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THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY James Thurber —The more James Thurber became blind, the wilder his fantasies became. It is said that Snoopy was originally based on Walter Mitty’s character and several of his daydreams correspond to Mitty’s dreams in the story. The name Walter Mitty and the derivative derivative word "Mittyesqu "Mittyesque" e" have entered the English language, denoting an ineffectual person who spends more time in heroic daydreams than paying attention to the real world. PLOT SUMMARY The short story deals with a vague and mild-mannered man who drives into Waterbury, Connecticut with his wife for the regular weekly shopping and his wife's visit to the beauty parlour. During this time he has five heroic daydream episodes. The first is as a pilot of a U.S. Navy flying boat in a storm, storm, then he is a magnificent surgeon performing a one-of-a-kind surgery, surgery, then as a cool assassin testifying in a courtroom, courtroom, and then as a Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot volunteering for a daring, secret suicide mission to bomb to bomb an ammunition dump. dump. As the story ends, Mitty imagines himself fearlessly facing a firing squad, "inscrutable to the last." SUMMARY OF WALTER MITTY’S FANTASIES Triggered off by Fantasy His driving fast 1. He is the Commander of a Navy hydroplane SN202 going through the worst storm in twenty years (i) Mrs. Mitty’s wish that Mitty should go to 2. He is a famous doctor: he Dr. Renshaw (ii) Her advice that he should put fixes xes a faul aulty pist piston on in a on his gloves (iii) Driving past the hospital. machine in the hospital with a fountain pen. Then he is about to take over the surgery. (i) Mitty’s decision to wear a sling on his right 3. Mitty is a crack shot, arm the next time he has to take off the snow accu accuse sed d of kill killin ing g Greg Gregor ory y chains so that people will sympathise with his Pankhurst on the night of the inability to do so, rather than make fun of his fourteenth of July. incompetence (ii) a newspaper boy going past shouting about the Waterbury Waterbury trial. trial. Mitty’s Mitty’s looking looking through through a newspaper/j newspaper/journal ournal 4. Mitt Mitty y is an expe expert rt flye flyer r called Liberty, and seeing pictures of planes unde undert rtak akin ing g to carr carry y out out a carrying out bombings (the First World War is dangerous mission of blowing going on). up an ammunition dump. waiting for Mrs. Mitty, leaning on the wall of 5. Mitt Mitty y is a hero hero faci facing ng a the chemist’s shop, smoking a cigarette firi firing ng squa squad d with with comp comple lete te confidence……
Broken off by Mrs. Mrs. Mitt Mitty’ y’ss rebu rebuke ke that that he is driv drivin ing g too too fast
the the gara garage ge atte attend ndan antt who makes fun of Walter and embarrasses him. the words he shouts at the the Dist Distri rict ct Atto Attorn rney ey:: “You miserable cur” – reminds him that he has to buy puppy biscuits. Mrs. Mrs. Mitt Mitty y hitt hittin ing g his his should shoulder er to attrac attractt his attention.
REVIEW BY PHILLIP G. PLOTICA - USE THIS AS A CRITICAL APPRECIATION APPRECIATION "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is a delightfully clever satire that ridicules one of the most common idiosyncrasies, imagination. To illustrate the wonders of imagination, Thurber creates Walter Mitty, a timid, mouse-like little man who is forever being victimized by a nagging wife and an arrogant, "know it all" all" societ society. y. With With the entire entire world world agains againstt him, him, the only escape escape left for poor Walter Walter Mitty Mitty is his imagination, which he uses to the utmost of his ability.
