Thursday, July 12, 2012

"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"

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“Fantasies are more than substitutes for unpleasant reality; they are also dress rehearsals, plans. All acts performed in the world begin in the imagination.” American author and publicist Barbara Grizzuti Harrison explains the true meaning of fantasies. Harrison’s statement also comes into play in James Thurber’s short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” The main character in the story, Walter Mitty, lives a life in which he is totally controlled by his wife. She tells him what to do and what not to do, and is constantly reprimanding him for the littlest things. It is for these reasons that Walter Mitty feels the need to escape from reality and his the overbearingness of his wife. Because of her tendency to treat him as an incompetent child, he lives vicariously through fantasies in which he is a brilliant and skilled hero.

Mrs. Mitty is constantly belittling her husband and treating him like a helpless child. She is constantly nit-picking and criticizing everything he does, and he is almost a puppet in his wife’s hands by the way she is always telling him what to and what not to do. “ ‘Not so fast! You’re driving too fast!,’ said Mrs. Mitty. ‘What are you driving so fast for?’ ” (818). Mrs. Mitty also always manages to make it seem like her husband has done something wrong whenever he fails to please her. “ ‘You were up to fifty-five....You know I don’t like to go more than forty.’ ” (81). As if he cannot handle it himself, she is constantly reminding him of tasks and chores. “ ‘Remember to get those overshoes while I’m getting my hair done,’ she said”(81). Mrs. Mitty seems to think her husband a simple-minded fool, for she is repeatedly badgering and reminding him to do the littlest things. “ ‘Why don’t you wear your gloves? Have you lost your gloves?’ ” (81). It is also rather ironic how Mrs. Mitty herself clearly states that her husband is “not a young man anymore” (81), yet she insists on treating him as one. This is where Mitty’s awesome fantasies come into play. He uses them as an escape route from the intense burden of his wife.

Mitty uses his fantasies to portray himself as a heroic figure, to counteract, in a way, his wife’s vision of him as an incompetent man. In his first fantasy, he envisions himself as an expert Naval commander, taking control and saving his crew from destruction. “The crew, bending to their various tasks in the huge, hurtling eight-engined Navy hydroplane, looked at each other and grinned. ‘The Old Man’ll get us through,’ they said to one another. ‘The Old Man ain’t afraid of Hell!’ ” (818). Mitty also fantasizes about being a brilliant, renowned surgeon. “A door opened down a long, cool corridor and Dr. Renshaw came out. He looked distraught and haggard. ‘Hello, Mitty,’ he said. ‘We’re having the devil’s own time with McMillan, the millionaire banker and close personal friend of Roosevelt. Obstreosis of the ductal tract. Tertiary. Wish you’d take a look at him.’ ‘Glad to,’ said Mitty” (81). Not only is he being consulted to review a tough case, but he is also being asked to work on someone of very high social status, a “millionaire banker and close personal friend of Roosevelt” (81). In another one of Mitty’s incredible fantasies, he is a fearless captain, about to go off on a dangerous mission all by himself. “ ‘The cannonading has got the wind up in young Raleigh, sir,’ said the sergeant. Captain Mitty looked up at him through tousled hair. ‘Get him to bed,’ he said wearily. ‘With the others. I’ll fly alone.’ ‘But you can’t, sir,’ said the sergeant anxiously. ‘It takes two men to handle that bomber and the Archies are pounding hell out of the air’.....He [Captain Mitty] turned and waved to the sergeant. ‘Cheerio!’ he said....” (81). Through his own eyes, Mitty is capable of anything.

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Even through his awesome fantasies, Mitty is unable to fully escape reality, as objects that demonstrate the extreme authority that his wife has over him are always incorporated into his fantasies, and wake him from his daydreams. One of the major issues between Mitty and his wife was the dispute over the gloves. Mrs. Mitty scolded him for not wearing them and insisted that he put them on. To quiet her, “he put them on, but after she had turned and gone into the building and he had driven on to a red light, he took them off again” (81). In real life, the gloves represent the iron fist of Mrs. Mitty, however, in his fantasy, he uses them as a symbol of his own authority and intelligence. “They slipped a white gown on him; he adjusted a mask and drew on thin gloves” (80). With the mention of the gloves, the dream ends and Mitty is instantly back in the real world. Another example of this occurs in Mitty’s courtroom fantasy. This fancy comes to a hasty close with the mention of the word “cur” (80), and instantly after, he is reminded of the puppy biscuits that his wife had admonished him not to forget. With every mention or

remembrance of his wife, Mitty’s fantasies abruptly end and he is thrown back into the real


Walter Mitty’s grand fancies are a means of escape from his every-day life in which he is

not satisfied. However, in the words of Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, “Fantasies are more than

substitutes for unpleasant reality.” This is another perspective of Mitty’s dreams. Maybe he is

destined to do something great in his life and his fantasies are simply setting the stage for his

future. As Harrison says, “They are also dress rehearsals, plans. All acts performed in the world

begin in the imagination.”

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