The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

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Gloves, Overshoes, Sling, and Handkerchief Symbol Analysis

Gloves, Overshoes, Sling, and Handkerchief Symbol Icon
These covering garments symbolize the fearful, shame-based self-concealment that characterizes Walter Mitty’s everyday life. Since Mrs. Mitty insists that he wear the gloves and overshoes to protect his health now that he’s “not a young man any longer,” they act as badges of physical weakness, and also, arguably, of a paranoia against the weather to match Mitty’s paranoia of strangers’ judgment. While he puts up a halfhearted resistance to wearing them—his “I don’t need overshoes” is as mild and easily overruled as his later comment, “Does it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking?”—he quickly gives in, and not only in obedience to his wife. In one telling moment, he takes off the gloves as soon as Mrs. Mitty leaves him alone, but guiltily pulls them on again when a cop scolds him for lingering at a traffic light, as if by taking off the gloves he has exposed himself to public judgment. The sling he imagines wearing to deceive the garagemen works the same way, proclaiming physical unfitness and thereby shielding Mitty from expectations he can’t meet. In his fantasies, however, Mitty is strong and brave and has no need for concealment: he declines to use the sling as an alibi when he is a crack shot on trial for murder, and he rejects the handkerchief over his face as he stands before the firing squad, fearlessly refusing to hide his face from the executioners.

Gloves, Overshoes, Sling, and Handkerchief Quotes in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The The Secret Life of Walter Mitty quotes below all refer to the symbol of Gloves, Overshoes, Sling, and Handkerchief. 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

“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.

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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.

Walter Mitty raised his hand briefly and the bickering attorneys were stilled. “With any known make of gun,” he said evenly, “I could have killed Gregory Fitzhurst at three hundred feet with my left hand.”

Related Characters: Walter Mitty, Gregory Fitzhurst
Related Symbols: Gloves, Overshoes, Sling, and Handkerchief
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we enter Walter's third fantasy. Notice how each fantasy gets a little more pessimistic than the one before: at first, Walter was a calm, courageous commander, but here, he's on trial for his life. Walter imagines himself being accused of murder. Instead of denying the crime, Walter calmly boasts of his ability to kill any man, even with his arm in a sling.

The passage is interested because it suggests the way Walter is at odds with himself. Walter wants to wear his arm in a sling in order to draw pity from others, but he also wants to be perceived as strong and dangerous, as he makes very clear here (and in his fantasy, then, the sling becomes a sign of heroism, not feebleness). Walter doesn't know what he wants: he's both narcissistic and rather masochistic. Perhaps more than anything else, he just wants to be taken seriously, whether for his heroism, his intelligence, his competence, or his dangerousness.

“To hell with the handkerchief,” said Walter Mitty scornfully. He took one last drag on his cigarette and snapped it away. Then, with that faint, fleeting smile playing about his lips, he faced the firing squad; erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.

Related Characters: Walter Mitty (speaker)
Related Symbols: Gloves, Overshoes, Sling, and Handkerchief
Page Number: 60
Explanation and Analysis:

In Walter's last and grimmest fantasy, he's being executed before a firing squad--a symbol of the way his wife has lashed out at him for daring to express his own individuality. Even in his daydreams, he's about to die--although still in a macho, confident way.

Why does Walter dream about being shot? Perhaps Thurber wants to suggest that Walter's emasculation is partly Walter's own fault: on some level, he seems to enjoy the way his wife needles him. In another sense, Walter's fantasy shows how pathetic his life has become: even to be executed with dignity is a vacation from the mundanity of his everyday existence. In his fantasy, Walter bravely shows his face to the firing squad, eschewing the customary handkerchief that's given to prisoners before they're shot. Walter wants to assert his bravery and freedom, but he's not really brave enough to do so in the real world.

And yet there's a slightly poetic turn at the end of this passage: "inscrutable to the last." Part of Walter's core self is his vivid imagination, and his concealment of that imagination from all other people. He is inscrutable to the outside world, or certainly to his wife, and so despite his seemingly mundane and pathetic existence, his "secret life"  and its "inscrutability" make him in a way a romantic, if tragic, figure.

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Gloves, Overshoes, Sling, and Handkerchief Symbol Timeline in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The timeline below shows where the symbol Gloves, Overshoes, Sling, and Handkerchief 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
Illness and Mortality Theme Icon
Humor Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Public Image and Embarrassment Theme Icon
Concealment Theme Icon
Mitty puts on his gloves when his wife asks why he isn’t wearing them, but takes them off as soon... (full context)
Illness and Mortality Theme Icon
Public Image and Embarrassment Theme Icon
Concealment Theme Icon
...him. He kicks resentfully at the slush on the sidewalk, which reminds him to buy overshoes. (full context)