Walter Mitty's Reality
by Robert James Reese, 2004
In "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," James Thurber tells the story of a henpecked old man who escapes his monotonous life with frequent excursions to fantasy. In the real world, he is a forgetful old man who must obey his wife's every whim. But, in his fantasies, Walter Mitty is intelligent, brave, and the epitome of manliness. He makes up for the characteristics he lacks in the real world through the heroic characters he embodies in his fantasies. Eventually, the story leads to Walter's death-a brave, heroic death in his fantasy world.
Because the story opens in Mitty's fantasy world with no explanation that it is imagination, we assume that Walter Mitty is the man we are first introduced to: an old commander who is powering his ship through a hurricane. His crew fondly says of him, "The Old Man ain't afraid of Hell!" (565). He's tough, fearless, and holds the respect of his crew. But when his wife hollers, "Not so fast! You're driving too fast!" she brings him back to reality and we realize for the first time that Walter Mitty is just a daydreaming old man, not a fierce mariner (565). In the fantasy, he was commanding an entire ship, but in reality he cannot even decide how fast to drive. "You know I don't like to go more than forty," his wife continues to scold (565). He just sits and looks at her, then listens to her list of errands that she wants him to do, and begins driving around aimlessly, just killing time in his boring, ordinary existence.
As Walter drives by the hospital, he flashes back into fantasy and we are introduced to the intelligent, well educated Dr. Walter Mitty. After they are called over the intercom, Dr. Pritchard-Mitford congratulates Dr. Mitty on his book, "A brilliant performance" (566). The doctor's compliment is expected and responded to only with a simple, "Thank you" (566). In his fantasy, compliments are expected because he knows he is the best at whatever he does. He shouts out commands that are readily followed and fixes the operating machine at the same time. His skill is crucial to the operation because, as the intern nervously exclaimed, "There is no one in the East who knows how to fix it!" (566). If Dr. Mitty had not shown up to fix the machine, the results would have been tragic. His exceptional skill and intelligence as a doctor saved the day. This heroic effort makes up for the lack of skill that Walter has back in the real world.
As he leaves the imaginary hospital, we once again find Mitty in his car, again being scolded on how to drive. This time, it is the parking lot attendant who is yelling "Back it up, Mac! Look out for that Buick!" (566). Walter had made the attendant nervous by his unskilled driving. Eventually, because Mitty is such a bad driver, the attendant suggests, "Leave her sit there... I'll put her away" (566). The courageous doctor who miraculously fixed the machine and saved the day cannot even park his own car back in reality. His frustration at his lack of automotive skill continues as he mutters about the embarrassment he endures whenever he had to take his car into the shop to have the chains removed because he could not do it correctly himself. The escape to the imaginary hospital is a response by Mitty to his inability to perform manly automotive functions in real life. In order to escape the shame that causes, he becomes a highly skilled doctor.
Next, Walter Mitty escapes his mundane errands momentarily through a journey to an imaginary trial. After picking up a pair of overshoes in the real world, he tried to remember what else it was that his wife had told him to pick up. A newspaper article on a trial causes him to travel into his own courtroom where he was on trial for murder. He acts with fearlessness towards anything that the court might decide. When the prosecutor hands him his gun, he "examined it expertly" and boasted that he could have killed the man "at three hundred feet with my left hand" (567). Instead of trying to escape the charges through claiming a disabled shooting hand, Mitty brags that he is such a good shot that he could have used his left to perform the crime. This bravado shows both that he possesses expert skill in the manly art of firing weapons and also that he is unafraid of the court or any ruling which it might give. The man who eventually returns to the real world to remember that his wife told him to pick up puppy biscuit is, for a moment, a crazed outlaw who fears no one.
After picking up the puppy biscuit, Mitty quickly hurries back to the hotel where he is to meet his wife because "She didn't like to get to the hotel first; she would want him to be there waiting for her as usual" (568). The man who, just a moment ago, did not even fear the punishment for murder, has to hurry to the hotel to be sure to avoid his wife's unhappiness at his tardiness. As he sits in a chair waiting for her, he sees pictures of planes and moves back into his fantasy world, this time as a bomber pilot. Again, he performs a heroic act that was seemingly impossible. The sergeant exclaimed in response to Mitty's sugestion that he would fly the plane alone, "But you can', sir... It takes two men to handle that bomber" (568). But the sergeant was forgetting that Walter Mitty the fighter pilot could do the job of two ordinary men. After his manly swig of brandy, Walter prepared to board his bomber plane and take off to save the day again. He never made it, though. Instead, his fantasy was interrupted and he was called back to reality yet again by his wife's scolding: "Why did you have to hide in this old chair? How did you expect me to find you?" (568). Walter knew that he was not hiding, but instead just sitting where he was supposed to, obeying his wife's commands. As she continued to scold him, he finally stands up to her: "I was thinking... Does it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking?" (568). This appeal is dismissed by his wife and she suggests that it is a sign of illness.
After his wife tells him that she is going to take his temperature when they get home, Walter realizes that his real world and fantasy world can never merge. His manly, heroic, intelligent attributes in his fantasies cannot carry over to his everyday existence. Resigned to his wife's scolding, Walter leaves the hotel with her. When she heads into the drugstore and tells him to wait outside, Walter lights a cigarette and slips into a final fantasy. Once again, he is the heroic man unafraid of anything, as he faces the firing squad. "To hell with the handkerchief," he said to his executioners, and prepared for his death (568). He stood awaiting his execution "erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last" (568). Even while facing the imminent end of his life, Mitty was brave and unflinching in his fantasy world. Even though he cannot stand up to his wife and tell her to run her own errands in the real world, he can die like a hero in his fantasies.
The execution at the end of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" leaves us wondering whether Mitty is really dead or if his fantasy execution was completely unrelated to his real life. Either way, we know that he was never able to be the manly, heroic man that he wished to be in real life. Walter Mitty, throughout the story, escaped his inadequacies by escaping to fantasies which his mind had created. But, in the end, no matter how brave he was in his fantasy world, he could not be what he wanted to be in the real world. James Thurber's story shows us an excellent example of how a mind can cope with a monotonous, unexciting existence by the invention of fantasies.