American Escapism in James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and Ralph Ellison’s “King of the Bingo Game”
The American identity in James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and Ralph Ellison’s “King of the Bingo Game” is depicted by the respective protagonists’ visions of individualism in contrast to the concept of fate. In both texts, Thurber and Ellison present the protagonists in undesirable positions within society of which they seek to alter. Walter Mitty challenges his unambitious role as an oppressed husband by indulging in fantasies in which he assumes a heroic identity. Similarly, Ellison’s unnamed African-American protagonist attempts to defy his impoverished fate by manipulating his odds at a bingo game.
Both Thurber and Ellison emphasize individualism through their protagonists’ desire to transcend their unfavorable roles. While Mitty strives for social recognition, Ellison’s protagonist seeks wealth and power. Unfortunately, amidst reality and a lack of true control, both characters fail to achieve their goals of obtaining greater social value and status. Thus, the American identity is adversely characterized by the protagonists’ lack of autonomy, escapist tendencies, and disillusionment of the American dream. In this way, Ellison and Thurber suggest and critique Americans’ imagined sense of individualism.
Both Thurber and Ellison portray the American identity as having a lack of autonomy. In “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Mitty’s lack of autonomy is demonstrated by his obligation to drive his wife around town as she runs several personal errands. Mitty’s unremarkable and detached personality is further revealed through his subservient attitude towards his wife despite her infantilizing treatment of him: “He looked at his wife, in the seat beside him, with shocked astonishment. She seemed grossly unfamiliar, like a strange woman who had yelled at him in a crowd.” Here, Mitty snaps out of one of his daydreams as his wife scolds him for not paying attention while driving. As Mitty regards his wife as an “unfamiliar” and “strange woman,” the tension between them becomes apparent. The fact that Mitty was “yelled” at by a woman further suggests his unorthodox inferiority to his wife.
In “Thurber’s Walter Mitty — The Underground American Hero,” Carl M. Lindner evaluates Mitty’s wife’s infantilizing treatment of Mitty: “The husband is often reduced to the status of a naughty child (as demonstrated by a pre-pubertal mentality); and he attempts to escape rather than confront a world symbolized by a wife who, more often than not, seems to be a mother-figure rather than a partner” (283). For instance, in a glimmering moment in which Mitty subtly stands up for himself, he tells his wife: “‘I was thinking,’ said Walter Mitty. ‘Does it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking?’” Here, Mitty finally shows a slight sense of defiance towards his wife. However, she merely disregards his plea and continues to subjugate him: “She looked at him. ‘I’m going to take your temperature when I get you home,’ she said.” Despite his efforts to express his individuality, Mrs. Mitty continues to treat Walter as a child. The fact that she will be taking his “temperature” suggests that Mitty needs to be taken care of or nursed and that Mrs. Mitty is the caregiver, and potentially, the provider, in their relationship.
In “King of the Bingo Game,” the protagonist’s lack of autonomy is expressed by Ellison’s demonstration of the protagonist’s feelings of alienation. The main character is black, dislocated from the South, anonymous, “broke,” hungry, unemployed, burdened by the personal responsibility of his partner’s illness, as well as, nightmarish dreams. His feelings of alienation reside in the stark lack of hospitality he encounters at the movie theater: “‘If this was down South,’ he thought, ‘all I’d have to do is lean over and say, ‘Lady, gimme a few of those peanuts, please ma’am,’ and she’d pass me the bag and never think nothing of it.’… But up here it was different, Ask somebody for something, and they’d think you were crazy” (469). The protagonist’s missing sense of belonging in his new town overrides his typically open personality, and thus, his lack of autonomy causes him to internalize his feelings.
The protagonist enters a bingo game in order to win some money to afford a doctor for his sick partner, Laura. Despite his sly attempts to manipulate his chances at the game by cheating and playing with five cards in lieu of the allowed one-card rule, the protagonist comes to the realization that the game, and even life itself, is “fixed” as he is eventually scolded by the white host and reprimanded by the police.
The protagonist wins the bingo game and has a chance to spin the wheel of fortune for the jackpot. Confused by anxiety and by a drink of whiskey on an empty stomach, he is surprised and frightened to be on stage. When he continues to push the button that controls the wheel and refuses to give it up, the remote control is simply seized from him by two white men in uniform and something lands “hard against his head” (477). Although the wheel then stops at the double-zero, the last paragraph of the story suggests that he has won nothing: the money will surely not be paid, he is probably headed for jail, and Laura may die without medical attention. The ending scene embodies the protagonist’s fear and epiphany of the reality of fate and his nonexistent sense of individualism.
