52 Stories #7: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber

[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

My friend Betsy Montgomery on Facebook recommended this classic from the great James Thurber. I grew up watching the timeless Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo comedy based (loosely) on this story, and I even saw the recent (tepid) remake starring Ben Stiller, so I was happy to take a look at the short story that started it all.  Thanks to the folks at the New Yorker (where it was originally published in 1939), you can read it for yourself here.   Ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa…

The Set-up

Mild-mannered Walter Mitty escapes domestic monotony via thrilling daydreams.

The Pay-off

The 1947 Danny Kaye comedy of the same name is almost an entirely different animal than the original story by Thurber, although you can see the family resemblance. That said, there is humor in this story but it’s much more understated, to the point of becoming tragicomic. But man, it works so well. Thurber’s character work is outstanding here.

The Takeaways

Brace yourself for the pocketa-pocketa-pocketa of bullet-point observations:

  • In the film version of Mitty (and for our purposes, I refer only to the superior 1947 film), he is engaged to a fretful young woman with an overbearing mother (or perhaps it was his mother who was so oppressive). He is surrounded by people who dismiss him, take advantage of him, or just run rough-shod over him. In the story, however, while he faces a few slights and disrespects from strangers, his wife is the laser-focused source of belittlement and oppression. It seems like the screenwriters copied Mrs. Mitty directly from the short story into the screenplay and fragmented her ire among several secondary characters.
  • Another difference from the film: Though Thurber doesn’t say it explicitly, Mitty seems to be middle-aged, even late-middle-aged. The interactions with his wife indicate a man who has been browbeaten for YEARS, whose daydreams are as much a rebellion against her as they are a bulwark against his mundane life.
  • While the repetition of the “pocketa-pocketa” noise in each of the dreams is a classic element of both the story and film, I was further delighted by the repetition of Dr. Renshaw’s name. The Dr. Renshaw that Mrs. Mitty said should be called for consultation immediately becomes an inadequate surgeon in Mitty’s next scenario.
  • Another great detail: Thurber shows us how Mitty’s mind functions, much as our own, jumping from idea to idea, with random thoughts triggering memories. For example, calling a roughhousing district attorney a “miserable cur” reminds Mitty he had to pick up puppy biscuits. I relate so much to this. Sometimes, to amuse myself, I retrace my mental steps to see how my train of thought bounces between several disparate subjects. …Okay, maybe that’s just me.
  • Thurber’s characterization of both Walter and Mrs. Mitty is done mainly through dialogue and internal monologue, with minimal exposition. However, through Thurber’s use of implication, you easily understand the broad contours of their relationship and can extrapolate what life in their house is like.
  • Obviously a film adaptation takes a short story’s plot and fleshes it out a bit, but what makes the two Mitty’s so different is the ending. In the film, Kaye’s Mitty finds himself flung into an actual adventure with a beautiful damsel in distress. In the story, Thurber’s Mitty gets no slam-bang action ending. Rather, he patiently endures the ceaseless nagging of his wife, with his only consolation being his own imaginary heroics. In the final daydream, he faces a firing squad with a defiance he could never quite muster in real life. Nevertheless, in his mind he remains “Walter Mitty the undefeated, inscrutable to the last.”

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is a quick read and quite a lot of fun. If you’ve gotten this far and haven’t actually read the story, go back to the link above and check it out.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

2 thoughts on “52 Stories #7: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber

  1. This one’s always been a favorite of mine. Way back when I blogged about it in 2011 I don’t think the newer movie version had come out yet, and I don’t think I’ve ever watched the orginal with Danny Kaye. Maybe it’s time for that. 🙂 My old post about this stor (read during my innaugural Deal Me In challenge!) is here https://bibliophilica.wordpress.com/2011/02/20/the-secret-life-of-walter-mitty-by-james-thurber/ if you’re interested

    Keep up the good work!

    -Jay

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