The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
A naval commander is captaining a “huge, hurtling, eight-engined Navy hydroplane” through a terrible storm. Physical descriptions associate him with cold and ice.
The Commander is the only one of Mitty’s alter egos not to share his name. This distances him from the real Mitty and emphasizes his commanding role—the exact opposite of the meek and passive role Mitty plays in his own life. It also allows the story to start off mid-fantasy without tipping its hand that it is mid-fantasy.
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Though his lieutenant fears he can’t make it, the Commander insists on full speed ahead, and the admiring crew expresses its faith in his abilities.
The Commander’s power and heroism are shown not only in his daring actions, but also in his ability to overrule others’ objections and inspire their admiration (even if the generic commands he shouts don’t make much sense).
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Mrs. Mitty calls out a warning not to drive so fast, and it is revealed that the naval commander was part of a fantasy Walter Mitty has been having as he drives his car.
Symbolically, Mrs. Mitty ‘s limit on the speed is a limit on both Mitty’s independence and his masculinity, and immediately contrasts with Mitty’s fantasy of the Commander ordering full speed ahead. Humor comes from the ironic juxtaposition of the fantasy and the reality.
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For a moment, Mitty does not recognize his wife. She seems “grossly unfamiliar, like a strange woman who had yelled at him in a crowd.” As his fantasy fades, Mrs. Mitty suggests that he see Dr. Renshaw for a checkup.
Mitty and his wife understand each other so little that they really could be strangers. Her assumption that whatever is bothering Walter must be physical illness shows her insensitivity to his psychological needs.
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Walter Mitty drops Mrs. Mitty off at the hair salon. As she gets out of the car, she reminds him to buy a pair of overshoes, cutting off his protest that he doesn’t need them by saying, “You’re not a young man any longer.” Mitty races the car engine a little.
Both Mrs. Mitty’s nagging and his own age prevent Mitty from doing what he wants. Racing the car engine is an outlet for his frustration and yet, also, a humorously ineffective attempt to prove his virility, as it doesn’t actually make the car go anywhere.
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Mitty puts on his gloves when his wife asks why he isn’t wearing them, but takes them off as soon as she has gotten out of the car and he is stopped at a red light, out of sight. When the light changes, a cop snaps at him to hurry, and Mitty puts the gloves back on before he drives away.
Hypersensitive to the cop’s criticism, Mitty acts as if taking off the gloves—following his own judgment and in doing so revealing himself literally and figuratively—is the real transgression. He responds to shame by concealing himself, putting the gloves back on.
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When he drives past the hospital, Mitty falls into another fantasy. A famous millionaire, Wellington McMillan, is suffering from “obstreosis of the ductal tract,” and the four doctors performing his surgery—including Dr. Renshaw and two visiting specialists—need Mitty’s help.
Elements from Mitty’s real life—including the overshoes, to which the millionaire’s name alludes; Wellington’s are a famous brand of rubber boots—appear in his fantasy. Nonsense medical jargon adds to the humor of the scene and shows just how much of a fantasy Mitty’s fantasy is.
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Mitty meets the two specialists and graciously accepts their compliments. Suddenly, a “complicated machine” attached to the operating table breaks down. While an interne panics, Mitty calmly and quickly fixes the machine by replacing a faulty piston with a fountain pen. Then, “coreopsis” sets in on the patient, and Dr. Renshaw nervously asks Mitty to take over.
The compliments in the fantasy counteract Mitty’s real-life sense of shame. Mitty regains power over the overshoes and Dr. Renshaw, and by extension his wife, by providing health and strength they do not have. However, his heroic acts are laughably unrealistic.
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Before Mitty can make his first cut, a shout from the parking-lot attendant interrupts the fantasy: Mitty has driven into the exit-only lane. Dazed, he tries to correct his mistake, but the attendant takes over, re-parking the car “with insolent skill.”
Mitty is again embarrassed and publicly corrected by a stranger. In contrast to “Dr. Mitty’s” skill with tools and machines, he feels impotent when handling the car and takes the young attendant’s skill as a personal insult.
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As he walks along Main Street, Walter Mitty remembers another incident in which he had tried to remove his car’s tire chains, only to end up with them wound around the axles, and another “young, grinning garageman” had to come and help him. Ever since, Mrs. Mitty has made him drive to a garage whenever the chains need changing.
Mitty assumes the young men are judging him. He resents them as examples of the masculine skills and qualities he thinks he should have but doesn’t—a feeling exacerbated by his wife’s assumption of his inability to handle the task of putting chains on the tire.
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Mitty plans to wear his right arm in a sling the next time he goes to a garage, so that the garageman will see that he couldn’t have taken the chains off himself and will not grin at him. He kicks resentfully at the slush on the sidewalk, which reminds him to buy overshoes.
Mitty’s sling-wearing plan is a form of shame-based self-concealment. Along with his decision to buy the overshoes a moment later, this solution suggests he has internalized his wife’s beliefs about his physical infirmity.
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After buying the overshoes, Mitty has trouble remembering what else Mrs. Mitty told him to buy. She often scolds him for getting something wrong in the shopping list—even if she herself can’t remember the name of the item.