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What makes "The Secret life of Walter Mitty" more than just another amusing short story is Thurber's unique and effective use of contrasts. Consider, for example, the first three paragraphs. Here the Walter Mitty of imagination is placed side by side with the Walter Mitty of reality. The con trast between the ironhearted Naval Commander bravely giving orders to his men and the chicken-hearted Walter Mitty timidly taking orders from his wife is quite apparent. Bu the use of contrasts is by no means restricted to the beginning of the story. On the contrary, it is employed all the way through to the very last word. Compare the quick-thinking Doctor Mitty, famous surgeon, to the Walter Mitty who cannot park his car, remove his tire chains, nor readily remember to buy a box of puppy biscuits. Compare also the "greatest shot in the world" or the daring Captain Mitty, or the "erect and motionless, proud disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated" with the Walter Mitty who seeks the quiet refuge of a big leather chair in a hotel lobby. Contrasts are effective tools for any writer, but the straightforward manner in which Thurber employs them enhances their effectiveness considerably. After briefly skimming through the collection of contrasts that makes up "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," one might feel that there is little connection between the paragraphs describing the imagined Walter Mitty and the Mitty of reality. However, closer observation reveals that Thurber does, by the use of suggestive words and phrases, cleverly establish links between the Mitty of fact and the Mitty of fancy. Examine the following lines taken from the end of paragraph one and the beginning of paragraph two of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty": "...The Old Man'll get us through," they said to one another, "The Old Man ain't afraid of Hell!" "Not so fast! You're driving too fast!" said Mrs. Mitty. "What are you driving so fast for?" We shudder to think that there might be a connection between Hell and life with Mrs. Mitty, but unfortunately, such could be the case. Consider how Mrs. Mitty's mention of Doctor Renshaw and the event of driving by the hospital lead to a difficult operation. Take note also of how a newsboy's shout about the Waterbury trial initiates the trial of Walter Mitty in the following paragraphs. Such skilful employment of transition, by which an event in reality triggers an event in the imagination, is sound not only from the literary standpoint, but also from a psychological point of view. "The Secret life of Walter Mitty" affects the reader in a variety of ways. The purposeful use of excessively dramatic, imaginative heroes, the repetition of the sound "pocketa-pocketa," the use of meaningless pseudo-medical terms such as "obstreosis of the ductal tract" all these make us want to laugh. The plight of Walter Mitty, at the mercy of his domineering wife, arouses our sympathy. However, we neither laugh nor sympathize with Walter Mitty. Thurber has created Mitty to make us realize how similar our imaginative worlds are to those of his character. We cannot laugh at Mitty without laughing at ourselves. We cannot sympathize with him without feeling sorry for ourselves. The strength and heart of the satire lie in the reader's perception of the similarity of his own daydreams and those of Mitty. POINTS OF NOTE IN THE STORY 1. Parody: makes fun of another work by imitating aspects of its style or contents.
-examples of parody found in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” -p. 3: Typical jingoistic war story where the heroic p ilot takes charge in a situation that seems impossible. -p. 5: Soap opera-like doctor comes in and saves the day, surpassing the greatness of experts in the field. Terminology used is humorous (has nothing to do with a doctor’s jargon). -p. 7: Parody of a cocky witness in the courtroom, typically found in courtroom dramas. -p. 8-9: Another parody of a pilot in war. PC/TSRS-DLF/ENG-XII/06
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-p. 9: A parody of the spy hero who is a lover type, facing execution and still remaining calm. 2. Identify terms and exaggerations used to make fun of people: -medical problem: “Obstreosis of the ductal tract. Tertiary” -doctor’s name: “Pritchard-Mitford” = pretentious -Coreopsis has set in. -Webley-Vickers 50.80 = a heavy automatic – shoots 300 feet? held with left hand? 3. Free Association: Sounds from real life become associated with elements of Mitty’s daydreams – what are they? -pocketa-pocketa-pocketa = pounding of cylinders on hydroplane, sound made by anaesthetizer, sound of new flame-thrower -driving fast - Mrs. Mitty mentions Dr. Renshaw, tells Mitty to put on his gloves, Mitty drives past hospital = daydreams about being a doctor -parking-lot attendant yelling = Mitty plans to wear a sling the next time he needs to have the snow chains removed from his tyres -newsboy shouts about the Waterbury trial = dreams about being on trial -cur = a mongrel dog = remembers he has to buy puppy biscuits -newspaper with bombing planes = dreams of being a fighter pilot -leaning against the drugstore wall with cigarette = dreams of facing a firing squad 4. Walter Mitty’s character: 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' is quite possibly the best known American short story. Walter Mitty as a character type has penetrated the popular imagination and by consensus represents the American little man, comfortably suburban, but bored to death with a middle-class, middle brow life. Clearly his wife is severely conventional, and it is obvious that Thurber is suggesting that American middle-class life offers little in the way of opportunities for romance or heroism ‘a life, full of passion, poetry and hate.’ Mitty is seen as an endearing, amiable man who in his dreams, like all of us, triumphs over the dull grey world of suburban America. He is the American middle-class everyman, presented to us with a wry but friendly smile.
