As Walter Mitty ferries his wife to her hairdresser’s and then buys some overshoes, he falls into fantasies that cast him in heroic and traditionally masculine roles: a naval commander, an expert pistol shot, a daring surgeon, a fighter pilot. He is admired for macho qualities like strength, bravery, aggression, lack of emotion, and holding his liquor, and is easily able to dominate the all-male social groups where his imagination makes him a leader. In real life, however, he shrinks from conflict and feels ridiculed by both men and women. His car, and his limited ability to control it—the fact that his wife limits the speed and that the garagemen must park it and work on it for him—symbolizes his sense of not being manly enough. In his unhappy marriage, Mrs. Mitty is the dominating personality, a balance of power that conflicts with traditional gender expectations and places him in the historically ridiculed position of the “henpecked husband.” Mrs. Mitty’s constant nagging and bossy behavior mark her as stereotypically unfeminine and unappealing, as well as insensitive. In contrast, the two women briefly featured in the fantasies, a “pretty nurse” and “a lovely dark-haired girl” who appears suddenly in Mitty’s arms, are defined by their looks and serve mainly as props to help Mitty exercise his heroics.
While the Mittys’ relationship dynamic helps to characterize them as individuals, it can also be seen as a comment on how suburban life and consumer culture minimize traditional masculinity. The story takes place on one of the couple’s weekly trips to town for shopping and Mrs. Mitty’s hair appointment—trips that Mitty hates because he is “always getting something wrong” on the shopping list and being scolded by Mrs. Mitty. In this way, while Mitty can fantasize about commanding masculine roles, his real circumstances place him—and the modern man he represents—in service to “feminine” concerns like appearance and household care. With doctors and garagemen around to take care of him, he has no opportunity nor any need to carry out heroic actions. And with traffic lights and parking garages governing his movements and Mrs. Mitty expecting him to drive her home, he has nowhere to escape but his imagination.
Heroism and Masculinity ThemeTracker
Heroism and Masculinity Quotes in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
“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!”
“Not so fast! You’re driving too fast!” said Mrs. Mitty. “What are you driving so fast for?”
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.
“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.
“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.
The attendant vaulted into the car, backed it up with insolent skill, and put it where it belonged.
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.
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.”
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.”
“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.
“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.
“It’s forty kilometers through hell, sir,” said the sergeant. Mitty finished one last brandy. “After all,” he said softly, “what isn’t?”
“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.
They went out through the revolving doors that made a faintly derisive whistling sound when you pushed them.
“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.