In “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Thurber tells the story of Walter Mitty, a man who lives in a dream world to escape from the routines and humiliations he suffers in everyday life. The action takes place over the course of a single day, during which Walter Mitty and his wife go on their weekly shopping trip. Walter slips into his daydreams, only to be awakened when he has made an error in judgment, such as speeding or driving on the wrong side of the road.
Thurber has carefully constructed the story’s narrative to connect Mitty’s “secret life” with his external life. In the first dream sequence, Walter is a naval commander who sails his hydroplane at full speed to avoid a hurricane. The dream abruptly ends when his wife admonishes him for driving too quickly, implying that Walter’s dream led to his speeding. The second dream begins when his wife notes that he is tense, and asks him to see a doctor. Hearing the name of the doctor sends Walter Mitty into dreaming that he is a famous surgeon who assists in saving the life of a wealthy patient, a banker named Wellington MacMillan. Each of the dreams, then, begins with some detail from Walter’s everyday life. Walter transforms insignificant comments, sounds or objects into major props in his heroic conquests. The same details from reality force him out of his dream world. Significantly, the story opens and closes in the middle of dream sequences, as if to emphasize their priority over reality for Walter. It is left to the reader to consider the importance of the last scene, in which Walter bravely faces a firing squad without a blindfold. Thurber’s narrative proficiency is such that he actually writes six stories within one. None of the mini-narratives have decisive conclusions: each of the dream sequences, like the entire story, is an abbreviated short story with no clear beginning or end.
Point of View
Linked to his use of narration, Thurber uses an unusual point of view in ”The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” The story is told in the third-person, but the reader has access to Mitty’s thoughts. The dream sequences complicate this third-person limited point of view. During these sections of the story, readers are inside of Walter’s fantasy. His conscious thoughts are on display. He wonders what he was supposed to buy at the store. Readers also have access to another level of Mitty’s consciousness during the dream sequences. Here, Walter’s thoughts are projected into narrative action. Thurber shifts from one level of awareness to another without confusing the reader.
Thurber has been praised for his use of extravagant wordplay and literary allusions. Noted primarily for his light sketches and humorous line drawings, Thurber did not receive a great deal of serious critical appraisal during his career. However, later critics have commented on his bitter political and social commentary and the latent, darker themes in his work. Through his use of humor and wit, Thurber was able to explore the conflicts and neurotic tensions of modern life. Mitty’s misuse of words such as “coreopsis” and “obstreosis” in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is a typical example of how Thurber employed speech to great effect. Humorous distortions of medical terms, technological advancements, and items of warfare make Mitty’s portrayal accurate, lifelike, and believable. During his courtroom daydream, Mitty is called upon to identify a gun known as a “Webley-Vickers 50.80.” This is another instance where Thurber twists words to enrich the depiction of Mitty’s character. Carl M. Lindner asserts that this distortion of a brand-name (probably Smith and Wesson—a well known gun manufacturer) demonstrates Mitty’s “ignorance of the heroic experience” and amuses readers at the same time. Thurber used such distortions of speech and reality to effectively depict the absurdities of the human condition.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, James Thurber, Published by Gale, 1997.