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The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty Summary

Analysis of The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty by James Thurber

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber chronicles a few hours in the life of Walter Mitty, an aging urban man with a rich imagination, stuck in life crippled by his own ideas of masculinity and his relationship with his wife and by extension, the world. The story does well to dive into the protagonist’s desires, needs, and the many insecurities that burden him

James Thurber was an American writer, journalist and cartoonist, celebrated for his depiction of the modern man in an urban world in his trademark humor.

The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty | Summary

The story begins as a commander of a navy hydroplane decides to best a brewing storm by ramming through it as his subordinates, filled with awe and respect, exclaim about the man’s greatness. The reader is quickly jarred back into a different world with a comment by Mrs Mitty about how she is uncomfortable with how fast they are going. Walter looks at his wife as if she were a stranger, who comments she would like to have their doctor do a check-up on him as she thinks he is too tense. He drops her off at the saloon, she reminds him to buy an overshoe which he thinks is unnecessary and immediately chides him for not wearing gloves commenting he is not young as he used to be. He begrudgingly puts them on and takes them off as soon as his wife goes into the saloon but this hold-up earns him remarks from the police officer who asks him to move his vehicle fast, to which he obliges but not before wearing his gloves back again.

 Driving through the road in front of the hospital he slips into another of the many dreams he has. Here he becomes an important and successful doctor who has arrived to part take in an important surgery. Complications arise as one of their machinery starts malfunctioning, which he takes care of after a simple inspection, by fitting a fountain pen as a temporary replacement for a faulty piston. The condition of the patient worsens due to this short delay and starts having “coreopsis” and Dr. Mitty takes charge as the other doctors request him for sudden assistance. Once again he is pulled out of his fantasies, this time by a parking assistant with a thick accent, pointing out to him how he was on the wrong lane. He offers Walter assistance by volunteering to park his car for him to which Walter obliges and walks out of the car.

 On the way to the shop, he muses how arrogant the parking assistant was reminiscing how once had gotten assistance from a guy while he accidentally tangled the chain on the car while removing it. The stranger had a grin on his face when he offered assistance which makes Walter think that these people think they know everything. He plans to put his arms in a sling when he goes to the garage again, as he is forced to do so due to his wife’s insistence after he tangled the chain one time so that people won’t think less of him. The thought of putting his arm in a sling and a news paperboy hawking about a trial immerses him in another of his daydreams, cutting him off from his stream of thoughts trying to remember what he was supposed to buy.

 He is now a sharpshooter, in a courtroom on trial for shooting someone, his attorney tries to defend him stating how his dominant hand was in a sling at the time. Walter makes this attempt invalid as he states how his non-dominant arm would be more than enough to shoot a man as far as three hundred feet if he so chooses, spreading discomfort through the room, a shriek was heard from some corner of the room as a woman jumps into his hands, the attorney tries to strike her but was thwarted as Walter jabbed him across his chin from the chair calling him a “miserable cur”

The swear jolts his memory as he remembers the last item on his list, dog food! but he could not remember the name of the brand, thankfully he was able to remember the tagline. Saving him from his wife’s abuses which was sure to follow if he had bought the wrong item. He returns to the hotel room after buying puppy food and waits for his wife there, just like how his wife would have wanted.

He sits in the room reading about the German air force and if they could have won the second world war using it. Reading the title and glancing over the pictures in it he is transported into the war as a soldier willingly taking on a difficult mission to gain strategic advantage, he is woken up from the fantasy as his wife hits him on his shoulder scolding him for ‘hiding’. He mutters “Things close in” the wife unable to make out what he said asks him what he was saying immediately following it with another question him he had bought the thing he went to buy unable to remember what it was, he reminds her what he went to buy and she asks him why he didn’t wear it from the store. He replies to the first question by saying he was thinking something and asks his wife if it never occurs to her that he would think things occasionally, to which she retorts that she would take his temperature after returning home.

As they are walking to the parking area, the wife remembers something she had forgotten to buy and runs off to the medical shop, making Walter wait in the rain. He leans on a wall, smoking and fantasizes about being killed by a firing squad.

The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty | Analysis

The story revolves around Walter and his daydreams of glory and prominence, throughout the story, we get to know how most of his dreams mask his insecurities and desires. Walter in each of his dreams adopts a commanding role with aptitude and skill all of which Walter either lacks or is under the impression of the same. He dreams of being a hydroplane pilot and getting through a storm, while he is driving under his wife’s stern eyes his wife not allowing him to drive faster than forty and scolds him claiming he was driving at up to fifty-five, which is below the speed limit in many urban areas. His second dream of being a doctor, perhaps spurred on by his wife’s comment on health, wearing gloves and seeing the hospital, also plays into this trend. His dream about being a sharpshooter comes just after his thinking about being clumsy with the chains and the sling on his hands which he was planning to wear to mask his supposed ineptitude and avoid judgment turns into something to something that paved way for him to brag about his skills.

