The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
James Thurber’s Use of Character Development: “Walter Mitty” and Other Works
In The Creative Process, James Baldwin describes the purpose of the artist – “to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place” (Baldwin 874). Author James Thurber fulfills his responsibility as an artist in his short stories, which deal with themes of dissatisfaction, identity, and the battle of the sexes. Through his use of strong character development in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” “The Unicorn in the Garden,” and “The Catbird Seat,” James Thurber illuminates his observations of society’s ills in the world.
In his short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Thurber uses the protagonist Walter as a means of commenting on dissatisfaction with everyday life. In the story, Walter Mitty is an imaginative man trapped in a mundane life and finds himself submerged in fantasies as a Navy commander, a high profile surgeon, and a British pilot. Thurber’s use of characterization is very telling of Walter’s personality. For example, in his unhappy marriage, Mrs. Mitty treats Walter as if he is incompetent and lesser; their conversation boils down to snide remarks and condescending comments such as, “you’re not a young man any longer…Why don’t you wear your gloves? Have you lost your gloves?” (Secret Life). This lack of autonomy in his marriage is a major source of insecurity and ultimately forces Walter to resort to a fantasy world in which he becomes the dauntless, masculine figure that he can never be in real life. Through the use of character development in his comical short story, James Thurber conveys a much greater message of the tragedy of resorting to fantasy to escape the frustrations of real life.
In “The Unicorn in the Garden,” Thurber utilizes the husband’s character development to convey a belief of gender specific stereotypes. In this fairytale-like short story a husband sees a unicorn in his garden and notifies his wife who promptly dismisses his claim and heartlessly calls the police and a psychiatrist to take her husband away. When these responders arrive, they detain the wife and question the husband who vengefully denies his wife’s claims, The husband’s character is initially very deceptive, and it is not until he denies everything to the police that the reader understands his true intentions. Thurber presents an interesting plot twist when the husband highlights the absurdity of seeing a unicorn with the line “The unicorn is a mythical beast” (Unicorn). Ironically, the wife uses this exact line to dismiss the husband’s initial claim of having seen a unicorn in the garden. Through this implicit characterization, the husband reveals himself to be not only sane but also vengeful toward his wife. By hiding the husband’s actual intentions and only revealing his true persona at the end, James Thurber conveys his true beliefs – men and women are not meant to live together happily ever after.
There are many parallels between James Thurber’s “The Unicorn in the Garden” and “The Catbird Seat”; while the latter is based more in reality than fantasy, both stories employ themes of gender stereotypes and the battle of the sexes. Thurber introduces the protagonist Mr. Erwin Martin as he is stealing a pack of cigarettes, and it is quickly revealed that he is planning the murder of Mrs. Ugline Barrows, a crass but powerful coworker. As he walks home, Martin delineates a detailed plan in his head; from this, the reader can infer that he is meticulous and disciplined. In the words of his boss Mr. Fitweiler, “Man is fallible but Martin isn’t” (Catbird Seat). Those who know him generally consider Martin to be a model worker, quiet and unassuming. Martin uses this innocent persona as a cover for his plan to murder Barrows, characterized as obnoxious and invasive in the workplace. Through his actions and thoughts, Thurber depicts Martin, as not only clever and meticulous, but also innocent in the matter. Mr. Edwin Martin is not in the wrong by plotting to eliminate Barrows; his plan is merely a “correction of an error” (Thurber). This portrayal of Martin as the “hero” of the story conveys a greater message of the inevitability of women to not only madden men but also hold them back.
Throughout his short stories “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” “The Unicorn in the Garden,” and “The Catbird Seat,” James Thurber often returns to one common theme – the battle of the sexes. Though with a humorous outlook, Thurber often paints the female characters in his stories as domineering and difficult to deal with as seen through Mrs. Mitty, the wife, and Ulgine Barrows. In each story, the woman is portrayed as burdensome and maddening. This misogynistic belief that women not only dominate men but hold them back undermines the significant achievements of women and ultimately harms the feminist cause.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: Held at Gunpoint
In James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” the contrast between Mitty represented as a brave hero in his daydreams and Mitty as a cowardly mouse in real life suggests that his daydreams cause him to lose touch with reality, to the point where he is no longer in control of his life or his daydreams. In his “daydreams,” he often imagines that he is more powerful and skilled than he is in reality, and his reality is so influenced by his wife that his imagination takes over and creates an alternate reality where he feels more important and needed. This alternate reality is what allows him to cope even with the stresses his wife puts on him every day.
