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Most people daydream from time to time when they are bored. Daydreaming often gives a pleasant break from dull reality, and it lets people pretend to be or do things they could not in real life. Walter Mitty, the main character in James Thurber’s story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” is a constant daydreamer. Unlike most people, who daydream sometimes, Mitty often depends on daydreaming to escape real life because in real life he is an incompetent man whose wife treats him like a child.
In spite of his need to get away from real life, or maybe because of it, Walter Mitty has interested readers since the story was written in 1942.
As the story begins, Walter Mitty is driving his wife to town for an appointment at a beauty shop. He is in the middle of a daydream in which he imagines himself as the commander of a Navy hydroplane. He imagines that the plane is in trouble but the the members of the crew have complete faith in his ability.
Referring to Mitty, one member of the crew says, “The Old Man’ll get us through” (Thurber 63). Mitty is brought back from this daydream by his wife’s voice, as she says, “Not so fast! You’re driving too fast! … What are you driving so fast for?’ Here the reader sees the sharp contrast between the daydream and real life.
In the daydream, Mitty has the full respect and admiration of the passengers of his imaginary hydroplane.
In real life, his only passenger, his wife, scolds him for not driving properly. This contrast between the competent man of the daydream and the incompetent man of real life is repeated over and over. Each repetition shows the difference between Mitty’s real and imagined lives.
Mitty is aware of his real-life incompetence and shows it when he recalls the story of the snow chains (Sundell 1285). In that story Mitty remembers a time when he tried to take chains off his tires and ended up tangling them on the axles of the car. He had to call a garage mechanic to take off the chains for him, and he was embarrassed. Carl Sundell believes that this story shows that Mitty has a low level of mechanical ability (1285). Sundell explains that “if a man cannot reach the real world through his hands… his center of activity would become mental. . . rather than physical” (1286-7).
While Mitty’s lack of mechanical ability is clearly shown and may be one cause of his daydreams, he is also incompetent in other ways. For example, he can not park his car correctly in the parking lot, and he can not remember the item (puppy biscuits) his wife told him to buy. His embarrassment at the parking lot and the failure of his memory trigger a daydream in which he is on trial for murder.
These switches from real life to daydreams lead the critic, Charles S. Holmes, to the conclusion that the … theme of the story is the conflict between the world of fantasy and the world of reality, the world in the mind and the world “out there”. The primary frame of reference in which this conflict emerges is in Mitty’s relationship with his wife. When he begins to feel constrained by his wife’s demands and expectations, he escapes into his inner world of fantasy …(217)
Mrs. Mitty thus represents a world in which Mitty is unable to do anything right. Lindner takes this analysis one step farther, arguing that Mitty sometimes acts like a child precisely because Mitty’s wife is in fact more like a mother to him than an equal partner (283). This is shown perhaps most clearly at the end of the story, when Mitty’s wife finds him in a chair in the hotel lobby. She accuses him of hiding from her, questions him about whether he has remembered the puppy biscuits, and scolds him for not wearing his new overshoes. In a line that mothers often use with their children, she says “I’m going to take your temperature when I get you home” (67). Predictably, Mitty has another daydream on the way home. In this last dream he faces a firing squad. As in all his other daydreams, he imagines himself as a hero.
Even though Walter Mitty seems like a sad, helpless little boy by the end of the story, he has always been a popular character. Robert Morsberger says that the story was reprinted in The Reader’s Digest and became extremely popular among soldiers in World War II (45). According to Morsberger, “a Mitty International was formed in Europe, and a Mitty Society in the South Pacific, with the password’ Pocketa-pocketa-pocketa” was set up (46). Charles Holmes, trying to explain the story’s popularity, believes that the soldiers liked it “because they, like Mitty, felt trapped and helpless, and Mitty’s secret blackouts provided them with emotional comic relief” (217).
Whatever the reasons today, Walter Mitty remains a favorite character for many readers.. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” continues to entertain readers of all ages.
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