The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (1939) is a short story by American humorist James Thurber. The story has been adapted several times for film, most recently in 2013. I haven’t seen the films but it’s interesting someone financed feature length movies out of a story so short — “Walter Mitty” is 2,512 words.

Brokeback Mountain” is a short story adapted far more successfully for film (though not according to Annie Proulx, because they butchered the main message). “Brokeback Mountain” is a capacious, novelistic short story, and and gives the director far more to work with, coming in at 9,135 words.

My theory is that sometimes short stories (and picture books) are simply too short to fill a feature length film. Scriptwriters must artificially bulk them out. Unfortunately, it’s hard to make money out of short films, which they probably should be.

A reviewer at The New Yorker is rather more optimistic about this than I am:

The great thing about adapting a short story rather than a novel is that it demands expansion rather than reduction—it’s a springboard, not a blueprint.

STORYWORLD OF “WALTER MITTY”

The ‘real world’ of the story is set near Waterbury, Connecticut, so in an un-peaceful era but in a peaceful place.

[This] was an era whose mainstream pop culture, embodied by the real LIFE magazine, was defined by an optimism that today’s culture is not.

Tor

STORY STRUCTURE OF “WALTER MITTY”

The story opens in media res, in the middle of action, as many stories do. It is therefore a reveal to the reader when we learn in the second paragraph that Walter is not flying a battle plane but simply driving his wife to her hair appointment.

We learn that Walter is making up stories in his head with the following sentence:

Walter Mitty drove on toward Waterbury in silence, the roaring of the SN202 through the worst storm in twenty years of Navy flying fading in the remote, intimate airways of his mind.

WEAKNESS/NEED

Walter Mitty’s weaknesses are shown to us via dialogue from his chastising wife. Writers often use the technique of explaining things via arguments–it feels less contrived that way:

“You’re tensed up again,” said Mrs. Mitty. “It’s one of your days. I wish you’d let Dr. Renshaw look you over.”

“You’re not a young man any longer.”

The other day in a post about “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, I wrote about the gendered nature of fantasists — most often it is female characters who are described as lying fantasists. Male examples are probably just as common but coded differently, not as ‘lying’ characters, but as pathetic. In “Paul’s Case” the main character is still encoded as feminine. Male fantasists are often depicted as victims of their own delusions.

Walter Mitty is an example of a rare example of a male fantasist, which is probably why ‘Mittyesque’ entered the English language:

The name Walter Mitty and the derivative word “Mittyesque” have entered the English language, denoting an ineffectual person who spends more time in heroic daydreams than paying attention to the real world, or more seriously, one who intentionally attempts to mislead or convince others that he is something that he is not.

— Wikipedia

Yet you won’t find many references to Walter Mitty as a ‘fantasist’. Instead, reviewers do gymnastics to read some deeper meaning into a man’s bored daydreams. This is a review of the 2013 movie rather than of the original text, but might apply equally:

Mitty… is a curator and a facilitator of images; the movie, as Friend describes it en route to its realization, seems likely to suggest that the deeds that are done in the real world, and the images of them that are made and shown, are inextricable from the element of fantasy.

The New Yorker

In other words, “everyman” Walter Mitty fantasises with purpose. Not as a form of lying (to himself and others).

Thurber’s use of made-up words throughout the story emphasises Walter’s underlying weakness — this is a man who doesn’t have the knowledge to actually engage in these important jobs he idealises. His ineffectiveness is also shown in the flashback scene in which he is unable to perform the manly but uncomplicated task of taking chains off his wheels. Nor can he easily remember the second item his wife instructed him to buy at the grocery store.

DESIRE

Walter wishes to escape his mundane life in which he is required to buy boring, functional items while waiting for his wife to have her hair done. He also has masculine power fantasies, which involve an attractive young woman swooning for him and making his way up the social hierarchy with his bravery, expertise and ability to save lives.

OPPONENT

Walter is low on the social hierarchy. We don’t know if he has a job in his own right but he is presented as a man whose entire life is managed by his wife. I actually wondered if the wife was his mother.

His wife is his opposition, partly by requiring him to do certain boring jobs (how would he live otherwise, if she wasn’t there?), partly because she sees right through him, and regularly punctures his inner-world fantasies by talking.

PLAN

Walter will do as is required of him, but all the while his mind will be occupied with far more interesting fantasies.

BATTLE

Mrs Mitty chastises Walter for ‘hiding’ in the chair at the hotel and for not putting on the overshoes she told him to buy.

SELF-REVELATION

I get the impression Walter has never before hinted to his wife that he has a rich inner world of fantasies:

“I was thinking,” said Walter Mitty. “Does it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking?”

She looked at him. “I’m going to take your temperature when I get you home,” she said.

This signals a slight character change in Walter–a smidgen of self-advocacy.

Apparently, the movie makes much more of the self-revelation, personal growth stage of this story:

The movie doesn’t so much take the stance that one doesn’t have to grow up, but that there is more than one way to do so. Stiller’s Mitty finds—repeatedly and not subtly—that safety is brief and illusory, but that it’s possible with a bit of effort to stay one step ahead of disaster, to have a rope around one’s waist before leaping into the void, so to speak. But the most important thing, and probably the most fundamental departure from Thurber’s Mitty, is that Stiller’s learns that fantasy—and, at a crucial point, its close relative memory—is key in informing one’s personal reality, in an “if you dream it, you can make it real” kind of way. Fantasy is what drives reality in the new version, instead of the other way around.

Tor

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Leading a mundane life all the while indulging in fictional fantasies in your own head is one way to live. This is not critiqued — rather it is presented to us. Walter will go on living inside his head, and his wife will go on failing to understand that this is the cause of Walter’s absent-mindedness. She will go on micromanaging his life, in a vicious cycle.

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