In one of his daydreams, where he is on trial for an accused murder, “Walter Mitty raised his hand briefly and the bickering attorneys were stilled. ‘With any known make of a 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 dark-haired girl was in Walter Mitty’s arms” (3). Mitty, in his daydreams, he acts as a overconfident, highly-skilled man. He is the hero and main focal point of these adventures. He acts as though he could have shot Gregory from a great distance with any kind of gun, obviously making his case worse, but raises his esteem despite this clear risk. He goes as far as to incriminate himself just to make himself viewed as a heroic being, when in reality he is a coward. At the end of the daydream, a girl runs desperately into Mitty’s arms, showing how he is always well-respected and attractive in his dreams. Mitty, in his dreams, always shows confidence and arrogance. Yet Mitty’s truly passive personality allows for his wife, Mrs. Mitty, to constrain and urge him to do things. In fact, she controls his life with no conflict or confrontation.
After Mr. Mitty is urged by his wife to use his gloves while driving, “He put them on, but after she had turned and gone into the building and he had driven onto a red light, he took them off again. ‘Pick it up, brother!’ snapped a cop as the light changed, and Mitty hastily pulled on his gloves and lurched ahead” (1). After Mitty’s wife forces Mitty to wear his gloves, he puts them on at first, but then takes them off again after reaching the red light. Once the light turns green, a cop then yells at Mitty to speed up, but Mitty instinctively pulls on his gloves in response to the cop, even though the cop never asked him to. He does this most likely because he has no control of his own life, and his wife’s authority causes him to do what she wants instinctively. He acts as though he is a weak rabbit in comparison to his wife, who clearly has more power over his life. Indeed, his submissiveness to his wife makes him weak and constantly on-edge.
Mitty, at the end of the story, becomes so overwhelmed and incapable of controlling his own life that even in his daydreams, the only place where he is capable of control, he feels defeated. After Mitty is forced to wait for his wife by the wall of a drugstore, “He took one last drag on his cigarette and snapped it away. Then, with that faint, fleeting smile playing about his lips, he faced the firing squad; erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last” (4). In this new daydream, Mitty turns toward a firing squad, losing expression and standing motionless – helpless. Mrs. Mitty is represented as the firing squad, cornering Mitty and restricting him to do whatever she chooses; Mitty falls helpless to his wife’s authority as he shrinks from facing her. In the end, Mitty is “fired at” by Mrs. Mitty when he tries to confront her, and this is what kills him in the end. He submits completely and allows his wife complete control over his life.
Overall, Mitty lives a cowardly life in which he does not want to face his issues head on, but instead drifts off into a fantasy where he strays farther from the tension of marriage and tries to push it back into his mind instead of overcoming it. This ultimately leads to his demise when, even in his last daydream, he is defeated.
Comparing How The Yellow Wallpaper and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Address American Identity
American literature was founded upon strong ideals rooted in individualism, and as a result, many stories are written with the idea of “what does it mean to be an American?” Both Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” address the concept on what it means to be an American, based on their own lives and perceptions of the world they lived in. They both focus on fragmented protagonists that engage in escapist altercations to their realities to illustrate how they cope with feelings of powerlessness or impotence while being mentally and emotionally repressed by their spouses. However, where the two stories differ is in what type of “American” the protagonists envision and how they view their roles in their greater societies. In the case of “The Yellow Wallpaper” the narrator is attempting to reject the notion of the good “American woman” and her nightmares stand-in for the repressive world around her whereas Walter Mitty in his story dives into his idealized dreams and fantasies so that he may attempt to become the ideal “American man.”
