The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

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Heroism and Masculinity Theme Analysis

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As Walter Mitty ferries his wife to her hairdresser’s and then buys some overshoes, he falls into fantasies that cast him in heroic and traditionally masculine roles: a naval commander, an expert pistol shot, a daring surgeon, a fighter pilot. He is admired for macho qualities like strength, bravery, aggression, lack of emotion, and holding his liquor, and is easily able to dominate the all-male social groups where his imagination makes him a leader. In real life, however, he shrinks from conflict and feels ridiculed by both men and women. His car, and his limited ability to control it—the fact that his wife limits the speed and that the garagemen must park it and work on it for him—symbolizes his sense of not being manly enough. In his unhappy marriage, Mrs. Mitty is the dominating personality, a balance of power that conflicts with traditional gender expectations and places him in the historically ridiculed position of the “henpecked husband.” Mrs. Mitty’s constant nagging and bossy behavior mark her as stereotypically unfeminine and unappealing, as well as insensitive. In contrast, the two women briefly featured in the fantasies, a “pretty nurse” and “a lovely dark-haired girl” who appears suddenly in Mitty’s arms, are defined by their looks and serve mainly as props to help Mitty exercise his heroics.

While the Mittys’ relationship dynamic helps to characterize them as individuals, it can also be seen as a comment on how suburban life and consumer culture minimize traditional masculinity. The story takes place on one of the couple’s weekly trips to town for shopping and Mrs. Mitty’s hair appointment—trips that Mitty hates because he is “always getting something wrong” on the shopping list and being scolded by Mrs. Mitty. In this way, while Mitty can fantasize about commanding masculine roles, his real circumstances place him—and the modern man he represents—in service to “feminine” concerns like appearance and household care. With doctors and garagemen around to take care of him, he has no opportunity nor any need to carry out heroic actions. And with traffic lights and parking garages governing his movements and Mrs. Mitty expecting him to drive her home, he has nowhere to escape but his imagination.

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Heroism and Masculinity Quotes in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Below you will find the important quotes in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty related to the theme of Heroism and Masculinity.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Quotes

“I’m not asking you, Lieutenant Berg,” said the Commander. “Throw on the power lights! Rev her up to 8,500! We’re going through!”

Related Characters: Walter Mitty (speaker), Lieutenant Berg
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

As the story begins, we're introduced to a powerful, confidently macho character, the "Commander." The Commander is almost a parody of rugged masculinity--he's so cocky, so willful, so brave, etc., that he seems almost unreal.

As we'll quickly come to realize, the Commander is, in fact, unreal--he's just a projection of Walter Mitty's overactive imagination. Walter himself is a rather pathetic man, at least according to the standards of masculinity in American culture--so it's perhaps appropriate that when Walter imagines something, he fantasizes about being the most over-the-top masculine figure he could possibly be.

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“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."

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.

“I’ve read your book on streptothricosis,” said Pritchard-Mitford, shaking hands. “A brilliant performance, sir.” “Thank you,” said Walter Mitty. “Didn’t know you were in the States, Mitty,” grumbled Remington. “Coals to Newcastle, bringing Mitford and me up here for a tertiary.” “You are very kind,” said Mitty.

Related Characters: Walter Mitty (speaker), Dr. Remington (speaker), Dr. Pritchard-Mitford (speaker)
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

Walter Mitty's fantasy continues. He's stationed in the hospital, presiding over the medical procedures there. Mitty is a highly respected doctor in this fantasy, as evidenced by the way his colleagues, Remington and Pritchard-Mitford treat him.

The passage emphasizes Walter's lack of a strong male community: the fact that Walter fantasizes about getting approval from impressive male friends makes us pretty sure that he doesn't have many friends like this in real life. Furthermore, the passage humorously reinforces Walter's cluelessness about actual medical practices: the passage is full of nonsense phrases that sound like a layman's attempts to make sense of medical mumbo-jumbo.

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.

In a way he hated these weekly trips to town—he was always getting something wrong. Kleenex, he thought, Squibb’s, razor blades? No. Toothpaste, toothbrush, bicarbonate, carborundum, initiative and referendum? He gave it up. But she would remember it. “Where’s the what’s-its-name?” she would ask. “Don’t tell me you forgot the what’s its name.”

Related Characters: Walter Mitty, Mrs. Mitty
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Walter Mitty mourns his inability to remember what to buy at the store. Mrs. Mitty sends him on errands to the store to buy groceries, but Walter is so forgetful (his mind wanders, we've noticed!) that he always forgets a couple items. Mitty remembers the way his wife scorns his forgetfulness: she asks him if he's remembered the "what's its name." (Even in his memory, he can't remember the item.)

Again we see the overlap of reality and fantasy here, as Walter is trying to imagine Mrs. Mitty criticizing him. He's not acting as a masculine, confident hero in this fantasy, but as himself--and he's still making up fancy words and letting his imagination run wild. Walter isn't as pathetic as he seems, just his skills (his active imagination) don't seem very "useful" to the people around him.


