The Secret Life of Walter Mitty


James Thurber

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on James Thurber's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of James Thurber

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 the magazine in 1930, continuing to publish with the magazine even after he moved to Connecticut in 1936. Thurber became one of the most well-known and beloved humorists in America, known best for the short stories and cartoons that were published primarily in The New Yorker and subsequently collected in numerous books. He was also the author of a play that was later made into a movie starring Henry Fonda. Thurber was twice married, the first to Althea Adams was troubled almost from its beginning in 1922 and ended in divorce in 1935; the second, to Helen Wismer, lasted from its beginning in 1935 until his death. Thurber died in 1961 at the age of 65, after pneumonia set in following emergency surgery on a blood clot in his brain.
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Historical Context of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

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 escapist genre fiction and films parodied in Walter Mitty’s fantasies, featuring dashing heroes like Errol Flynn in hypermasculine roles. 1939 marked the transition from this long period of anxiety into a more prosperous era, with the comfortable routines of middle-class consumer culture representing the new American Dream. Thurber makes a couple of specific allusions to local and world events: Mitty hears a newsboy on the street shouting about the Waterbury Trial of 1938, in which the mayor of Waterbury (also the lieutenant governor of Connecticut) and more than 20 other city officials were indicted for corruption and taxpayer fraud. It was the first such scandal in Connecticut history, and local residents were shocked to learn about their lawmakers’ corrupt “secret lives.” Mitty also picks up a magazine with the cover story “Can Germany Conquer the World Through the Air?” which refers to the growing power of the German military at the start of World War II in Europe—a situation that accounts both for the presence of war on Mitty’s mind and for anxieties about strength from America as a whole.

Other Books Related to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

“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 the dramatic cultural and physical differences in America in the hundred and twenty years between the publication of these stories. Everyman characters like Mitty are also common throughout mid-twentieth-century literature in works such as John Updike’s Rabbit, Run (1960).
Key Facts about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
  • Full Title: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
  • When Written: 1939
  • Where Written: Connecticut
  • When Published: March 18, 1939, in The New Yorker; collected in My World—and Welcome To It (1942)
  • Literary Period: Modernism
  • Genre: Short Story/Humor
  • Setting: Waterbury, Connecticut, around the winter of 1938-1939
  • Climax: Walter Mitty stands before the firing squad in his fantasy
  • Antagonist: Mrs. Mitty
  • Point of View: Close third person

Extra Credit for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Eighth-Grade Prophecy. 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 James Thurber saves the day._

Writing Methods. When he first arrived in New York in 1926, Thurber spent many hours painstakingly perfecting and polishing stories and humor pieces to submit to The New Yorker and other magazines, but his submissions were always rejected. He sold his first piece to the New Yorker after his wife, Althea Adams Thurber, advised him to set an alarm clock for forty-five minutes and submit whatever he had when it rang.