The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

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Car Symbol Icon
The real-life Walter Mitty’s masculinity—or lack of it—is most often demonstrated through his interactions with his car. Fast cars are commonly associated with sex and virility, but Mrs. Mitty won’t allow her husband to go fast. Just as her demands control his schedule while they are in town, she controls the car even when he is the one behind the wheel. Mitty’s skill with the car when he’s on his own is questionable, however. He gets the tire chains wound around the axles, hesitates too long at a traffic light, and struggles to get it into the right place at the parking lot, requiring younger, more capable men—of whom Mitty is deeply resentful—to handle the car for him. His display of masculine power is limited to racing the engine as an ineffectual rebuttal to Mrs. Mitty’s nagging—just as his heroism is limited to fantasies that go nowhere in real life.

Car Quotes in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The The Secret Life of Walter Mitty quotes below all refer to the symbol of Car. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Heroism and Masculinity Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Perennial Classics edition of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty published in 1999.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Quotes

“Not so fast! You’re driving too fast!” said Mrs. Mitty. “What are you driving so fast for?”

Related Characters: Mrs. Mitty (speaker), Walter Mitty
Related Symbols: Car
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we discover the truth about what we've just been reading. The "Commander" is indeed an imaginary character--a manifestation of Walter Mitty's imagination. In real life, Walter is driving a car, and his irritable wife is telling him to slow down. The passage describes the basic relationship between Walter and Mrs. Mitty: Walter is meek and submissive to his wife, and his wife often yells at him and tries to control his behavior. Both characters are like caricatures of the meek man and the nagging wife, so it makes sense that Walter slips so easy into other caricatures, like those of his almost farcically confident and masculine imaginary alter-egos.

The passage also explains why Walter imagines his elaborate fantasies. Instead of lashing out at his wife or changing his behavior, Walter takes refuge in his imagination--like a child, he uses his fantasies to "get back" at other people (i.e., Mrs. Mitty) without actually confronting them. In real life, Walter slows down the car, but in his fantasy, he goes "full speed ahead."

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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.

Related Characters: Walter Mitty
Related Symbols: Car
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

Walter slowly returns to reality, but his imagination continues to overlap with that reality. He's been fantasizing (hallucinating?) about being a military commander, but his wife's nagging temporarily snaps him out of it. Interestingly, it then takes Walter a while to forget his fantasy and focus on what's in front of him (the road, since he's driving!).

The passage reinforces the strength and vividness of Walter Mitty's fantasies--when he's fantasizing, his visions are so clear that he forgets where he is and what he's doing. Even after he's "woken up," it takes Walter some time (a decent chunk of this short story) to drift back to consciousness, and his fantasies and real-life actions continue to overlap (at least here he's driving something in both his imagination and in reality).

“Remember to get those overshoes while I’m having my hair done,” she said. “I don’t need overshoes,” said Mitty. She put her mirror back into her bag. “We’ve been all through that,” she said, getting out of the car. “You’re not a young man any longer.” He raced the engine a little.

Related Characters: Mrs. Mitty (speaker), Walter Mitty
Related Symbols: Car, Gloves, Overshoes, Sling, and Handkerchief
Page Number: 55-56
Explanation and Analysis:

As Walter drops off his wife, she orders him to buy some overshoes for himself. Walter claims that he doesn't need overshoes (basically boots designed to protect regular shoes in cold, wet weather), but his wife shoots him down.

The passage further establishes the humorous, caricatural dynamic between Walter and Mrs. Mitty. Walter is a weak, weak-willed man, but he likes to believe that he's strong and masculine (he doesn't need special shoes). Mrs. Mitty emasculates Walter by emphasizing his fragility and weakness. In response, Walter offers a tiny bit of real-life rebellion—he "races the engine a little." This pathetic self-affirmation is then contrasted with Walter's supremely confident, assertive alter-egos in his fantasies.

The attendant vaulted into the car, backed it up with insolent skill, and put it where it belonged.

Related Characters: Parking-Lot Attendant and Grinning Garagemen
Related Symbols: Car
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

Mitty has again been thrust back into reality. While he's been fantasizing about his own skill with nonsensical medical machines, Walter has bungled his parking job. A young attendant (not much older than a teenager) has to take Walter's place and drive Walter's car into the correct parking space. Thurber describes the attendant as driving with "insolent skill," emphasizing Walter's humiliation: Walter's been dreaming about operating complicated machines, but clearly doesn't even know how to handle a fairly basic one, his car.

The passage subtly emphasizes the divide between Walter and other men. Cars are a classic American symbol of masculinity: to be a good driver or able to work with cars is to be cool, courageous, rugged, and generally a paragon of male virtue. Walter's age and clumsiness make him bad at driving and, implicitly, a lesser man--unlike the confident, "insolent" attendant described here.

The next time, he thought, I’ll wear my right arm in a sling; they won’t grin at me then. I’ll have my right arm in a sling and they’ll see I couldn’t possibly take the chains off myself.

Related Characters: Walter Mitty (speaker), Parking-Lot Attendant and Grinning Garagemen
Related Symbols: Car, Gloves, Overshoes, Sling, and Handkerchief
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

Walter Mitty has a hard time with cars. He's tried to remove the chains from his tires before, and bungled the job--as a result, Mrs. Mitty forces him to go to the garage whenever he wants to remove the chains. Mitty resents having to rely on other people to take care of his car, as he knows that being able to take care of one's car is a sign of power and masculinity -- and the garage workers seem to know it to, as they "grin" at him when he takes his car in.

But because Walter knows he can never prove himself to other men through skill or confidence, he tries another tactic. Instead of trying to elicit wonder from other people, he tries to elicit sympathy by placing his arm in a sling. Notice, though, that Walter doesn't actually place his arm in the sling: even here, he relies on fantasy and imagination to solve his problems.

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Car Symbol Timeline in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The timeline below shows where the symbol Car appears in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Heroism and Masculinity Theme Icon
The Overlap of Fantasy and Reality Theme Icon
Humor Theme Icon
...commander was part of a fantasy Walter Mitty has been having as he drives his car. (full context)
Heroism and Masculinity Theme Icon
Illness and Mortality Theme Icon
Humor Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Heroism and Masculinity Theme Icon
Public Image and Embarrassment Theme Icon
The Overlap of Fantasy and Reality Theme Icon
...lane. Dazed, he tries to correct his mistake, but the attendant takes over, re-parking the car “with insolent skill.” (full context)
Heroism and Masculinity Theme Icon
Public Image and Embarrassment Theme Icon
...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,... (full context)
Heroism and Masculinity Theme Icon
Illness and Mortality Theme Icon
Public Image and Embarrassment Theme Icon
The Overlap of Fantasy and Reality Theme Icon
...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... (full context)