Both “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” rely on dreams to show how their protagonists view themselves, based on how Gilman and Thurber’s saw themselves as Americans and whether they fit the expectation of such a title or not. Gilman wrote in an article of her magazine The Forerunner in 1913 that she wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a response to the treatment of herself by Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, who prescribed to her the same “rest cure” that her protagonist goes through (Gilman, 1). While under this treatment, Gilman found herself going mad, and after a brief recovery she wrote the story, hoping to save other women from such a fate. Gilman in this essay says that writing “The Yellow Wallpaper” made her feel “the normal life of every human being… which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite–ultimately recovering some measure of power.” (Gilman, 1). In this passage, Gilman reveals that she views the role of an American person of every part of the world, to be one of personal betterment and working towards the growth of the world they live in. By not working or improving herself, Gilman felt less than human.
These feelings are at the forefront of every page of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is desperate to express herself, but finds herself unable to do so due to her overbearing spouse. The narrator is in a clearly unhappy marriage yet she still chooses to maintain a façade of ideal happiness and stability in order to fit into the society she so desperately wants to be a part of. She describes herself and her husband, John, as “mere ordinary people” in the opening of the story, despite that not being true at all as, besides her numerous mental issues, they are also shown as people of reasonably high wealth, as they’re able to afford to stay in such a nice vacation house with many servants (Gilman, 1). The narrator is sent to live in isolation as a way for her to recover from her illness, but it ends up worsening due to her extreme sensory deprivation. This causes her to retreat from her sterile reality into her mind. The key to her escapism is within the mundane environment around her, an otherwise unremarkable wallpaper that covers her room. She is so desperate for some sort of feeling in her life that she sublimates all of these desires into the very environment that is suppressing her. This leads to numerous instances of oxymoron such as how she claims she “never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before” (Gilman, 4). Ultimately, the narrator is consumed by her fantasies, and she is reduced physically and mentally into a more primordial being creeping all over the room. Due to her reality offering nothing, the narrators completely checked out, deciding that titillating nightmare is worthier of living than dull reality.
Just as “The Yellow Wallpaper” was based on Gilman’s own life and insecurities in how she felt as an American citizen, James Thurber uses “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” to project his own being. Neurologist V.S. Ramachandran diagnosed James Thurber with Charles Bonnet syndrome, which is a neurological condition that causes the patient to have bizarre hallucinations. This parallels Walter Mitty as he regularly checks out of reality in what could be considered hallucinations. Thurber himself did not see this as a disability. In his essay The Admiral on the Wheel, Thurber describes himself as having “two-fifths vision” when he does not wear his glasses, and he goes into detail of all the wonderful and strange things he sees, assuring that with the way he views the world, no matter what, he’ll have “a remarkable time.” (Thurber, 2). By reading this self-reflection, one can imagine that Walter Mitty’s daydreams are meant to be read as remarkable and wondrous. While Walter Mitty’s dreams are dangerously unrealistic, perhaps Thurber is wanting to show the reader the power of one’s imagination and idealist pursuits in retaliation to their mundane and overbearing world.
The story of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” bears similarities to “The Yellow Wallpaper” worth noting: Both are about unhappy and neurotic Americans trapped in mundane lives who are under the absolute control of their spouse, and their fantasies are an effort to compensate. The story being dominated by his dreams is clearly demonstrated from the very first line, which opens with an action-packed dream Walter is having. This is significant in showing that Walter is prioritizing his dream life above his reality, where he can project as much as possible. Walter Mitty, like the “Yellow Wallpaper” narrator, is powerless to his spouse, in this story being Mrs. Mitty. Mrs. Mitty is constantly bringing Walter out of his mind and repressing him in his life. When Walter is snapped out of his introductory dream, he sees his wife as “grossly unfamiliar, like a strange woman who had yelled at him in a crowd.” (Thurber). This illustrates a clear disconnect between the two spouses, which is an idea also expressed in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and the two are making a statement about the struggles of the American married couple. Later on in the story, Walter Mitty attempts to stand up to Mrs. Mitty after she gets him out of one of his wartime fantasies. Walter asks her if she realizes that he sometimes thinks, that is, he is his own conscious person who can make his own decisions. She is not expecting this and attributes it to a bout of illness, saying that she will take his temperature later. Mrs. Mitty here is almost a genderbent John from “The Yellow Wallpaper” as both spouses utterly disregard the mentality and emotions of their partners, attributing any trace of expressed sentience as some sort of medical disorder.
