The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: A Short Story

walter mitty

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Kindle Edition. Story Originally published in 1939.

You can read The Secret Life of Walter Mitty online here for free. It’s a quick read. If you’ve never read it, I would love for you to read it since this review is full of spoilers.

Walter Mitty is a married man -at least middle aged but probably older- who lives his daily life taking orders from his wife, but inner life is the place where he gets to be the man he wishes he was. It doesn’t take much for him to retreat into his fantasy life. A hospital, a newspaper headline, any minute reference can send him off into an adventure of mythical proportions.

Unfortunately, Walter often zones out and goes to Fantasyland at the most inopportune moments, including behind the wheel of his car, where he almost hits another car:

“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. “Gee. Yeh,” muttered Mitty. He began cautiously to back out of the lane marked “Exit Only.” “Leave her sit there,” said the attendant. “I’ll put her away.” Mitty got out of the car. “Hey, better leave the key.” “Oh,” said Mitty, handing the man the ignition key. The attendant vaulted into the car, backed it up with insolent skill, and put it where it belonged.

That brings me to a question I pondered with one of my daughters who also read the story:

Which came first: The Chicken or the Egg?

The story opens with Mrs. Mitty unpleasantly pulling Walter from yet another one of his intense daydreams. He finds him driving them into town at an unacceptable 55 miles per hour, a full 15 mph faster than Mrs. Witty feels is safe. In fact, very few of Mrs. Mitty’s interactions with Walter are free of reproof, command, or request. Walter’s frequent trips to faraway exotic places, and his wife’s responses, left my daughter and me commiserating on what, if anything, James Thurber is trying to communicate here about Walter and Mrs. Mitty’s lot in life. It surely couldn’t be the idea his daughter wrote in the introduction of the Kindle edition:

I celebrate his Daydream Method of small vacations from tedium and “quiet desperation”. As a child I was reassured to know that this practice could continue into grown-up years.

The chicken or the egg question as it came up in our discussion at home was this: Was Walter Mitty given to these sudden and occasionally dangerous daydream vacations because his wife was a nag who made him miserable, or had she become a nag as a result of Walter’s inability to live in reality long enough to do anything more than just enough to get by? Thurber doesn’t tell us, leaving the readers to come to their own conclusions.

Recently, we watched the 2014 film adaptation of this story, which is quite different from the original James Thurber story, save for the frequent daydream vacations taken by the title character. Hollywood leaves us with a Walter Mitty who finds so much real-life adventure, including true love that his need for vacations to Fantasyland diminish to nearly nothing.

Thurber’s original story leaves us with Walter in the rain, leaned up against the wall of a drugstore, where his wife commanded him to wait for her, smoking a cigarette as he heads off into his imagination, where without fear, he faces a firing squad.

13 thoughts on “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: A Short Story

  1. Robyn says:

    I love LOVE the story of Walter Mitty (I mean the movie adaptation of course)!

    Although the book version could give us a biblical perspective: Now we know what the husband thinks about when he’s driven away, by the nagging contentious wife; first to the roof THEN even further, out to the desert. Men, being oriented to box-like thinking, are able to do this mental “closure” gymnastics much easier than us ‘spaghetti’ types.

    **note — sometimes i’m jealous of my husband’s ability to live in boxes instead of this interconnected ’round-room’ which i inhabit.

    ** note2 — i love the message God sends to me by not including an equal warning to husbands … about something / anything! 😉

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  2. smkoseki says:

    Curious what you think the author was pushing…or do you think he was carefully/honestly neutral? Books generally can’t stay neutral IMO, say like A Street Car Named Desire or Death of a Salesman try but really are claiming at least one or more veiwpoints (although they do stay painfully neutral on the surface). I get the feeling this one does too. What do you think? I’ve never heard of it but I put the Kindle in my cart due to your review…I buy everything Kindle so I can listen to them TTS when working (I hate audiobooks generally because the readers are too “emphatic” except a few who never read the books I read). The trusty computer just gives me the bland text.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Elspeth says:

    @ Robyn:

    I like the movie version too, although it’s pretty much a completely different story from the original story as penned by James Thurber.

    I started out thinking, “Mitty’s wife probably drives him to escape”, and then I realized my bias was showing. It is entirely possible that Mitty was always something of an absent-minded fellow and Mrs. Mitty’s took the position of (to quote my daughter):

    “Look Walter, I’m gonna need you to get yourself together.” And with it, feeling she has to take the wheel lest he runs them aground in the same way he almost crashed the car twice in the story.

    That’s not to excuse her tone and attitude. Not one bit, but I think in our zeal to remember not to be contentious ball busters, we forget that some women really do get the short end of the stick in the husband department.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Robyn says:

    hmmmm …. at the risk of sounding like a “lady-ball” buster 😉

    I’m taking you to task on your terminology (with much sisterly affection of course) … ” … some women really do get the short end of the stick in the husband department.”

