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Author: Sue Monk Kidd James Thurber
Brief Author Bio: Sue Monk Kidd grew up in Georgia, where she was raised to be a devout Christian, and she studied nursing at Texas Christian University. In her late 20s, she was inspired to become a writer after reading the books of… more James Thurber was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1894. After attending The Ohio State University and moving to New York in 1925, Thurber became an editor at The New Yorker magazine in 1927. He first published his own work in… more
Historical Context: The most important historical event to which Kidd’s novel alludes is the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a monumental piece of legislation that protected the rights of African-Americans to enter public places, enroll in schools, and avoid… more The Great Depression of the 1930s gave American men a widespread sense of impotence and failure as economic forces beyond their control left them unemployed and unable to provide for their families. For relief, Americans turned to the kind of… more
Where Written: Georgia, South Carolina Connecticut
When Published: November 8, 2001 March 18, 1939, in The New Yorker; collected in My World—and Welcome To It (1942)
Literary Period: Third-wave feminism fiction Modernism
Genre: Coming-of-age story (Bildungsroman), historical fiction Short Story/Humor
Setting: Sylvan, South Carolina, 1964 Waterbury, Connecticut, around the winter of 1938-1939
Climax: August Boatwright reveals that she knew Lily’s mother Walter Mitty stands before the firing squad in his fantasy
Antagonist: T. Ray Owens / racism in America Mrs. Mitty
Point Of View: First person (Lily Owens) Close third person
Plot Summary At the end of 1964, a 14-year-old white girl named Lily Owens thinks back on the eventful summer she’s had. The narrative then jumps back to the start of the summer. Lily lives with her father, a cruel man named T. Ray Owens, in the town of Sylvan, South Carolina. Lily has vivid memories of the death of her mother, Deborah Fontanel Owens: when Lily was 4 years old, she remembers her mother packing a suitcase and arguing with her father. The next part of her memory is blurry, but she recalls... A naval commander is captaining a “huge, hurtling, eight-engined Navy hydroplane” through a terrible storm. Though his lieutenant fears he can’t make it, the Commander insists on full speed ahead, and the admiring crew expresses its faith in his abilities. Suddenly, Mrs. Mitty calls out a warning not to drive so fast, and it is revealed that the naval commander was part of a fantasy Walter Mitty has been having as he drives his car. As Mitty’s fantasy fades, Mrs. Mitty suggests that he see...
Major Characters: Lily Owens, August Boatwright, Rosaleen, Deborah Fontanel Owens, T. Ray Owens, May Boatwright, Zachary Taylor / Zach, June Boatwright Walter Mitty, Mrs. Mitty, Parking-Lot Attendant and Grinning Garagemen
Minor Characters: April Boatwright, Clayton Forrest, Mrs. Henry, Brother Gerald, Avery Gaston, Franklin Posey, Neil, Willifred Marchant, Jack Palance, Eddie Hazelwurst, Aristaeus, Becca, Jackson, Sugar Girl, Obadiah, Lyndon B. Johnson Lieutenant Berg, Dr. Renshaw, Wellington McMillan, Dr. Benbow, Dr. Remington, Dr. Pritchard-Mitford, Gregory Fitzhurst, Sergeant, Young Raleigh
Related Literary Works: The Secret Life of Bees specifically mentions many literary works, including Jane Eyre (which, like Kidd’s novel, is about a runaway girl looking for surrogate parents). In addition, the plot of the novel resembles that of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn more “Rip Van Winkle” by Washington Irving (1819) is a much earlier example of a short story about a henpecked husband trying to escape from his wife, though his escapes into nature and fantasy are literal rather than imaginary, testifying to… more
Extra Credit: In 2008, The Secret Life of Bees was adapted for the big screen. The film, which starred Queen Latifah and Dakota Fanning, was a modest box-office success, but didn’t get particularly good reviews If you went to middle school or… more As an eighth-grader, Thurber was chosen to write the “class prophecy” for his graduating junior high school class. His prediction reads like one of Walter Mitty’s fantasies: the students go on an adventure in a “Seairoplane” and nearly crash before… more
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