While both “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” deal with the concept of being an American from the eyes of their respective authors illustrated through fantasies, they differ in how they align with being an American, reflected in the nature of their fantasies, which lead to drastically different conclusions. “The Yellow Wallpaper” examines what it means to be an American female relative to Gilman’s pre-women’s rights era, and through the narrator’s horrifying nightmares which trap her in this ideal, Gilman is protesting such a concept. In the case of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Thurber is describing an ideal American male figure relative to his World War II era, who uses empowering dreams for him to reach his ideal.
The moral of “The Yellow Wallpaper” becomes clear once one understands this and is exemplified in her stand-in in the form of the narrator and how her nightmares reflect her world as well as affect her viewing of it. Despite being clearly based on herself, Gilman chooses to keep the narrator nameless because she believes this story can apply to any woman in the country, and she prides herself in the article “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper”, to her knowledge, “saved one woman from a similar fate–so terrifying her family that they let her out into normal activity and she recovered.” (Gilman, 1). The story is a stark criticism of more than just the “rest cure,” it is one against any form of medication and prescription that ignores the patient’s mentality and rather treats the patient as a tool to practice one’s treatment abilities. While they may mean well, the authority of the medical institution and their higher standing in society often results in the mistreatment of patients and worsening of their conditions due to ignoring crucial factors of emotion, argues Gilman. Through John’s self-assured authority and wisdom, the narrator is completely misinterpreted as ill, and the very acts trying to “cure” her result in actually driving her mad. This is a hyperbolic statement on how Victorian woman viewed themselves in rigid marriages. While the story is maddening and over the top, Gilman insists in her article that “it was not intended to drive people crazy, but to save people from being driven crazy” (Gilman, 1) by giving a voice to the voiceless and warning those who lead such institutions about what can happen when their power and authority goes unchecked. And, according to Gilman, it succeeded.
Gilman crafts an innately feminine story with “The Yellow Wallpaper” about femininity and the feeling of oppression felt by females during her time. The narrator is constantly dominated by her husband, who is also her doctor. Here, John represents how two institutions, medical and marriage, are linked in keeping the narrator from being what she wants to be and limiting her ability to express and lead her own life. John sister, Jennie, is seen by the narrator as a “perfect and enthusiastic housekeeper, and hopes for no better profession” (Gilman, 4). Jennie is an example of an ideal American woman according to Gilman’s time. She is enthusiastic about her limited pursuits and does not want for anything else. While there is nothing inherently wrong with being comfortable with one’s life and profession, this works against the narrator as she insists that Jennie would think that the narrator being a writer is what made her sick. This shows the mentality women had at the time, how to not act “womanly” as expected of one means that they are, to use an Atwoodian term, “unwoman.”
Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” informs the reader of one man’s idea of what an American man is like while also showing how American society affects said American man. The story was published during a dramatic paradigm shift in not only the United States, but the world as a whole in the form of World War II. Walter Mitty is an ineffective man in a world that is calling for the strength of great men to preserve their ways of life. For Walter, though, there is nothing to preserve. Mitty is a poor driver in his reality, but in his dreams, he is an exceptional and daring pilot, and he gains the respect of the other men around him, while in his waking life, he is nagged around by his wife and ridiculed by other men. Walter is also described as old, and his wife assures him that he is “not a young man any longer” (Thurber) which could explain why he appears to have such a bad memory problem and lack of motor skills, yet in his dreams, he possesses none of these negative qualities of age, which shows that, despite his failing body and mind, Walter is still able to view himself as a strong able-bodied and minded man. Thurber could be making a statement here trying to reach out to men who may stay on the home front, either because they do not want to fight or they are too old and weak to do so, that they are no less of a man as those who are those daring pilots in the war. Walter may not actually be a great man, but he views himself as one nonetheless thanks to his fantasies.
