The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

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Themes and Colors
Heroism and Masculinity Theme Icon
Illness and Mortality Theme Icon
Public Image and Embarrassment Theme Icon
The Overlap of Fantasy and Reality Theme Icon
Concealment Theme Icon
Humor Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Humor Theme Icon

One of the most striking characteristics of Walter Mitty’s fantasies is their silliness. The fantasies may be heroic, but only melodramatically, cartoonishly so; from the fountain pen Mitty uses to replace a piston to the beautiful woman who materializes in his arms, they contain events and elements that couldn’t possibly happen in reality, and read like exaggerated parodies of action movies or adventure stories. Like a child playing pretend, Mitty makes a pocketa-pocketa-pocketa sound effect for machines from airships to flamethrowers, and his vision of the machines is hazy beyond “complicated” dials and wires. His characters shout out nonsensical jargon: “Coreopsis is setting in,” says the imaginary Dr. Renshaw, giving the surgical patient’s condition the name of a daisylike flower. In some ways, Thurber’s humor undermines Mitty even further; he is so pathetically far from having the skills he dreams of excelling in that his fantasies don’t even make sense. Yet the real Mitty is also capable of wordplay—“toothbrush, bicarbonate, carborundum, initiative and referendum?” he muses at one point, free-associating with the items on his shopping list—and his real life can be darkly ridiculous too (“Don’t tell me you forgot the what’s-it’s-name,” Mrs. Mitty will often say). For that matter, Mitty and his wife are such cartoons of the proverbial henpecked husband and nagging wife that their real selves are hardly more dimensional than the characters Mitty imagines, which means that a less tongue-in-cheek rendition of his macho fantasies could come off as self-pitying or misogynistic. Mitty’s secret life is what gives him depth—and the lighthearted, humorous tone of his fantasies is what makes both sides of his character sympathetic.

Humor ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Humor appears in each chapter of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Humor 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 Humor.
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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“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.

A huge, complicated machine, connected to the operating table, with many tubes and wires, began at this moment to go pocketa-pocketa-pocketa.

Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

Walter here begins his second fantasy, about a complicated surgery he's monitoring. The fantasy begins with a free-association between Walter's reality--i.e., driving the car--and his fantasy (the surgery). Walter's impressions of the machine he's driving "dissolve" into a description of a "huge, complicated machine" used to monitor medical patients.

The passage is hilarious in the way it emphasizes Walter's childishness, and the farcical nature of his fantasies. Walter has never been anywhere near medical school; he has no idea how medical devices work, or what kind of techniques would be used in a hospital. In making even Walter's fantasies ridiculous, Thurber not only pokes fun at Walter, but also at escapist fictions that actually resemble such 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.

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.

“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.