Walter Mitty is an ordinary character who fills his mind with fantasies in which he plays the hero, saves lives, navigates enemy territory, and proves his masculinity.
Success and Failure
The theme of success and failure is examined through Mitty’s inability to live a fulfilling external life, which causes him to retreat to an internal life full of images of conquest. Walter Mitty is neither exciting nor successful in his everyday life. In fact, the world Mitty lives in seems hellish to him. His wife’s nagging voice awakens him from one dream. Like his wife, parking lot attendants and policemen admonish him, and women at the grocery store laugh at him. A bumbling, ineffectual man scorned by others, he feels humiliated by the knowing grins of garage mechanics who know he cannot take the chains off his car’s tires. To avoid their sneers, he imagines taking the car into the garage with his arm in a sling so “they’ll see I couldn’t possibly take the chains off myself.”
The failures of his everyday life are countered by the extraordinary successes he plays out in his fantasy life. Mitty is always the stunning hero of his dreams: he flies a plane through horrendous weather and saves the crew; he saves a millionaire banker with his dexterity and common-sense in surgery; he stuns a courtroom with tales of his sharpshooting; and he fearlessly faces a firing squad. Although he always forgets what his wife wants him to pick up at the store and he waits for her in the wrong part of the hotel lobby, Walter is alert, courageous and at the center of attention in his dreams. Thurber suggests that this ordinary man who hates the reality of middle-class life and his own shortcomings prefers to live in his imagination.
Walter’s failures in life and his successes in dreams are closely connected with gender roles. Everyday life for him consists of being ridiculed by women, such as the one who hears him mutter “puppy biscuit” on the street and his wife who nags him. Among women, Walter is subservient and the object of derision. Among men, Walter fails to meet traditional expectations of masculinity. He is embarrassed by his mechanical ineptitude: when he tries to remove the chains from his tires, he ends up winding them around the axles, and he has to send for a tow-truck. The mechanic who arrives is described as “young” and “grinning.” The description implies that the man, younger and more virile, is laughing at Walter’s ignorance of cars and makes Walter feel emasculated, or less of a man. Walter resolves that the next time he takes the car to the shop to have the chains removed, he will cover his shame by wearing his right arm in a sling.
Walter compensates for his failure to fulfill conventional expectations of masculinity in his daydreams. All of his fantasies center around feats of traditionally masculine prowess, and many of them involve violence. He can hit a target three hundred feet away with his left hand, fix sophisticated machinery with a common fountain pen, and walk bravely into battle in his fantasy worlds. Thurber’s exploration of sex roles in modern America can be understood in various ways: Thurber might be suggesting that men have become weak and ineffectual and women overly aggressive, or he may be pointing to a lack of opportunities for men to perform meaningful, heroic action in modern, suburban, middle-class America.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, James Thurber, Published by Gale, 1997.