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An Analysis of James Thurber's 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty'

James Thurber's 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty'
Commentary by Karen Bernardo

In James Thurber's 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,' which was made into a classic movie starring Danny Kaye in 1947, a timid middle-aged man, dominated by his wife, creates a fantasy world in which he is an intrepid pilot, a brilliant surgeon, a brave soldier -- all life situations much more appropriate to his true inner nature than the dull existence he really has. 

In the following excerpt, Mitty is driving his car and simultaneously daydreaming that he is a world-famous surgeon: 'A huge, complicated machine, connected to the operating table with many tubes and wires, began at this moment to go pocketa-pocketa-pocketa. 'The new anesthetizer is giving way!' shouted an intern. 'There is no one in the East who knows how to fix it!' 'Quiet, man!' said Mitty, in a low cool voice. He sprang to the machine, which was now going pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-queep. He began fingering delicately with a row of glistening dials. 'Give me a fountain pen!' he snapped. Someone handed him a fountain pen. He pulled a faulty piston out of the machine and inserted the pen in its place. 'That will hold for ten minutes,' he said. 'Get on with the operation. . . .' -- 'Back it up, Mac! Look out for that Buick!' Walter Mitty jammed on the brakes. 'Wrong lane, Mac,' said the parking-lot attendant, looking at Mitty closely.'

The 'pocketa-pocketa-pocketa' noise of the anesthetizer in Mitty's daydream actually emerges from the sound of the automobile he is driving. Mitty's daydreaming also gains comic power from its grandiosity; nothing in the everyday personality of Walter Mitty would ever enable him to be the bold and fearless surgeon, or the intrepid bomber pilot, of his imagination. Yet through tiny connections like engine noises, Mitty's 'real' world and his 'fantasies' have melded into one, which is in fact the only way Mitty keeps sane. The world of his illusions fulfills his spirit as his daily life does not. 

Real sanity, Thurber suggests, comes from the ability to bring both worlds together -- to use the creative faculties we practice in our fantasy life into our 'real' one. This is the place in which we leave Walter Mitty at the end of his story -- for one brief, shining moment the two halves of his life have conjoined as he dismisses his wife so he can finish his daydream -- and even though we know his groundedness is as illusory and as temporary as the phantasms of all his other lives, it is a good place to be while it lasts.

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The Thurber Carnival (Modern Library)

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