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.
Illness and Mortality Theme Icon

Mrs. Mitty is preoccupied with her husband’s health and possible illness (“You’re not a young man any longer,” she reminds him, insisting he put on the gloves and overshoes he doesn’t want to wear) and uses her concern to dismiss his feelings and assert control over his behavior. When she catches Mitty in the middle of a fantasy, she suggests he see the doctor, and when he asserts his right to be “sometimes thinking,” she declares she will take his temperature once she gets him home.

Mitty, whose age is part of his sense of weakness, resents these constant reminders of his mortality—in one fantasy scene, he is a surgeon who outperforms the very doctor his wife has told him to see. (The patient he saves is named Wellington, which also happens to be the name of a famous brand of rubber boots: not only is “Dr. Mitty” too healthy to need overshoes, but he can also restore overshoes themselves to health.) Yet, even so, death is always at the forefront of Mitty’s “secret life”: He defies death as a naval commander, stops death as a surgeon, deals death as a gunman, embraces the risk of death as a pilot, and finally, as a prisoner before a firing squad, dies courageously. This changing relationship to death in the fantasies—with death evolving from something he can control and overcome to something that he can only face defiantly as it comes for him—parallels Mitty’s initial resistance and ultimate resignation to his boring, unsatisfying life.

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Illness and Mortality ThemeTracker

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Illness and Mortality 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 Illness and Mortality.
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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“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 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.

“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.

“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.