In James Thurber’s short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,”
Walter Mitty uses his imagination as a need to escape and express his
emotions of anger and self-pity. By daydreaming, one might be able to
escape the petty details of life and obtain freedom from their reality.
Through the literary elements of character, setting, and symbolism, James
Thurber shows how Walter Mitty escapes his everyday life by daydreaming.
Character traits throughout the story are one of the elements that
helps reveal the theme to the reader. Walter Mitty is described as a meek
and mild-mannered, hen-pecked husband who learns to escape reality through
daydreams (Thurber 77). Most of Walter Mittys sluggish behavior is probably
caused by his wife’s overpowering and demanding attitude. “She is a nag and
an extremely overbearing woman, who is perhaps the ultimate cause of
Walter’s secret life” (Mann). We begin to see that Mrs. Mitty is definitely
the dominant one in the relationship, and as orders are given by her,
Walter begins to wander into his fantasy world. Living with Mrs. Mitty
clearly poses problems and frustrations from her husband, but Walter never
seems to complain. Walter’s lack of rebellion clearly indicates that he has
finally defeated his nagging wife by escaping into his own world (Mann).
The thought of becoming “the best doctor” or a “heroic army general”,
portrays the way Mitty deals with his self-fulfillment. To the outer world,
Mitty seems to be controlled by his wife, however, in his dream world
Walter is completely in touch with how he feels. “Walter Mitty, the
Undefeated, inscrutable, to the last” (Cheatham 608).
This quote that describes Walter Mitty at the end of the story suggests
that he is finally triumphant over his wife, and the obstacles he faces in
the real world. James Thurber clearly demonstrates the theme of the story
through his use of character traits.
The different settings throughout the story help clarify how Walter
Mitty can escape through these imaginative dreams. Throughout the story,
Mitty’s fantasy dreams stem from some detail during the story. When Walter
is driving his wife past the hospital, he imagines himself being a famous
physician, and while lighting a cigarette against the stone wall, he
imagines himself becoming a German army hero. Thurber uses these details to
further explain how Walter Mitty is able to reach his dream world. This
suggests that the setting has to do with the imaginative mind of Walter
Mitty, and shows how the setting easily leads him into his imaginative
world. Without being at the places he travels, Walter Mitty may never have
imagined these types of dreams. The fact that Walter Mitty drives his wife
to town every day also plays a huge part in the setting of the story. Many
observations that Walter Mitty makes while he is strolling through town
sets his mind up for the imaginative stories he dreams. While walking
through town, Mitty comes upon a woman in the street who laughs at him for
talking amongst himself. This sparks the imaginative mind of Walter Mitty
and he begins to daydream because of his low self esteem (Sweet 111). Most
of Walter Mitty’s daydreams are caused because of the environment around
him and the negative reaction of other people toward him. By using the
literary element of setting, James Thurber makes the theme clearly visible
in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”.
James Thurber’s use of imagery and symbolism throughout the story also
play a role in revealing the theme to the reader. For example, both Walter
Mitty and Rip Van
Winkle use their imagination and dreams to escape adult responsibility and
their shrewd wives (Sweet 77). Sweet interprets Mitty’s character as
another Rip Van Winkle and the use of symbolism here shows the reader how
Walter is able to escape his reality and daydream into a place of no
return. The character of Mrs. Mitty also represents symbolism throughout
the story. Mann’s interpretation of Mrs. Mitty is compared to Eve in the
Garden of Eden, and Thurber uses a description of Mrs. Mitty to represent a
demanding and overpowering wife. Because Mrs. Mitty is described this way,
Walter is set up for his imaginative dreams throughout the story. Mrs.
Mitty, acting as another Eve, is viewed as the ultimate cause of Walter’s
predicament when she attempts to secure a more powerful role herself
(Mann). The use of imagery here explains why Walter is able to have his
imaginary ideas and dreams throughout the story.
Throughout the story of