The story does not specify why exactly Walter Mitty adopted the secret life full of criminal tendencies. All our responses border on the realm of conjecture. We might advance the reason that it was the natural outcome of the way he was compelled to lead his private life. Perhaps his repressed emotions found gratification and fulfilment in daring and dangerous activities which he could not indulge in as a normal disciplined private citizen. The writer does not delve deep into his psyche to provide us clear-cut clues for his behaviour. Perhaps the need for secret life has been caused by too much discipline and adherence to established norms and practices. Walter Mitty was perhaps a man who felt stifled in this boring, middle-class existence and yearned to escape the routine, suburban life. He wanted a life of passion, poetry and adventure. But his sedate bossy and unimaginative wife gave him no space nor did she understand him. So he escaped into his own world in his thoughts, a life which fulfilled all his desires of heroism and adventure. He could actually live the roles he wanted in his dreams. In his dreams he is able to triumph over his dull, grey stifling world of suburban America. So it was necessary that he escape into his secret life of daydreaming if he wanted to remain sane in his conventional but boring life of a meek middle-class husband. Mitty is the opposite in nature to his bullying and domineering wife, so rather than create disharmony he escapes into his world of dreams. PC/TSRS-DLF/ENG-XII/06
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Mr Mitty as we can see is a very timid and submissive man who finds it difficult to stand up to his wife, let alone other people. Even ordinary workers like the parking lot attendant and the traffic constables take the liberty of speaking roughly to him. He feels inadequate, inefficient and obviously suffers from very low self-esteem. He gets quite nervous while trying to park the car in its allotted space and finally the attendant tells him to leave the car for him to "put away." He is a shy man and when he goes to the hotel to wait for his wife, he finds a quiet, far off comer to hide himself from the public eye. Nothing he does satisfies his wife. His one brave attempt at answering his wife: “Does it ever strike you that sometimes I am thinking?" amazes her and she immediately decides that he is unwell. A man who is treated with such disdain is bound to feel frustrated with his life and would wish to seek an outlet for his suppressed feelings and emotions. Mr. Mitty is no exception and he, too, needs to get away from this feeling of inferiority and his solution is to find a release in the world of fantasy. In order to keep his sanity, it is very important for him to escape into a world of make believe where he can rein supreme and where no one dares to poke fun at him for his inadequacies. There is no one in this imaginary world of his to humiliate him or to point out his shortcomings. In this world, he is a naval commander who has the valour to go through a hurricane; travels 'forty kilometres through hell' humming all the way, and to face the firing squad with a smile on his lips—"Walter Mitty the undefeated, inscrutable to the last." In this secret world of his, no one speaks to him disrespectfully and no one dare disobey him. Here, he is in a position to give orders rather than accept orders meekly as he does in the real world; here his subordinates look up to him rather than scorn him. In this private world of his he is dependable and is completely trustworthy, "The old man'll get us through." And when great specialists flown from London are unable to save a dying man, they turn to him, ''If you would take over Mitty?" While in the real world he lives a life of fear because he never gets things right, in this visionary world of his “The old man ain't afraid of hell” or of striking the Attorney General or of flying a bomber alone when there is a barrage of shells. The man who is not able to face the barrage of words from his wife is ready to face the firing squad in this fantastic world of his creation. But within another context Mitty's rejection and withdrawal from the world are more radical than can be denoted by the idea of daydreaming. In fact, we witness the descent of Mitty into ever increasing preoccupation with his fantasy life and increasing rejection of the so called real world. Freud, the