Perhaps no fictional character is better known than Walter Mitty. When someone calls another person a “Walter Mitty,“ that reserved (even dull), daydreaming set of character traits comes immediately to mind. Just who was Walter Mitty, and how did he manage to wend his way into the American vernacular?
It’s hard to believe that it all comes down to a single short story. Few American short stories have had such a powerful or lasting effect on the American mindset. In 1939, James Thurber published his work in the “New Yorker” magazine. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” has since become one of the most popular American short stories in history, appearing in numerous literary compilations. It was also made into a 1947 film featuring Danny Kaye.
Character of Walter Mitty
Just what is it about this particular fictional figure that draws so many to him? Perhaps it is the extreme contrast between the “real” Walter Mitty (a quiet, even withdrawn man) and the person he imagines himself to be (a daring, risk-taking adventurer) in his daydreams. Much like today’s Americans are drawn to reality TV, which features people taking up residence (and being voted off of) tropical islands or people engaging in extreme adventures for cash prizes, people's voyeuristic selves see a bit of their own reticence and fear in these individuals, much as they do in Mitty.
Who has not daydreamed about another, more exciting life? In this character study, Author James Thurber has found the perfect foil: a man accompanying his wife shopping on a very ordinary day. However, this simple shopping excursion allows him to imagine himself in many different life-threatening scenarios, none of which is remotely connected to the real world around him. Indeed, for Mitty, the unseen world of his mind is a very dangerous yet exhilarating place, while the real world can only disappoint.
Mitty’s Internal World
Within the short story, Walter Mitty engages in five distinctive action-adventure daydreams. The first begins as Mitty is driving his wife to her weekly beauty parlor and shopping expedition. As the story begins, he imagines himself to be a naval pilot maneuvering his hydroplane through a dangerous storm, all while (in real life) his wife cautions that he’s driving too fast.
The next scenario happens as Mitty drives past a hospital, where he begins to imagine himself as a world-class emergency-room doctor, donning his surgical gloves. A legal setting provides the next daydream for Mitty. As he tries to recall what his wife told him to purchase, he imagines a courtroom with prosecutor. In the next imagined scene, he volunteers to take out a German ammunition cache, a suicide mission in which he is required to fly a plane intended for two pilots. Mitty’s last escape from reality is triggered by his own smoking break. In his fantasy, he imagines himself an enigmatic figure, standing in front of a firing squad.
In each of his imagined settings, Mitty is fearless in the face of challenge. In reality, however, he is mocked by ordinary strangers: A parking attendant shrieks at him, a woman guffaws when she hears him absent-mindedly say “puppy biscuit.”
While Mitty was intended by Thurber to be a humorous character, there remains a darker side to the story as well. Even in his fantasies, Mitty never truly succeeds: His daydreams are interrupted, and the last features him facing death before a firing squad.
Is Mitty Actually Thurber?
If the old cliché of “write what you know” applies, the character study of Walter Mitty may, in fact, be autobiographical. Many have suggested that the traits displayed by his short story characters mimic the author himself. Thomas Frensch, a Thurber biographer, suggests this may be the case. One example may prove the point: his experience when his 1939 story was made into a film in 1947.
While Thurber was a consultant on the movie set, all of his suggestions were largely ignored by Samuel Goldwyn, and the story was extensively rewritten. When Thurber later complained about the changes to his vision, Goldwyn insisted that Thurber had lent his approval. Like Mitty, it seems that Thurber, too, was unable to make his voice heard.