.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
By James Thurber (1894-1961)
A Study Guide
Cummings Guides Home..|..Contact This Site
.
Type of Work
Setting
Characters
Plot Summary
Point of View
Themes
Thurber's Humor
Mitty's Ineptitude
Mitty and Violence
Climax
Symbols
Allusions, Vocabulary
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Biography
Cummings Guides
.
Study Guide Compiled by Michael J. Cummings.© 2009

Type of Work and Publication Dates

......."The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is a short story centering on the daydreams of a henpecked Connecticut husband. It was first published in the March 18, 1939, issue of The New Yorker. Harcourt, Brace and Company published it in October, 1942, in a book collection of Thurber's works, My World--and Welcome to It

Setting

.......The action takes place in the late 1930s in a car traveling to Waterbury, Connecticut, and in the city itself in the area of Main Street. Waterbury is in west-central Connecticut on the Naugatuck River.

Characters

Real Life

Walter Mitty: Meek Connecticut man who retreats into daydreams in which he becomes a hero.
Mrs. Mitty: Mitty's domineering wife.
Parking Attendant: After Mitty pulls into the wrong lane in a parking lot, the attendant takes the wheel and parks the car.
Policeman: Officer who orders Mitty to pull away after a traffic signal turns from red to green.
Pedestrians: Woman and her companion who encounter Mitty on the street. When the woman notices Mitty talking to himself, she makes fun of him. 
Dr. Renshaw: Mitty's family doctor. Mrs. Mitty tells her husband to see the physician for a checkup. 
Garage Man: Person who removed chains from Mitty's tires.

Daydream 1

Commander Mitty: Pilot of a navy hydroplane.
Berg: Lieutenant. He cautions Mitty not to fly in stormy weather.
Crewmen

Daydream 2

Dr. Mitty: One of the world's most eminent surgeons.
Wellington McMillan: Millionaire patient and friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. McMillan requires immediate surgery.
Dr. Renshaw: One of the physicians attending McMillan. (Renshaw is Mitty's real-life physician.)
Dr. Benbow: One of the physicians attending McMillan.
Dr. Remington: Eminent New York specialist called in on the McMillan case.
Dr. Pritchard-Mitford: Eminent London specialist called in on the McMillan case.
Nurse
Intern

Daydream 3

Mitty: Suspect in a murder case. He is an expert marksman who is on the stand answering the district attorney's questions.
Gregory Fitzhurst: Murder victim. 
District Attorney: Prosecutor in the murder case.
Woman: "Lovely, dark-haired girl," the narrator says, who throws herself into Mitty's arms.
Judge

Daydream 4

Captain Mitty: Devil-may-care World War I pilot.
Sergeant: Soldier who urges Mitty not to fly alone.
Raleigh: Shell-shocked flier.
Von Richtman: Allusion to Manfred von Richtofen, known as the Red Baron.

Daydream 5

Mitty: Defiant prisoner about to be executed.
Firing Squad

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings.© 2009
.
.......Facing perilous weather—possibly a hurricane—the commander of the hydroplane barks orders to the crew. “Rev her up to 8500!” he says. “We're going through! . . . Switch on No. 8 auxiliary . . .  Full strength in No. 3 turret!”
.......“The Old Man'll get us through,” the crewmen say to one another, grinning.
.......Mrs. Mitty then barks a command to her husband: “Not so fast.”
.......Walter Mitty's daydream of flying into a horrendous storm vanishes at the sound of his wife's voice. He and she are on their way to Waterbury, Connecticut, with Walter at the wheel of the car. He is doing 55 but she doesn't like to go any more than 40. She tells him he's stressed out and should let Dr. Renshaw examine him.
.......In Waterbury, he drops her off at the hairdresser's. Before getting out, she reminds him to buy overshoes, which he says he doesn't need, and tells him to put on his gloves. He puts them on, but after he drives off he removes them at the next red light. When the light changes to green, a policeman tells him to get moving.
.......While driving past a hospital toward a parking lot, he hears the voice of a nurse.
.......“It's the millionaire banker, Wellington McMillan,” she says. 
.......McMillan, a friend of President Franklin Roosevelt, suffers from a life-threatening affliction. Dr. Renshaw and Dr. Benbow are handling the case, and specialists have been called in from New York and London. But it is Dr. Mitty who comes in and takes over in the operating room. First, he uses a fountain pen to repair a malfunctioning machine with tubes, wires, and dials, and then . . . .
.......He discovers he is in the exit lane of the parking lot and turns the car over to an attendant, who backs it up and then parks it. Mitty walks off and buys his overshoes. On his way back to his car with the shoe box under his arm, he forgets another item his wife told him to buy. Meanwhile, a newsboy passes by shouting the headline about the Waterbury trial and . . . 
.......The district attorney holds the gun before Mitty, asking, “Have you seen this before?” Mitty identifies it as his. The DA then observes that Mitty is an expert marksman, but Mitty's attorney objects on grounds that Mitty's right arm was in a sling on the night of July 14. Mitty, however, says he could have shot the victim with any type of gun with his left hand from three hundred feet. There is a buzz in the courtroom and a lovely woman runs to him. The DA strikes her, Mitty slugs him, and . . .
.......“Puppy biscuit,” he says aloud, remembering the second item his wife told him to buy. A woman pedestrian laughs at him, pointing out to her companion that “That man said 'puppy biscuit' to himself.” Mitty turns into an A & P market and buys the brand that says “Puppies bark for it” on the box,” then goes to a hotel lobby, where he is to meet his wife. He sits in a chair and reads a magazine about the air power of Germany. Unfortunately . . .
.......Captain Mitty's partner is ill from shell shock, but Mitty tells a sergeant that he will fly alone, saying, “Somebody's got to get to that ammunition dump.” War booms and thunders around the dugout where Mitty pours himself and the sergeant some brandy. As splinters from a blast fly through the dugout, Mitty throws down the brandy and says, “We only live once, Sergeant.” He leaves, braving the fire of cannons, machine guns, and flame throwers. Suddenly . . .
.......His wife taps him on the shoulder and tells him she's been searching all over for him. She asks him why he did not try on his overshoes, then tells him she will check his temperature after they arrive home. On their way to the parking lot, Mrs. Mitty stops in a pharmacy to pick up an item. It begins to rain and sleet and . . . 
.......Mitty lights a cigarette, stands against a wall, and proudly and defiantly faces the firing squad.
.
Point of View