great psychologist, discovered that our dreams are nothing but wish fulfilment, a release for all the suppressed and repressed desires that we are unable to realize in the real world. Freud was referring to the dreams we have at night but in the case of Mr. Mitty, he finds the fulfilment of his desires in his day dreams. For a man who has spent the better part of his life following orders and being laughed at, it was very important to escape into a fanciful world where he is in total control and a superman; otherwise life would have been insufferable for him. Mr Mitty probably could not have survived the pressures of the real world if he did not have the option of a secret life of his own making. It was these fanciful flights into the other world that gave him the courage to face the humiliation of the real world and to maintain his sanity. 5. Mitty’s relationship with his wife: Walter Mitty and his wife present a study in contrast. Two contrasting personalities are yoked together in wedlock. Their wedded life, if not incompatible, is certainly not a bed of roses. It has become stale and boring and they exist together like two separate blocks, going their individual ways.
Walter Mitty is seen as an endearing, amiable little man, who dreams his dreams like all of us and in his dreams transcends his dull, grey boring world into another one of heroism, romance and adventure. He is able to live various heroic characters in his dreams—the fearless pilot who bravely ventures into the battle, the greatest pistol shot in the world, the dauntless martyr and hero, the world-renowned doctor and the Navy Commander who weathers all storms fearlessly. His daydreaming saves him from dying of boredom PC/TSRS-DLF/ENG-XII/06
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in his middle-class and middle brow life. His marriage has reached a dead-end where his wife is too mundane for him to communicate with. He accepts her bullying and nagging only so that he may peacefully escape into his world of dreams of adventure, passion and hate. Mrs. Mitty is a typical, bossy, and nagging American suburban wife. She is too well entrenched into her dull boringly middle-class thinking to even try to understand her husbands secret yearnings. She is unimaginative: she seeks to justify his musings and eccentricities by saying that he seems to be ill and needs to see a doctor. She has no communication with him and fails to penetrate into the secret world of his mind. She is as unaware of his yearnings as a stranger. Mrs Mitty objects to almost everything that Walter Mitty does or loves to do. Walter Mitty loves driving too fast. For her, the speed of fifty-five is terrific. She conveys her displeasure to her husband in no uncertain terms. She is forever browbeating and nagging him and her volley of remarks are like the firing squad that he faces so bravely in his thoughts. Even in his real life he faces her disdainfully, hiding his thoughts from her knowing she would never understand. Mrs Mitty loved to issue commands to her husband and liked them to be implemented faithfully. She never missed an opportunity to chide him – she rebuked him for driving at fifty five miles per hour when she never liked to go over forty. She thought he was tense and wanted him to be examined by Dr. Renshaw. Before going to the hairdressers she reminded him to buy overshoes. She haughtily dismissed his feeble protests saying that he was not a young man any longer. She then asked him why he was not wearing his gloves and then turned into the building even before he could get them out of his pocket. Mitty’s response was to race the engine a little. Mrs. Mitty’s habits and manners are also in sharp contrast to those of her husband. Walter Mitty hates shopping as he forgets the names of trivial or minor things his wife wants him to buy. It is because his mind is engrossed in his fantasy world. Walter Mitty has to rack his brains to remember the ‘puppy biscuits’. Walter Mitty is quite submissive and follows his wife’s instructions faithfully. He comes to the hotel after shopping and sits in the lobby waiting for her as he knows she dislikes arriving first and waiting. The poor fellow gets no respite. His wife hits him like a powerful hurricane and fires a volley of charged questions at him without giving him any opportunity for offering detailed explanation. Her fault-finding nature doesn’t let her appreciate any