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.
Public Image and Embarrassment Theme Icon

Walter Mitty is very anxious about how others perceive him: for instance, he is so fearful of the young garagemen’s judgment that he plans to wear an unnecessary sling on his arm to avoid it, and he finds even the revolving doors of the hotel “faintly derisive.” Most other characters, from Mrs. Mitty to the traffic cop to the woman who laughs at him for saying “puppy biscuit” aloud on the street, interact with Mitty only to criticize him, and he is frequently startled and flustered when their comments interrupt his fantasies. In contrast, his fantasies tend to include crowds of onlookers who marvel at his skill and bravery—such as the crew members who trust that “The Old Man’ll get us through!” or the expert surgeons who look to him for help—and always present him as calm and collected in high-pressure situations. When his fantasy puts him on trial for his life, literalizing his sense of being judged by the parking garage attendant, Mitty undermines his own defense. Ironically, this repeats his real-life pattern of behavior (like forgetting to take his keys out of the car for the attendant), but it also shows his desire to be someone who does not fear public judgment.

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Public Image and Embarrassment 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 Public Image and Embarrassment.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Quotes

“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.


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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 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.

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.