Compiled by Michael J. Cummings.©
of Work and Publication Dates
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.
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.
Walter Mitty: Meek
Connecticut man who retreats into daydreams in which he becomes a hero.
Mitty: Mitty's domineering wife.
After Mitty pulls into the wrong lane in a parking lot, the attendant takes
the wheel and parks the car.
who orders Mitty to pull away after a traffic signal turns from red to
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
Garage Man: Person
who removed chains from Mitty's tires.
Commander Mitty: Pilot
of a navy hydroplane.
He cautions Mitty not to fly in stormy weather.
Dr. Mitty: One of
the world's most eminent surgeons.
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.
Eminent London specialist called in on the McMillan case.
Mitty: Suspect in
a murder case. He is an expert marksman who is on the stand answering the
district attorney's questions.
Prosecutor in the murder case.
Woman: "Lovely, dark-haired
girl," the narrator says, who throws herself into Mitty's arms.
Captain Mitty: Devil-may-care
World War I pilot.
who urges Mitty not to fly alone.
Von Richtman: Allusion
to Manfred von Richtofen, known as the Red Baron.
Mitty: Defiant prisoner
about to be executed.
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!"
Old Man'll get us through," the crewmen say to one another, grinning.
Mitty then barks a command to her husband: “Not so fast."
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.
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.
driving past a hospital toward a parking lot, he hears the voice of a nurse.
the millionaire banker, Wellington McMillan," she says.
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
. . . .
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 .
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 . . .
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
. . .
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 . . .
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 . . .
lights a cigarette, stands against a wall, and proudly and defiantly faces
the firing squad.
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. .
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.
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.
achieves his drollery via the following:
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 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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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
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.
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.
parking attendant, garage man: They symbolize the control that the
world exerts over Walter.
of war and guns: They symbolize the strong masculinity that Mitty lacks.
Names, Special Terms, and Malapropisms
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.
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
Coreopsis: See Oddball
Neologisms and Malapropisms.
Seaplane; plane that can take off and land on water.
Weekly feature magazine published between 1924 and 1950.
Obstreosis of the ductal
Oddball Neologisms and Malapropisms.
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.
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).
Questions and Essay Topics
Mitty's daydreaming normal? Or is it a symptom of a deep-seated problem?
a short psychological profile of Mitty.
a list of your most frequent daydreams. What do they tell you about yourself?
several paragraphs to Thurber's story that tell what happens when he and
his wife drive home. Imitate Thurber's style.
do you believe is the main source of inspiration for Mitty's daydreams?
Movies? Novels? Newspapers? Magazines?