good action or quality of her husband. Walter Mitty remains silent most of the time. Walter Mitty and his wife are incompatible. He is timid, weak and submissive while she is his exact opposite – loud, domineering and bullying. They represent the typical American middle class urban couple, comfortably suburban but bored to death with each other. They have a mechanical marital existence but share no communication with each other; they are just two people staying together because they do not know what else to do. VOCABULARY Pick it up (hurry up) Distraught (troubled, anxious) haggard (having a very exhausted appearance) Craven (very fearful, cowardly) Vaulted (leaped over) Insolent (bold in a reckless way) Insinuating (arousing doubts and suspicions)
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bickering (squabbling, wrangling) Pandemonium (wild noise and disorder) bedlam (same as pandemonium) Derisive (mocking) Inscrutable (mysterious) NOTES Hydroplane – US navy flying boat Waterbury – either a town in Vermont or a town in Connecticut Roosevelt – reference to F.D. Roosevelt, President of the USA Obstreosis of the ductal tract – made up name of medical problem Tertiary – in the third stage Streptothricosis – An acute or chronic infection of the epidermis, caused by the bacterium Dermatophilus congolensis. which results in an oozing dermatitis with scab formation. Coals to Newcastle – means to do something pointless and superfluous. Newcastle on Tyne in England was a well known coal mining area and the UK's first coal exporting port. Taking coal there was an archetypally pointless activity. Anaesthetizer – seems to mean some sort of medical equipment to put patients to sleep. Interne – an advanced student or graduate in medicine gaining supervised practical experience *Coreopsis – Coreopsis are sunny flower border work horses. There is a good amount of variety among Coreopsis species. C. grandiflora has bright yellow flowers on tall stems that bloom all summer. C. rosea has finely textured leaves with pink daisy-like flowers with yellow centres. The use of this word is absurd here. Buick – a brand of automobile built in the United States, Canada, and China by General Motors Corporation. Chains – Snow chains, or tire chains, are devices made of chains and/or cables which are affixed to the wheels of vehicles to provide superior traction when driving through snow and ice. Snow chains are usually attached to the drive wheels of a vehicle (e.g. the front wheels on a front-wheel drive car), though all four wheels may be chained to provide extra stability. In snowy conditions, transportation authorities often require snow chains to be fitted on vehicles that lack four-wheel drive and proper tires. These requirements are usually enforced by checkpoints, before which eligible drivers must have snow-chains fitted on their cars. Near such checkpoints, ch ains can often be fitted professionally for a fee. Overshoes – footwear that protects your shoes from water or snow or cold Kleenex – it is a brand name for a variety of products such as facial tissue, bathroom tissue, paper towels, and diapers. Kleenex is a registered trademark of Kimberly-Clark Worldwide, Inc.. Squibb’s – refers either to a stationery shop or to a company that produces pharmaceuticals and healthcare products Bicarbonate – probably a reference to sodium bicarbonate or baking soda *Carborundum – Silicon carbide (SiC) is a compound of silicon and carbon that is manufactured on a large scale for use mainly as an abrasive, where it is often known by the trademark carborundum, and in ceramics. More recently it is used as a semiconductor and diamond simulant of gem quality. The use of this word is absurd here. *Initiative – In political science, the initiative provides a means by which a petition signed by a certain minimum number of registered voters can force a public vote on a proposed statute, constitutional amendment, charter amendment or ordinance, or, in its minimal form, to simply oblige the executive or legislative bodies to consider the subject by submitting it to the order of the day. It is a form of direct democracy. The use of this word is absurd here. *Referendum – A referendum or plebiscite is a direct vote in which an entire electorate is asked to either accept or reject a particular proposal. The referendum or plebiscite is a form of direct democracy. The use of this word is absurd here.
