As a 20th-century comic writer, James Thurber had few peers. Not only is “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” considered his best story, but the term Walter Mitty also has entered the language as a metaphor for an ordinary man who escapes into a fantasy world of impossible heroics. In this respect Mitty is both universal and American, particularly as critics see his antecedents stretching back to Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” and Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. Mitty is the modern fictional reincarnation of the henpecked husband.
The story opens in medias res, that is, in the middle of one of Mitty’s fantasies: He is a naval commander supervising a hydroplane during a raging storm. Mitty is the quintessential officer, worshipped by his crew for his bravery and ability. The reader understands at the same time as Mitty himself does that the scenario takes place only in Mitty’s imagination: He is actually driving a car, and his wife is ordering him to slow down. The rest of the fantasies in the story are similarly triggered by actual events. Mrs. Mitty’s ordering him to wear his gloves leads Mitty to imagine donning surgical gloves as, in the role of an internationally famous surgeon, he prepares to operate on a millionaire banker. In fact, he cannot even park his car properly and must turn it over to a contemptuous youthful parking attendant.
Thurber deftly juxtaposes the ordinariness of Mitty’s life—he is running errands for Mrs. Mitty while she keeps her hairdresser’s appointment—to larger issues of life and death. As a newsboy yells out the headlines of a murder trial, Mitty begins to imagine himself in court, the perfect defendant, only to associate the word cur with the puppy biscuit his wife has asked him to buy. Then, in one of the funniest scenes in the story, Mitty, looking at a copy of Liberty magazine, sees himself as a World War II pilot heroically bombing a German ammunitions plant. Interrupted for the last time by Mrs. Mitty—he has forgotten the puppy biscuit—Mitty imagines himself in front of a firing squad, stoically refusing the blindfold. Although both male and female critics have observed that, in Thurber’s view, American women have won the war between the sexes, it is the uncommon reader who can read this timeless classic of American humor without laughing.
Bernstein, Burton. Thurber: A Biography. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1975.
Holmes, Charles S., ed. Thurber: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974.
Long, Robert Emmet. Thurber. New York: Ungar, 1988.
Thurber, James. Vintage Thurber: A Collection of the Best Writings and Drawings. 2 vols. London: Hamilton, 1963.