The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber, 1942

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by James Thurber, 1942

As a comic short story writer, James Thurber had few rivals in the mid-twentieth century. "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (collected in My Worldand Welcome to It, 1942) is arguably the best of his stories and is still cited as an exemplar of its form during that period.

Thurber's story has its roots in American cultural tradition. His chief character, Walter Mitty, has forerunners in native folklore and fiction. Carl M. Lindner points out that "Mitty is a descendant of Rip Van Winkle and Tom Sawyer" in serving to orchestrate the theme of conflict between the individual and society, and "he dream-wishes qualities customarily exhibited by the legendary frontier hero." At the same time the main theme of the story, the craving for power, is presented in a distinctively modern context.

Mitty's occupation is not specified, but the suggestion generated by his lifestyle is that he is some type of clerk. The story is about craving for power by the powerless. Whereas Shakespeare's Macbeth crosses the border between thought and action in his quest for power, Thurber's Mitty is placed in circumstances that permit him to enjoy power only in fantasy and offer him no avenue of achieving it in real life.

The story begins with an episode of fantasy. Mitty imagines that he is a navy commander piloting a hydroplane through the worst storm in 20 years of flying. Modern American life is bedeviled by mechanical devices, technology, the demand for superefficiency, and Mitty dreams that he is a master of it all. His description of himself in this episode suggests a man of steel. But the fantasy is suddenly juxtaposed with fact, the basic technique of the story. The eight-engined hydroplane is played off against a car and the hero against a mild, ordinary human being whose domineering wife snaps, "Not so fast!" Mitty typifies the male whom critics have called "the Thurber man," while his wife represents the female characterized as "the Thurber woman." Thurber's view of the battle of the sexes in twentieth-century America is that the women have won it.

It is ironical that when Mitty's imagination is working his wife feels that he needs medical treatment, psychiatric treatment in particular. Mrs. Mitty gets out of the car at the hairdresser's with a parting order to her husband to wear his gloves. He rebels against her momentarily and takes them off, significantly, after she has departed. But when a cop snaps at him at the traffic lights, Mitty confuses his voice with that of his wife and hastily pulls on his gloves.

Characteristically in this story surroundings trigger the fantasies. These gloves of Mitty are transformed into surgical gloves in his mind, and he imagines that he is a surgeon. His patient, the millionaire banker Wellington McMillan, has Mitty's initials, and Mitty's psychiatrist reappears as a surgeon inferior to him. As Mitty in his dream confidently gets ready to perform the impossible operation on McMillan and save him from certain death, it becomes clearer that what he craves is absolute power, the power over life and death. Thus, he is Thurber's most ambitious hero.

During the operation Mitty (once again) handles a complicated machine, a defective "anesthetizer," with competence and nonchalance—with practical resource, too—using a fountain pen to replace a faulty piston. The fantasy is then juxtaposed with reality. Mitty, in fact, is unable to handle his own car. He is in the wrong lane, and, in contrast to him, a parking-lot attendant backs Mitty's car up "with insolent skill."

A newsboy's shout about the Waterbury trial releases Mitty from worry about a forgotten item in his shopping list, and he begins to imagine himself the cool accused in a courtroom scene. He shows superefficiency even as a murderer. His concluding reference to "cur" in his imagined scene reminds him of the missing item on his shopping list—"puppy biscuit." He cannot remember its brand name, but he remembers the advertising slogan: "Puppies Bark for It."

Mitty then goes to the hotel to wait for his wife. He picks up an old copy of Liberty, and the title triggers a dream about the threat of domination posed by Germany during World War II. Mitty imagines himself the pilot of a giant bomber, setting off amidst firing cannons, machine guns, and flamethrowers to knock out an ammunition dump. Mrs. Mitty interrupts his fantasy.

In depicting Mitty's fantasies Thurber uses deceptive terms that are really nonexistent (the "streptothricosis" or "ductal tract" during the operation) or inaccurate ("coreopsis" is not a medical term as used in the story but a genus of plants; in war slang the Germans were not "Archies" but "Jerries"). These subtly highlight Mitty's complete ignorance of heroic experience. The result is both amusing and pathetic.

Mrs. Mitty remembers that she has something to purchase and goes to the drugstore on the corner. Mitty then imagines his last fantasy, the story closing in the same vein it began. He is facing a firing squad, scorning to be blindfolded—a victim with a touch of the heroic. It is true that Mitty is unable to cope with the petty demands of life, but the possibility is not negated that he could handle more important tasks if given a chance. Thurber did insist, after all, that the perceptive reader would detect in his work "a basic and indestructible thread of hope."

—D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber, 1942

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