 The next dream, that of a soldier volunteering for a difficult job can be contrasted by his being forced to run errands. All the fantasies till now have also showcased his desire for validation, women appear in his dreams as props for his glory perhaps as an antithesis to his wife who constantly finds faults and berates him throughout the story. It can be argued that a lot of his clumsiness and ineptitude is a direct consequence of his daydreaming while doing things which can perhaps be traced back to his wife’s attitude towards him and the insecurities and low self-esteem that follow it. Things get concerning by the end of the story as the last fantasy Walter has was essentially suicidal ideation.

 Looking into the behavior of his wife, she too is very forgetful and absent-minded. She is repeatedly shown forgetting things in the short time she spends with us. She forgets items that she herself asks her husband to buy and would berate him if he were to forget them. She couldn’t locate her husband sitting on a chair facing away from her and claims it to be his fault. For all her claims of caring about her husband’s health, she does not think twice before running off to shops while making her husband wait in the cold. This gives a lot of credence to the possibility that she herself is too conscious of her faults and projects them onto her husband, perhaps berating and diminishing his self-worth makes her feel better about her own ineptitude. This naturally leads to the idea that Her concern over her husband and her forcing ineptitude on him is an unconscious attempt at gaining power over him. 

When she quibbles over her husband driving too fast for her liking is she trying to gain some control over the situation to mitigate the fact that she is not the one driving? Perhaps she does not know how to drive. Is her insistence over him needing to wear gloves and overshoes because he is no longer young, despite her husband being not inclined to do any of them thinking that they are unnecessary, too is her attempt at having more power? This line of reasoning can also be applied to her quickly assuming that he is sick or unwell whenever he does things his way or asserts himself when she claims that he is driving too fast because he is tensed and later tells him she will check his temperature after they return home is an attempt at dismissing his opinions and actions. In this light, the words, ”She seemed grossly unfamiliar, like a strange woman who had yelled at him in a crowd.” take a new light as we observe how Mrs. Mitts does not have the slightest clue about her husband’s emotional needs and desires, nor does she seem to be conscious of how her actions are affecting him.

The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty | Title of the Story

‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ is a fitting title to the story as it lays bare a side of the protagonist that none around him knows exists. This word we explore is a treasure trove of information about his subconscious desires and needs, giving us clues about his true mentality and how things around him slowly seep into him and make turn him into what he appears to be to the outside world.

The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty | Themes

Masculinity and Power: While Walter drives his wife to the saloon and afterwards, he drowns himself in fantasy that is mainly escapist to escape from his mundane life and its realities. He, in his fantasies, becomes characters with pride and power to command people they are accomplished and respected in their fields. This contrasts with Walter, what he is and what he is allowed to be at every level. He is embarrassed and insecure about what he is and what he is capable of and the things that he can do are heavily regulated by his wife stifling his freedom and agency, he is also complacent and does not assert his individuality or his desire, this allows the vicious cycle he is trapped in to continue forever. This gives his wife undue power over him and this lets her control him as she pleases and forces her will on him, as we have explored this too maybe because of her anxiety about not having power in her relationship. This creates a barrier between the couple who are sorely lacking in communication. This creates the only sort of power that Walter allows himself have through his passivity and inaction, the power of information and secrets. He is “inscrutable to the last.” and cannot be understood or empathized with by his partner because of this. 

Narrative and Literary Techniques    

The story, written in a third-person narrative which is limited omniscient, flows fluidly between the fantasy and reality of the protagonist. The story begins with us being thrown into the middle of the action in a plane with the piolet determined to beat a storm, but this immersion is quickly destroyed as we are suddenly shocked by the reality, this is a very jarring experience that disorients the first time readers, this evokes into the reader the same confusion that the protagonist feels when he is woken up from his fantasy.

The story also engages in symbolism. The gloves and overshoes that Walter is forced to wear symbolize the lack of autonomy and freedom he experiences in the relationship. The glove he wears before going to park his car shows the inaction forced on him by his wife, where he is not allowed to take off the chains from his car, shielding him from experiencing the world and engaging with it, also symbolically making him conceal his true feelings and self from the world including herself.

There are also several nonsensical words used in the story, the first set appearing in the doctor fantasy like “Coreopsis”, which does sound like a medical term (like necrosis ) but in fact, is the name of a flower, “obstreosis” sounds like an attempt at making the word obstruction sound medical and “ductal tract” is names two types of body parts mushed together. These words showcase both the protagonist’s vivid imagination and lack of knowledge in these fields.

 

 

 

 

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