Mitty’s subordination to his wife and her shopping list suggests the emasculation of the modern suburban man. Humor comes from the irony of Mrs. Mitty’s complaints about his memory when she also can’t remember the same things.
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Hearing a newsboy shouting something about a trial, Mitty has a fantasy in which he is on trial for murder. When his attorney claims that he could not have committed the crime because his arm was in a sling, Mitty announces that he could have made the shot that killed the victim even with his left hand.
The trial scene makes literal Mitty’s sense of being judged by the garagemen. Here, however, Mitty rejects the sling as an alibi: his manly heroism transcends illness and injury, and he will not conceal the truth about himself (which in the case of the fantasy is that he is so skilled a shot that not even an injury to his good hand can hamper him). The scene also marks the beginning of a trend toward darker fantasies.
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As chaos breaks out in the courtroom, a beautiful woman appears in Mitty’s arms, and the District Attorney attacks her. Mitty punches him, calling him a “miserable cur”…
The beautiful “damsel in distress” hints at fantasy-Mitty’s sexual prowess and provides an opportunity for heroism, while her sudden appearance out of nowhere pokes fun at heroic conventions and at Mitty himself.
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…which reminds him that he was supposed to buy puppy biscuit. A passing woman laughs at Mitty for saying “Puppy biscuit” aloud to himself.
Here Mitty’s fantasy reminds him of reality, meaning his imagination offers only a limited escape from his circumstances—not only do his experiences in reality fuel his fantasies, but events in his fantasies push him back out into reality. He is again embarrassed by a stranger, this time a woman, whose laughter at him directly contrasts the appearance of the beautiful woman in the fantasy.
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Though Mitty is already near a grocery store, he is embarrassed by the woman’s laughter and goes out of his way to a smaller store further up the street. As he speaks to the clerk, requesting “some biscuit for small, young dogs,” he continues to think of himself as “the greatest pistol shot in the world.”
Mitty’s embarrassment leads him to hide by going to a smaller store, and also to change his language. Buying puppy biscuit is an amusingly benign activity for a daring and dangerous hero, and the overlap of Mitty’s realities again suggests a kind of domestication or neutralization of Mitty’s would-be manhood.
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Mitty makes sure to arrive first at the hotel where he will meet Mrs. Mitty after her hairstyling appointment, because she doesn’t like to get there before him. While he’s waiting at the hotel, he sees a magazine headline about whether Germany’s air force can conquer the world and imagines himself as Captain Mitty, a British fighter pilot.
Mitty’s choice to sink down in a chair that faces the window is part of his tendency to conceal himself (his wife will later complain about it). His sense of duty in obeying his wife’s not-always-reasonable commands can be compared to the dutiful behavior of the pilot.
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Mitty’s copilot is unable to fly, and so Mitty volunteers to fly alone. A young, deferential sergeant describes the danger of the mission and advises Mitty not to go.
However, when the pilot follows his sense of duty, it’s an example of his strength of character and bravery in ignoring the sergeant’s more cautious advice.
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With bombs falling and machine guns, cannons, and flamethrowers firing nearby, Mitty drinks several shots of brandy (to the sergeant’s admiration) and speaks carelessly about the possibility of death.
The hyperbolic violence of the war zone is a funny contrast to Mitty’s supremely calm demeanor. In the fantasy, his ability to contain and conceal both his feelings and his liquor is part of what proves him a hero.
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Just as Captain Mitty is leaving the dugout to get into the plane, Mrs. Mitty arrives at the hotel and scolds her husband for sitting in a hard-to-find spot and for not putting on his overshoes yet. In a rare moment of defending himself, Mitty asks, “Does it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking?” Mrs. Mitty says she will take his temperature once she gets him home.
Once again, Mrs. Mitty dismisses Walter’s individuality by suggesting that his inner life is only a medical problem—another way he remains concealed from her. Her phrasing “when I get you home” also detracts from his sense of agency and control.
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When Walter Mitty and Mrs. Mitty leave the hotel, the revolving doors make “a faintly derisive whistling sound.” On the way back to the car, Mrs. Mitty asks her husband to wait while she buys something at a drugstore. As rain and sleet begin to fall, Mitty lights a cigarette, stands against the wall, and imagines he is standing before a firing squad.
Mitty perceives his whole environment as critical of him, though it is also noteworthy that a revolving door – which you can’t burst through, like you can with a normal door – is a sort of domesticating invention. The rain and sleet add to the gloominess of the setting and link back to the description of the Commander in the opening scene. They also present Mrs. Mitty as inconsiderate, since her concern about Mitty’s health doesn’t prevent her from keeping him waiting in the cold.
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Scornfully saying, “To hell with the handkerchief,” Mitty bravely and proudly faces his imaginary death, describing himself as “Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.”
Mitty’s refusal to conceal his face shows both his bravery and his lack of shame. However, his true self remains concealed, both in real life and in the fantasy. And note also the trajectory of the fantasies, as fantasy-Mitty has continued to maintain a cool, calm demeanor but has gone from leading his crew to escape death in the first fantasy to, here, facing certain death. While fantasy-Mitty remains a hero, the degree of his control over events has diminished, just as through the course of the day Mitty himself finds himself ever further under the control of his wife.
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