    —> “get” the short end? This is a general, generalization, but women choose their own husbands, right? They choose wrongly and then want to be seen as victims, when in reality we all bring just-underneath-the-surface snapping turtles into the mix.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Robyn says:

    You are right about the absent minded; I do see that portrayed in the movie. Walter isn’t running away from anything in particular, other than the hum-drum, day-in day-out, anesthetized living that we all must face. For me, it represents how dull we can make our lives or how rich and juicy we can make them, simply by having the right perspective and approach.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Elspeth says:

    This is a general, generalization, but women choose their own husbands, right? They choose wrongly and then want to be seen as victims, when in reality we all bring just-underneath-the-surface snapping turtles into the mix.

    Well, Mrs. Robyn, I’ll grant you that. Touche! Just as long as we stipulate that men who get the short end of the wife stick also “chose wrongly”, complete with a ring and a proposal!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Elspeth says:

    @ smk:

    I am going to turn the question around and ask you what YOU think Thurber’s position is underneath all this. Show me your hand first, LOL!

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  8. smkoseki says:

    Ha E well said!. But I haven’t read it yet; offhand I’ll be likely itching for his wife to shoot that loser long before his imaginary firing squad does. But I’m sure there is more to the story for it to have such longevity.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Elspeth says:

    Ok, SMK. I’ll show my cards.

    If I had to wager a guess, I’d say that given Thurber’s age at the time of Mitty’s debut (45) that he was lamenting Walter’s fate. Not only from his wife (who was a huge source of his misery and angst) but also from just a ho-hum life. I imagine he had known far too many contemporary men at his stage of life who were silently stewing.

    But it wasn’t just due to Mrs. Mitty, because he retreated as much when she wasn’t present as when she was.

    I think Walter hated his overall life, and his marriage was no respite. So he daydreamed constantly.

    Also, I was wondering how much Mitty-esque behavior is ubiquitous today. So many people retreat to digital and virtual fantasy as an escape from their real lives, after all.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. hearthie says:

    I don’t know that I’ve ever read it before (just did) but I’ve heard Walter Mitty used as a descriptor many times.

    Trying to piece this together… I think Els has it well in the last sentence of her last post – escapist fantasy. Is Mitty escaping his wife? His life? Or does he just enjoy a good dream? Hard to say. And which came first – the incessant daydreaming (I’m a daydreamer, this puts me to shame) or the life full of failures?

    I was originally thinking this came out in the 50s, and was going to pin it on post-war angst, but it was published in 1939. The Depression was certainly hard to live through, but the Mittys seemed comfortable enough in the story… so it’s not that.

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  11. Elspeth says:

    As it happens, the man and I were just a bit ago discussing the idea of mid-life crises and what their origins might be.

    Our life is better than either one of us thought our lives would be at this point (compared to what we thought when we were teenagers).

    He wasn’t sure he’d even live to see middle age (not an uncommon thought for a guy living as he was when I met him), and I didn’t have any clue that marriage and family life could be this good. So the idea of a crisis is kind of foreign to us.

    That isn’t to say that there aren’t things we would have liked to accomplish but didn’t. There certainly are a few things, and you know at least one of mine. But overall, we’re content with our lot in life. God has been immeasurably gracious to us.

    The Walter Mitty effect is probably stronger when 1) you have unrealistically lofty expectations of life which is an epidemic in our culture and 2) there’s a lack of meaningful relationships, which is also epidemic in our time.

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  12. smkoseki says:

    E: 1) unrealistically lofty expectations of life; 2) lack of meaningful relationships

    Rule of 150. AKA homo sapien brains are simply not capable of meaningful relationships with >150 people. Sure, higher IQ folk may reach 250 but for every additional person the “meaningful” part of the relationship shrinks. Living in cities AKA the “human zoo” https://www.amazon.com/Human-Zoo-Desmond-Morris-ebook-dp-B0031Y9DQE/dp/B0031Y9DQE/ref=mt_kindle?_encoding=UTF8&me=&qid= necessitates this decline of relationships, either in quality or quantity. And of course the lofty expectations is due to the exposure to a massive tribe way beyond 150 yet our brains can’t comprehend this isn’t our tribe. Nothing we can do about it but evolve to the new environment; walled cities are here to stay…

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  13. Elspeth says:

    You can live in a large area and still have meaningful relationships. I’m not sure I’m following you here. Anyone at all who expects to have meaningful relationships with more than 150 people is kind of silly.

    Sadly, a lot of people are alone today but even most single people have parents, siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews, etc. Even with my relatively large nuclear family,

    I still have a couple of additional really tight relationships with friends I’m not related to. It’s only a couple of people, but still. Even one close friend for a single person can be a really big boost to a person’s well being.

    Unfortunately, the lofty expectations a lot of people have are related to material excess and comfort, perfect sexual relationships, and in general life of adventure and excitement.

    Finding beauty and laughter in the mundane is a concept many postmoderns see as mutually exclusive.

    And that’s unfortunate.

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