The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

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The Overlap of Fantasy and Reality Theme Analysis

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.
The Overlap of Fantasy and Reality Theme Icon

While at first glance Walter Mitty’s dramatic “secret life” couldn’t be more different from his mundane, routine reality, there are connections between the two lives. A newsboy’s shout about an ongoing trial triggers Mitty’s courtroom fantasy, and reading about aerial warfare turns him into a fighter pilot. More broadly, the themes and events in the fantasies are directly linked to the frustrations Mitty feels in reality, particularly his sense of not being in control of his own life. Through his fantasies, Mitty can escape his wife’s nagging reminders to drive slowly and see the doctor; he can tear through hurricanes and firestorms against all advice to the contrary, demanding obedience from sailors and surgeons. His imagination can transform him from a man who struggles with tire chains to one who can fix an “anaesthetizer” with a ballpoint pen. However, a turning point comes when, at the point in the courtroom fantasy when Mitty would be condemned, the word “cur” reminds him that the real Mitty needs to buy puppy biscuit—though his imagination can offer a temporary escape, he remains imprisoned in reality.

As the story progresses, the fantasy life and reality life blend together more and more: When Mitty goes to the store to buy the puppy biscuit, he is still self-identifying as “the greatest pistol shot in the world” as he wonders what brand of biscuit to buy. Similarly, in the final scene, Thurber transitions into Mitty’s firing-squad fantasy without a paragraph break—a formal decision that shows just how much Mitty’s two lives overlap in his mind. This sense of overlap is important for Mitty’s character. He doesn’t just dream of the exciting life he might have had; it’s as if he truly lives the impossible adventures of his imagination, and this small but important distinction is what gives him at least a little bit of the strength and willpower he longs for. Mitty doesn’t have much control over his life, but he does control his own interior world—he can prove his own worth, escape the confinements of his world, and be any kind of hero he wants to be, if only in his mind.

The Overlap of Fantasy and Reality ThemeTracker

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The Overlap of Fantasy and Reality 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 The Overlap of Fantasy and Reality.
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."

He looked at his wife, in the seat beside him, with shocked astonishment. She seemed grossly unfamiliar, like a strange woman who had yelled at him in a crowd.

Related Characters: Walter Mitty, Mrs. Mitty
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

Walter has just awoken from a vivid fantasy, in which he's been playing the role of a military Commander. Walter is a little dazed: he barely recognizes his own wife, Mrs. Mitty, because his imaginations has been so vivid.

We already knew that Walter retreated into fantasy when Mrs. Mitty was bullying him. But here, it becomes clear that Walter's fantasy life is more than just a conscious defense mechanism--Walter's fantasies are so rich and so vivid that he forgets why he started fantasizing in the first place! In general, Walter is both a highly relatable character (who hasn't daydreamed to get away from reality?) and a farcical, humorous figure who disappears into his imagination to an almost unrealistic degree. In real life, this would also be somewhat disturbing--he seems to be hallucinating while he's driving a car.

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).

“Puppy biscuit,” said Walter Mitty. He stopped walking and the buildings of Waterbury rose up out of the misty courtroom and surrounded him again.

Related Characters: Walter Mitty
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

Thus far, Walter has often jumped into fantasy after receiving some real-world stimulus; for example, he began fantasizing about driving a huge plane while he was driving in the car. In this passage, however, the process works in reverse: Walter is in the middle of a fantasy, when he's suddenly reminded of the item he was supposed to buy at the store (puppy biscuits).

The passage uses a familiar comic device, bathos (the sudden shifting of tones--here, the dramatic to the trivial), emphasizing the humor and the way Walter's daydreams aren't quite as divorced from reality as he might like them to be--he can't ever escape for more than a few minutes at a time. Sooner or later, puppy biscuits pull him down to earth.

“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).

“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.

“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.