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District Attorney – A district attorney is, in some U.S. jurisdictions, the title of the local public official who represents the government in the prosecution of criminals. The district attorney is the highest officeholder in the jurisdiction's legal department and supervises a staff of assistant district attorneys. Defendant – a person accused of committing a crime and required to answer charges in a court. A and P – supermarket chain in the USA and Canada Liberty – may refer to either one of two magazines published in the United States: Liberty (1881-1908), a political magazine published from 1881 to 1908 by Benjamin Tucker Liberty (1924-1950), a general-interest magazine published from 1924 to 1950 Cannonading – bombarding, a sustained attack by heavy artillery Archies – Anti-aircraft warfare, or air defense, is any method of engaging military aircraft in combat from the ground. Nicknames for anti-aircraft guns include AAA or triple-A, an abbreviation for anti-aircraft artillery, ack-ack (from the World War I phonetic alphabet for AA), archie (a WWI British term believed to derive via the Royal Flying Corps from the music-hall comedian George Robey's line "Archibald, certainly not!"), and flak (from the German Fliegerabwehrkanone, aircraft defense cannon). An antiaircraft missile is another name for a surface-to-air missile. Von Richtman’s circus – probably a reference to Baron Manfred von Richthofen World War I German air combat leader (1892-1918). At that time all of his squadron's aircraft tails were painted red, with individual distinguishing markings. The Baron's machine was all red, which is why he was known as the Red Baron. As a practical aid to easy identification in the melee of air combat, Jasta 11's aircraft soon adopted red colourations with various individual markings, with some of Richthofen's own planes painted entirely red. Richthofen led his new unit to unparalleled success, peaking during "Bloody April" 1917. In that month alone, he downed 22 British aircraft, raising his official tally to 52. By June, he was the commander of the first of the new larger Jagdgeschwader (wing) formations, leading Jagdgeschwader 1 composed of Jastas 4, 6, 10 and 11. These were highly mobile combined tactical units that could be sent at short notice to different parts of the front as required. In this way, JG1 became "The Flying Circus" or "Richthofen's Circus", which got its name both from the unit's highly mobile nature (including the use of tents), and from its brightly coloured aircraft. Saulier – probably a reference to a place (fictional) in France that was under German occupation. Ammunition dump – An ammunition dump, ammunition compound, ammunition depot or ammo dump, is a military storage facility for live ammunition and explosives. Box barrage – A box barrage is a type of artillery barrage. It can be offensive or defensive, and it can move or remain stationary. The main characteristic of a box barrage is that the shells fall into a pattern roughly resembling a quadrangle surrounding an "open" area. This open area, and anything within it, is literally "boxed in" by shell fire, hence the name. Aupres de ma Blonde - "The prisoner in Holland" (other well-known title: "Aupres de ma blonde"). This is one of the most typical French folk songs, perhaps the most typical of all, and it dates from the 17th century. The song became very popular amongst civilians and soldiers alike, and may have been often sung by marching troops; it is said that the soldiers of Marshal Villars sang it when entering the town of Quesnoy in 1712. Unfortunately, it later suffered the fate of most old French folk songs: being despised, and reduced to a children's song, which it was not. There are of course many different versions of this song. This is one of them:"Le prisonnier de Hollande" (The prisoner in Holland) Au jardin de mon pere, les lauriers sont fleuris, (2) (in my father's garden, the laurels have blossomed) (2) Tous les oiseaux du monde viennent y faire leur nid. (all the birds of the world come there to make their nest) • •
Aupres de ma blonde, qu'il fait bon, fait bon, fait bon, (near to my blonde, it is so good, so good, so good,) Aupres de ma blonde, qu'il fait bon dormir ! (near to my blonde, it is so good to sleep !) PC/TSRS-DLF/ENG-XII/06