant and heroic, and his life is dramatic and adventurous. The enduring popularity of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is undoubtedly due in great part to readers’ ability to identify with Mitty; after all, most of us find our lives at times mundane and unsatisfying, and use daydreams to enter a more interesting world.
Mitty is, of course, an extreme case when it comes to daydreaming. In the single afternoon covered by the story’s action, he imagines he is a prominent surgeon operating on a millionaire; a skilled marksman providing testimony in a sensational trial; a courageous warrior of the air (twice); and a condemned man bravely facing a firing squad.
Numerous critics have pointed to Mitty as a prime example of modern man, trapped in a world that is full of dull responsibilities and offers few possibilities for adventure—or, at least, offers these possibilities only to the few. Mitty dreams of flying planes in hazardous conditions and causing scenes in courtrooms, but his life consists of buying overshoes and waiting for his wife to have her hair done. In his fantasies, not only is his life exciting, but his imagined persona is heroic and resourceful as well. In his daydreams he is a figure larger than life, unflappable and in control of every situation; in reality he is a character critics have dubbed the “little man,” ineffectual and somewhat ridiculous. He inspires feelings of superiority in garage attendants. When he remembers that he is supposed to buy puppy biscuit, he says the words aloud, leading a passer-by to laugh and remark to her companion, “That man said ‘Puppy biscuit’ to himself.” Even a revolving door seems to mock him; it makes a “faintly derisive” noise when pushed. Mitty’s mental meanderings also have something to do with asserting his manhood, at least a stereotypical idea of manhood. He fantasizes about excelling at what are considered “masculine” pursuits having to do with guns and bombs; in reality, he has trouble taking the chains off his car’s tires.
Scholar Carl M. Lindner asserts in an essay in The Georgia Review that the forces that induce Mitty to daydream include the development of urban, industrial society. When the United States was a young country, with an untamed frontier, there were far more opportunities for heroic action—or, at least, there seemed to be, Lindner notes. Also, literature and legend immortalized many frontier heroes, whether fictional creations such as James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo or real historical figures such as Davy Crockett (whose accomplishments were heavily exaggerated, so that he now seems almost like a fictional character). “With the frontier gone, and physical and psychological space limited, the typical male is reduced to fantasy-visions as outlets for that action which is now denied him,” Lindner states. Whether Mitty actually would become a hero if possibilities for action were available to him is open to question; he appears to lack capability as well as opportunity. Some critics have contended Mitty’s inability to deal with life is the natural result of the modern world’s stresses on the individual. In James Thurber’s vision, this world is “Hell for the Romantic individual,” comments Lindner. However, in the estimation of another critic, Ann Ferguson Mann, Mitty has merely abdicated responsibility for his life. In her essay in Studies in Short Fiction, Mann writes:”What Thurber’s story can show us, while it delights us with its clever humor, is that what traps the Walter Mittys of this world and insures that they will remain ‘little men’ is their own limited view of themselves and others.”
Mann’s view diverges from a widely held assertion that holds Mitty’s wife responsible for his predicament as well as blaming contemporary society. In his stories and cartoons, Thurber often portrayed women, especially wives, as dominating and menacing creatures, breaking the spirit of the men in their lives. Critic Norris Yates gives an interpretation of Thurber’s viewpoint in his book entitled American Humorist: Conscience of the Twentieth Century. Yates writes: “Thurber feels that the male animal is unduly repressed by his environment, an environment which contains another animal, his wife, who both abets and conceals her ruthlessness by means of more resolution, solicitude for her mate, and competence in the small matters of everyday living than he shows.” Certainly, this description fits Mrs. Mitty in some ways. She obviously worries about Walter’s health and welfare; she observes that he is nervous, suggests a visit to a doctor, notes that she intends to check his temperature when they return home, and reminds him to wear his gloves and buy overshoes. The fact that she would have to remind him of these things is a sign that she is indeed more competent than he, and is constantly concerned about his well being. Another indication of her competence is that she notices when he is driving too fast. She also seems not to understand his need for escapism; he wonders if she realizes that he is sometimes thinking.