.......Thurber tells the story in omniscient, third-person point of view, enabling the narrator to reveal the thoughts of Walter Mitty as they are in progress. However, the narration does not peep into the mind of Mrs. Mitty. Instead, it reveals what she is thinking through her spoken words.
.

.

.
Themes

Escapism

Henpecked Mitty deals with his everyday frustrations by escaping into daydreams. 

Boosting the Ego

Mitty is a submissive, accommodating chap. But when he makes himself the hero of his daydreams, he becomes a veritable demigod. His daydreams help him sustain his ego against the nitpicking of his wife.

Vicarious Adventure

Even an ordinary man can become an extraordinary hero—with the help of his imagination. And who is to say that the secret world of Walter Mitty is not a real world? After all, daydreams are part of everyday reality.

Thurber's Humor

.......Thurber achieves his drollery via the following:

Narration and dialogue that mock the melodrama of hack novels. An example is the opening paragraph, part of which says, " 'We're going through!' The Commander's voice was like thin ice breaking. He wore his full-dress uniform, with the heavily braided white cap pulled down rakishly over one cold gray eye. 'We can't make it, sir. It's spoiling for a hurricane, if you ask me.' 'I'm not asking you, Lieutenant Berg,' said the Commander. 'Throw on the power lights! Rev her up to 8500! We're going through!' " Or consider this passage: " 'With any known make of gun,' " [Mitty] said evenly, 'I could have killed Gregory Fitzhurst at three hundred feet with my left hand.' Pandemonium broke loose in the courtroom. A woman's scream rose above the bedlam and suddenly a lovely, dark-haired girl was in Walter Mitty's arms." 
Repetition of sounds and images that fascinate Mitty. For example, Thurber uses the onomatopoeia “pocketa-pocketa” to imitate the sound of an aircraft engine in the first daydream, to imitate the sound of the anesthetizer in the second daydream—with the addition of “queep” when the machine malfunctions—and to imitate the sound of flame throwers in the fourth daydream. (Flame throwers, of course, don't go “pocketa-pocketa” but instead make a whooshing sound. But so what. “Pocketa-pocketa” is more dramatic.) In addition, Thurber uses images of complicated dials in the first and second daydreams and of a gun (Webley-Vickers 50.80) in the third and fourth daydreams. 
Oddball neologisms and malapropisms. Note, for example, that Wellington McMillan suffers from “obstreosis of the ductal tract” and later develops a condition called “coreopsis.” The former is a made-up disease and the latter is a genus of colorful  flowers. 
Descriptions of incredible feats that the daydreaming Mitty performs or claims he can perform. For example, he repairs the anesthetizer with a fountain pen and claims that he could have killed Gregory Fitzhurst from 300 feet by shooting a gun with his left hand. (Mitty is right-handed.)
Abrupt transitions from the mundane Mitty of everyday life to the heroic Mitty of the daydreams. For example, after Mitty slugs the district attorney in the courtroom dream, he remembers that he must buy puppy biscuits. 
Mitty's Ineptitude