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” sees the titular protagonist engage in various daydreams of what an American man should be like, and while celebrating the ideal, Mitty himself is powerless and emasculated, being a man unable to live up to the expectations held of him. Each of these dreams expresses the desires Walter longs for as opposed to “Yellow Wallpaper” in which nightmares express what the narrator is afraid of. The unified idea present within Walter Mitty’s dreams is one regarding masculinity, with Walter feeling emasculated by his aimless life and commanding wife. In his dreams, Walter is a strong hero reflecting what he wants to be as a man. He is commanding, cool, and charismatic, while in reality he is absolutely none of these qualities. As he makes his dreams so heavy on masculinity, it appears that his dreams undermine femininity. Women in his dreams are nearly absent and when there are women, they are just described as “pretty,” such being the case of the nurse in his operation dream. This is to compensate for any femininity that Mitty himself may possess, as he appears weak and indecisive in his day to day life by allowing his wife to have control, and this serves as an example of how Mitty wants to be a masculine figure who is able to garner the attention of an attractive mate. This feeling of ideal masculinity ultimately permeates to the very end of the story, and apparently seeps into Mitty’s reality. His final fantasy is a stark contrast from the rest. While the others are about him being put in daring and heroic situations, his final dream is of him about to be executed by a firing squad. This can be interpreted in many ways, but something that is interest of note is what Walter Mitty says in response to the firing squad, “To hell with the handkerchief” (Thurber). The handkerchief in question refers to the custom of putting a handkerchief over a person’s eyes when they’re about to be executed, in an effort to lessen the pain and fear. Walter rejects the handkerchief, offering to die as he wanted to live, like a man. This handkerchief can also be related to Walter’s dreams. He engages in his fantasies to escape the pain he feels in his waking life, and now he is deciding he does not need them anymore. His final dream in the story being shot down by a firing squad, therefore, can be interpreted as Walter Mitty killing off his dream self, choosing to live only in his reality without the comforts of the handkerchief. While there is no epilogue or proper closure, his brief but still poignant rebellion at his wife when he insists that he is a thinking person coupled with this forsaking of the handkerchief and dream death allows one to imagine a reborn Walter, a combination of his pragmatic real self and his idealized dream self. Unlike “The Yellow Wallpaper” Walter Mitty emerges victorious and, in the words of Thurber, “Undefeated, inscrutable to the last” (Thurber).
The two stories largely owe their success to how their respective authors develop their protagonists as symbols of ideal American life through how their ventures into their own respective psyches illustrate how they view themselves. Their common denominators for illustrating this is by illustrating how they escape from their mundane reality and authoritarian marriage into fantasy. The ground for contrast in these stories is how they interpret being a good American and how their protagonists respond to that idea. In the case of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator is attempting to reject the conventional ideals of the American woman as her husband enforces them, which results in her escaping into her nightmares and mentally eroding away. In “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Walter wishes to be in touch with that ideal notion of the strong American man, while his wife attempts to snap him back into his mediocre existence, and when Walter begins to wake up in his life, he kills off his dream self, offering a conclusion which could imply that he is ready to accept his real life, having grown more courageous thanks to his dreams.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins (January 1892). “The Yellow Wall-paper. A Story”. The New England Magazine. 11 (5).
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper.” Forerunner. Oct. 1913.
Thurber, James. “The Admiral on the Wheel” The New Yorker. Feb. 1, 1936.
Thurber, James. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” The New Yorker. Mar. 18, 1939.
V.S. Ramachandran; Sandra Blakeslee (1988). Phantoms in the Brain. HarperCollins. pp. 85–7.
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.
Function of the Fantasies
Walter Mitty has a miserable life. He is clumsy and cowardly. He is also always pushed around by his bossy wife, yelled at by a police, and laughed at by people who take the chains off his tires. He has a pretty hard life. This is why he is always fantasizing about being a respected, well-known person. It gives him a chance to escape from the harsh reality. Some of his fantasies are being a commander, saving the day as a doctor, and not needing a handkerchief to cover his eyes when he is getting executed. In Walter Mitty’s Secret Life, he is brave, strong, manly, respected, and heroic.