Mann makes a rather convincing argument in that Mrs. Mitty’s actions can be seen as quite understandable and even praiseworthy. “No critics and few readers of the story have tried to imagine the difficulties of living with Walter Mitty,” Mann comments. Indeed, the story contains ample evidence that Mitty would try a mate’s patience. He has trouble remembering the errands he is supposed to run. He rebels at the idea of dressing properly for winter. He is an inept driver. And he slides into his fantasies with little provocation. It has fallen to Mrs. Mitty (Thurber gives her no first name) to manage the details of Walter’s life. “She is there to keep him from driving too fast, to get him to wear gloves and overshoes, to take him to the doctor, but, most importantly, to free him from all the practical responsibilities of living so that he can pursue his real career—his fantasy life,” notes Mann. “It is not inconceivable that Mitty, the architect of so many intricate fantasies, unconsciously chose for himself a wife like Mrs. Mitty.”
This rather positive view of Mrs. Mitty is not only at odds with that held by many other critics, but also might surprise Thurber, given that much of his work contained negative portraits of women. Late in his career, however, Thurber contended he was not a misogynist. Yates points to a statement Thurber wrote in 1953: “If I have sometimes seemed to make fun of Woman, I assure you it has been only for the purpose of egging her on.” Additionally, stories can be interpreted in many ways, not limited to what the author may have intended.
In the end, it is possible to sympathize with both Walter and Mrs. Mitty. It is understandable that he would want to find in his fantasies what he lacks in life; it is also easy to see that she would have to be the more responsible member of the couple, and that she would sometimes have to play the unpopular role of disciplinarian. He needs someone to take care of him; perhaps she needs to take care of someone. Therefore, each fulfills a need for the other. Readers may be able to identify with Mrs. Mitty to some extent. This is limited, however, because she is rather sketchily drawn, because her role in the story is secondary to Walter’s, and because dreamers are generally more appealing than are earthbound, practical people. Walter remains the story’s primary audience-identification figure.
Readers are able to identify with Mitty not only because of the fact that he fantasizes, but also because of the content of his fantasies. The content is familiar, as it is drawn from American popular culture. His military scenarios are full of cliches from war films. The courtroom scene could be from a low-budget 1940s mystery movie or a paperback crime novel. The firing-squad ending could come from a movie, too. And the medical fantasy is pure soap opera. Some critics have pointed out that the daydream sequences show Thurber’s skill as a parodist—a skill he also displayed in Fables For Our Time and other works. Consider these lines from Mitty’s dream of being a naval aviator, flying through a severe storm: “The crew .. . looked at each other and grinned. ‘The Old Man’ll get us through,’ they said to one another. ‘The Old Man ain’ t afraid of hell.”‘ Or these from the trial fantasy: “Pandemonium broke loose in the courtroom. A woman’s scream rose above the bedlam and suddenly a lovely, dark-haired girl was in Mitty’s arms. The District Attorney struck at her savagely. Without rising from his chair, Mitty let the man have it on the point of the chin. ‘You miserable cur!’ … ” Thurber takes material that is familiar to the audience and makes it hilarious through exaggeration. The fantasy scenes also contain humor based on made-up and misused words; for instance, Mitty imagines himself to be a doctor dealing with diseases called obstreosis and streptothricosis (both fabricated words), as well as coreopsis (really a genus of herb). Several critics interpret the cliched content and twisted vocabulary of Mitty’s daydreams as revealing the limitations of his experience. Lindner notes that Mitty’s “concocted overdramatizations” are based on “what he has read rather than what he has done” because, after all, Mitty has not done much in his life. As for Mitty’s erroneous use of words, Lindner asserts, “While Thurber deliberately places these wrong-way signposts to reveal Mitty’s ignorance of the heroic experience Mitty remains oblivious of his blunders as he succeeds in fashioning his own reality.”
Undoubtedly, we all would like to fashion our own reality; we all are, to some extent, Walter Mittys. More than anything, that point of identification is the reason the story continues to appeal to readers year after year.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, James Thurber, Published by Gale, 1997.
Trudy Ring, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997