“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” was first published in 1939, the year World War II bega German troops invaded Poland, the Germans and the Soviets signed a Nazi-Soviet nonagression pact, and Germany and Italy formed the Pact of Steel Alliance. While the Axis powers were consolidating, Britain and France declared war on Germany. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared U.S. neutrality in the war, but the United States entered the war in 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt, at the suggestion of Albert Einstein, ordered a U.S. effort to build an atomic bomb. In Spain, the forces of fascist Francisco Franco captured Madrid, ending the Spanish Civil War. While Walter Mitty, a middle-aged man, dreams of being a captain in the First World War, the dream is triggered by his reading an article intimating World War II in Liberty magazine entitled, “Can Germany Conquer the World Through the Air?” The articles contain “pictures of bombing planes and of ruined streets.” In the late 1930s and early 1940s, American men like Walter Mitty had to confront their fears of and desires for proving their manhood in battle.
Thurber’s use of wordplay and exploration of the absurdity of modern life has been noted for its affinities with modernist writing. Modernists played with conventional narrative form and dialogue, attempting to approximate subjective thought and experience. Thurber’s narrative technique has been compared to the writings of William Faulkner, whose novels Absalom, Absalom! and Light in August were published in the 1930s. Thurber’s playful use of words and themes of absurdity also show the influence of the poet Wallace Stevens, whose book of verse, The Man with the Blue Guitar was published in 1937.
Towards the end of the story, Walter comments that “things close in,” which, according to Carl M. Lindner, represents the suffocating effects of modern life on “the Romantic individual.” That the world was changing due to technological, economic, and social developments (think of Walter’s problems fixing his car, for example) is reflected in the opening of the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, whose theme was “The World of Tomorrow.”
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, James Thurber, Published by Gale, 1997.