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.

“I want some biscuit for small, young dogs,” he said to the clerk. “Any special brand, sir?” The greatest pistol shot in the world thought a moment. “It says ‘Puppies Bark for It’ on the box,” said Walter Mitty.

Related Characters: Walter Mitty (speaker)
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Walter goes to the store and asks the clerk for help buying dog biscuits. Even for this mundane task, Walter finds himself utterly incapable of doing things himself--he has to ask a clerk for help tracking down the appropriate brand of biscuit. He also seems unwilling to say the word "puppy," because he was just laughed at for saying it aloud--so instead he goes for the awkward "small, young dogs." At every stage in his life, Walter relies on other people--a sure sign of his emasculation. (The fact that he's doing the grocery shopping, a stereotypically feminine activity, further emphasizes this.)

Notice that Thurber refers to Walter as a great pistol shot, a sarcastic reference to Water's last fantasy, in which he casts himself as a dangerous shooter. Once again Walter's fantasy life and reality blend in a more intimate way. In his imagination, he never truly escapes reality (puppy biscuit), and in reality he never truly lets go of his fantasy (here he's the greatest pistol shot in the world).

“I never see a man could hold his brandy like you, sir,” said the sergeant. “Begging your pardon, sir.” Captain Mitty stood up and strapped on his huge Webley-Vickers automatic.

Related Characters: Walter Mitty (speaker), Sergeant (speaker)
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Walter begins his next vivid fantasy. In this one, Walter casts himself as a stern, stoic pilot, flying into great danger. Before he goes off (possibly to his death), "Captain Mitty" has a couple shots of brandy.

Being able to hold one's liquor is a classic sign of masculinity--"real men," it's said, can drink a lot and still be calm and cool. Walter is perfectly aware of how to appear masculine in real life--he just lacks the talent or physical prowess to do so. So he daydreams about seeming like a "big man"; an exaggerated form of fantasy is the best he can do.

“It’s forty kilometers through hell, sir,” said the sergeant. Mitty finished one last brandy. “After all,” he said softly, “what isn’t?”

Related Characters: Walter Mitty (speaker), Sergeant (speaker)
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:

Walter continues to fantasize about a world in which he's a fighter pilot flying into danger. Walter the captain drinks more brandy before he goes off to fly--drinking being a sure sign of sophistication and masculinity. Walter further reinforces his stoic masculinity (at least in the fantasy!) with his response that "40 kilometers through hell" seems like an experience he's familiar with.

Walter's pronouncement is basically nonsensical--he's trying to say that everything in life is a life-or-death struggle (which is just plain untrue). Walter's words sound like a cartoonish exaggeration of the rugged individualist who appears in your average Hemingway story, or the kind of character played by actors like Humphrey Bogart or Gary Cooper. In other words, Walter has seen enough movies and read enough books to know, more or less, how to sound like a "real man"--and in this way, Thurber lampoons these macho stories as well.

“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.

Related Characters: Walter Mitty (speaker), Mrs. Mitty (speaker)
Page Number: 60
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Walter Mitty comes close--as close as he ever gets in the story--to responding directly and asserting himself to his wife, Mrs. Mitty. Mrs. Mitty criticizes her husband for his constant daydreaming, and Walter mutters something about how he's "thinking." Walter knows that it's wrong to spend so much time immersed in fantasy, and wants to justify himself to his wife. But he lacks the courage or the confidence to stand up to Mrs. Mitty and go further with this statement. As a result, Mrs. Mitty further dismisses Walter's individuality and adulthood by suggesting that his behavior is just a medical problem.

Notice also that Mrs. Mitty says that she's going to "get" Walter home--despite the fact that Walter has been doing the driving throughout the story, Mrs. Mitty is clearly the one in control. By suggesting that Walter is sick, Mrs. Mitty implies that even Walter's meager attempt to stand up to her is just a "lapse" on his part. Her domination over Walter seems almost total.

They went out through the revolving doors that made a faintly derisive whistling sound when you pushed them.

Related Characters: Walter Mitty (speaker), Mrs. Mitty (speaker)
Page Number: 60
Explanation and Analysis:

In this cleverly detailed passage, Walter and his wife leave the building and prepare to return to their home. As they exit, they go through a revolving door.

Note that a revolving door makes a big, dramatic entrance impossible--you can't "burst" through a revolving door, as Walter the armchair adventurer would like to do. One could even say that revolving doors are another symbol of emasculation: in modern society, there are no opportunities for showing off one's masculinity and courage, as even walking through a door is a slow, shuffling process. Thurber underscores the pathetic nature of Walter's exit by describing the "derisive" sound of the revolving door--he's so anxious and unconfident that he imagines even the doors mocking him.

“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.