Further, Thurber and Ellison’s protagonists resort to escapism as coping mechanisms for their routine and wearisome lives. Escapism, an attempt to relieve pressure by seeking pleasure, comes in various forms, including but not limited to, retreating into fantasy or indulging in games and gambling. Before delving into Thurber and Ellison’s characters’ mindsets, it is imperative to note the historical context and exposition of both narratives. Both narratives were written and set during or around the American historical era of the Great Depression. Analyst Rosa Smith observes the effect of the Great Depression in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” During this period of the 1930s, American men endured a “widespread sense of impotence and failure as economic forces beyond their control left them unemployed and unable to provide for their families” (Smith).
Both Mitty and the unnamed protagonist of “King of the Bingo Game” can be presumed unemployed. With Mitty, for instance, his unemployment is implied through his obligatory duty of escorting his wife on her shopping trip. On this trip to town, his wife does the lavish and extravagant spending, such as buying new shoes and getting her hair done, which implies that she may be the dominant, income-earning figure in the relationship.
In addition to his implied unemployment, Mitty’s incompetence as a male is evident with his inability to perform typically “masculine” functions: “Once he had tried to take his chains off, outside New Milford, and he had got them wound around the axles. A man had had to come out in a wrecking car and unwind them, a young, grinning garageman.” Here, Thurber emphasizes the fact that a “man” had to come out and help Mitty in performing such a manly task. Further, the fact that this man was a “young, grinning garageman” exemplifies how menial the job is that even a younger man was capable of. This lack of skill set in Mitty further illustrates his ineptitude and thus, verifies his inferiority to his dominant wife. Such incompetence, especially in response to the Great Depression, precipitates Mitty’s resort to escapism.
In “King of the Bingo Game,” the protagonist’s unemployment is more explicitly conveyed: “I’m just broke, ’cause I got no birth certificate to get a job, and Laura ’bout to die ’cause we got no money for a doctor” (469). Here, Ellison suggests the protagonist’s incompetence through his inability to provide for his dying partner, Laura. His incompetence is further displayed by his hungered state: “His stomach gave a low, gnawing growl” (469). Ellison’s portrayal of the protagonist as a poor and desperate man reinforces the tendency of Americans to withdraw from reality and seek unrealistic pleasures through escapism.
According to the study, “Escapism and Leisure Time 1929-1941,” social science researchers hypothesized that unemployment leads to emotional instability. These studies seemed to indicate that the longer a person was unemployed, the more likely his or her personality would become fatalistic and distressed. In an attempt to escape from this psychological state, it was speculated that people were turning to popular forms of entertainment such as the movies, radio, or reading. This desire for aesthetic stimulation resonates with Mitty in that he retreats into fantasies that maintain creative storylines. In “King of the Bingo Game,” the protagonist resorts to gambling as a form of entertainment. Such forms of entertainment in both narratives serve as suppressants that muffle the nature of the characters’ realities.
The study further explains that, “Such speculation is not unreasonable given studies that show children will play even during the worst of times. The fact that very few popular culture forms dealt with the realities of the Great Depression in any explicit way further supports popular culture as a vehicle of escape.” Therefore, both Thurber and Ellison subject their characters to submission to the pressures and standards of popular culture.
In “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” illusions of grandeur within daydreams temporarily remove Mitty from his otherwise humdrum existence. Mitty’s daydreams occur while he goes about his day monotonously catering to his wife’s agenda. Throughout the story, Mitty’s daydreams depict him in situations where he is the ultimate “hero,” or significant individual in which high-stakes situations rely on his performance. In these dreams, whether he takes on the role of a sea captain, venerated surgeon, fighter pilot, or a martyr, it is evident that each scenario addresses desirable traits of masculinity that Mitty envies: “‘With any known make of gun,’ he 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.” In this daydream, Mitty assumes the preferred male traits of masculine aggression and desirability, both of which he does not hold in his real life. Through his mundane existence, his escape to the imaginary scenarios highlight the personal longing for achievement and accolade as a result of fulfilling standards of hegemonic masculinity.
In addition, Ellison and Thurber also portray their protagonists as disillusioned by the American Dream. The American Dream, in regards to a person’s equal opportunity to achieve their individual goals, is at first, a guiding principle for both protagonists. Conversely, the reality of the social settings and pressures that surround the characters counter this optimistic belief. While Mitty strives to achieve his greater social value, he is only able to do so in a fictional dream-setting and is often abruptly interrupted by his demeaning wife. While the man in the “Bingo Game” defies the rules of the contest in order to cheat the system and achieve greater wealth and status, he is suspended by his distorted sense of power that he temporarily obtains while holding the wheel’s remote control. Both characters exercise a limited sense of power and control over their individual lives, and thus, negate the equality of opportunity of the American Dream.
Both Thurber and Ellison generate the American identity in response to the social context of their time. Surrounded with questions of gender roles in the midst of the Great Depression, as well as, ideas of individualism evoked by the American Dream, Thurber and Ellison challenge the valorization of the American identity and reveal its illusory nature through their protagonists’ retreat to escapism and ultimate lack of control.
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