In the plane fantasy, Walter Mitty is the commander. They’re going through a storm and Lieutenant Berg says they can’t make it, that the storm is too strong. But Commander Mitty, the strong, the brave, pushes on. “ ‘Throw on the power lights! Rev her up to 8,500! We’re going through!’ The pounding of the cylinders increased: ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa.” This shows how Mitty keeps going, is very sure of himself, and knows he can make it through, even though he is flying through a terrible storm. He started giving orders and, “ The crew, bending to their various tasks, looked at each other and grinned. ‘The Old Man’ll get us through,’ they said to one another. ‘The Old Man ain’t afraid of Hell!’” This shows that the crew also trusts Mitty and knows Mitty will get them out unharmed. Mitty has this fantasy, because he wishes that he was in charge and was giving the orders, instead of taking orders from his wife.
In the doctor fantasy, Walter Mitty is driving by a hospital and he imagines that a nurse is talking to him about an operation that is happening in a room next to him. She is telling him that Dr. Renshaw and Dr. Benbow are operating on millionaire banker Wellington McMillan, with the help of specialist doctors Remington from New York and Pritchard-Mitford from London. Then, “A door opened down a long, cool corridor and Dr. Renshaw came out. He looked distraught and haggard. ‘Hello, Mitty,’ he said. ‘We’re having the devil’s own time with McMillan….. ‘Obstreosis of the ductal tract. Tertiary. Wish you’d take a look at him.’” Here, Dr. Renshaw is stressed and is saying that the operation isn’t working. When he asks Mitty to come help, it shows that he trusts Mitty and knows that Mitty could help. Mitty steps into the operation room and hears, “‘ Didn’t know you were in the states, Mitty,’ grumbled Remington. ‘Coals to Newcastle, bringing Mitford and me up here for a tertiary.’” ‘Coals to Newcastle’ is an expression which means “something that is brought to somewhere where it is already plentiful.” Dr. Remington meant, why bring Dr. Pritchard-Mitford and me from so far away to do this operation when Mitty, who’s already here, could’ve done it all by himself. He thought it was pointless to come and also thinks Mitty is very smart and capable. Then, a complicated machine, connected to the operating table began breaking down. “‘The new anesthetizer is giving way!’ shouted an interne. ‘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… ‘Give me a fountain pen!’ he snapped…He pulled a faulty piston out of the machine and inserted the pen in its place.” This shows that even though the machine that a man’s life depended on was breaking down Mitty remained cool and collected. He is also able to fix it simply with a pen. “‘Coreopsis has set in,’ said Renshaw nervously. ‘If you would take over, Mitty?’” Dr. Renshaw is scared that he won’t be able to successfully complete the operation, so he asks Mitty to continue because he knows Mitty will be able to do it. Mitty has this fantasy because he wishes that he was smart enough to fix a machine, and was well-known by famous specialist doctors. Again, in this second fantasy, Mitty is the hero and saved a millionaire’s life.
In the execution fantasy, Mitty is facing a firing squad. “‘To hell with the handkerchief,’ said Walter Mitty scornfully.” Normally, his eyes would be covered with a handkerchief so he wouldn’t see the firing squad shoot him, but in this fantasy, he isn’t cowardly and is brave to not need the handkerchief. Before they shoot, “ …he faced the firing squad; erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.” Mitty has this fantasy because in it he is brave and courageous, undefeated and disdainful, which is what he wishes he was. Mitty is seconds from being killed, but he is still standing proud.
Mitty spends a lot of his life fantasizing about being manly, strong, brave, heroic, and respected. In real life, he is none of those things. He’s the exact opposite: cowardly, clumsy, and definitely not respected. He hates his life so much he wants to die. If he could learn to stand up to his wife and not get pushed around so much, he would be much happier. Then, instead of fantasizing about a wonderful life he doesn’t have, he would be living the wonderful life that he does.