.......Mrs. Mitty bullies poor Walter, but it appears that his obvious ineptitude and carelessness play no small role in inciting her nagging and the ill treatment he receives from others. 
.......Consider, for example, the matter of the gloves. When Mrs. Mitty nags him to put them on, he complies--seemingly out of a desire to pacify her. Then, after pulling away, he removes them at a red light. However, he puts them back on after the light changes to green and the policeman tells him to get moving. Apparently, it is cold and he really does need to wear the gloves. 
.......Next, consider the matter of the overshoes. Mitty says he does not need them; his wife insists that he does and orders him to buy a pair. A sentence in paragraph seven--"He kicked at the slush on the sidewalk"--suggests that he does in fact need overshoes. 
.......Consider also the following incidents that attest to his ineptitude: (1) he pulls into the Exit Only lane at the parking lot; (2) when attempting to remove snow chains from his car tires, he ends up getting them wound around the axle and has to call a garage man to undo his bungling. Remembering that the garage man grinned at the time, Mitty tells himself, "The next time . . . I'll wear my right arm in a sling; they won't grin at me then. I'll have my right arm in a sling and they'll see I couldn't possibly take the chains off myself." 
.......Mitty also tends to be forgetful, as the following passage points out: "When he came out into the street again, with the overshoes in a box under his arm, Walter Mitty began to wonder what the other thing was his wife had told him to get. She had told him, twice before they set out from their house for Waterbury. In a way he hated these weekly trips to town--he was always getting something wrong." When he finally remembers the needed item, he speaks it out loud on the street: "puppy biscuit." A passing pedestrian laughs at him. 


.
.
.
Mitty and Violence

.......One could make a case that Mitty harbors repressed violence. After all, four of his five daydreams center on guns and death. But even the “peaceful” daydream in the hospital operating room implies the spilling of blood. Is Mitty a nut case who will one day end up toting a gun to a public place and venting his wrath on innocent victims? It is extremely doubtful that Thurber intended Mitty as anything other than an amusing daydreamer. Nevertheless, if one lifts the lid on Mitty's subconscious, he or she might discover there a dark and brooding soul. 

Climax

.......There is no climax in the story unless one interprets the final daydream as a turning point in Mitty's life. For example, having himself executed by a firing squad could suggest that he has decided to end his excessive daydreaming and attempt to resolve the problems that cause his daydreams. Among his morally acceptable options are (1) to see a psychiatrist, (2) to take action on his own (such as becoming more assertive), and (3) separating from his wife. Among his morally unacceptable options are murdering his wife or killing himself. 
.......However, given the tone of the story and the meekness of Mitty, it is likely that he takes no remedial action of any kind but simply continues to daydream and tolerate his wife's nitpicking. 

Symbols

The car, the overshoes,the gloves, and the tire chains: These all symbolize Mrs. Mitty's control over bumbling Walter. She orders him to buy overshoes, wear gloves, and slow down from 55 to 40. In addition, she requires him to take his car to a garage to have the snow chains on his tires removed. 
Policeman, parking attendant, garage man: They symbolize the control that the world exerts over Walter.
Images of war and guns: They symbolize the strong masculinity that Mitty lacks.

Allusions, Names, Special Terms, and Malapropisms

Archies: Anti-aircraft weapons.
Auprès de Ma Blonde: French folk song composed in the 1600s. The title may be translated as "Near My Fair-Haired Lady" or "Next to My Dear One." The French word blonde may also connote mistress. It is said that French soldiers sometimes sang the song when going into battle.
Coals to Newcastle: These words are often used as part of the phrase like carrying coals to Newcastle. Newcastle upon Tyne is a British city famous for the production and export of coal. To say that performing a certain task is like carrying coals to Newcastle is to say that one is executing a needless task.
Coreopsis: See Oddball Neologisms and Malapropisms.
Hydroplane: Seaplane; plane that can take off and land on water.
Liberty: Weekly feature magazine published between 1924 and 1950.
Obstreosis of the ductal tract: See Oddball Neologisms and Malapropisms.
Von Richtman's Circus: Von Richtman is an allusion to Manfred von Richtofen (1892-1918), an ace World War I German pilot known as the Red Baron. Circus is an allusion to the Flying Circus, a unit of elite pilots commanded by Richtofen.
Webley-Vickers 50.80: Made-up name for a gun. Webley and Vickers were separate British companies that manufactured weapons. Webley made service revolvers; Vickers made machine guns. (Vickers also constructed ships and aircraft).

.
Study Questions and Essay Topics

1....Is Mitty's daydreaming normal? Or is it a symptom of a deep-seated problem?
2....Write a short psychological profile of Mitty.
3....Make a list of your most frequent daydreams. What do they tell you about yourself?
4....Add several paragraphs to Thurber's story that tell what happens when he and his wife drive home. Imitate Thurber's style.
5....What do you believe is the main source of inspiration for Mitty's daydreams? Movies? Novels? Newspapers? Magazines?