Dynamist Blog

"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty:" A Classic of Comic Glamour

The New Yorker has put online James Thurber's classic 1939 short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," once a favorite of elementary and middle-school literature anthologies but now largely unknown by younger people. In an earlier draft of The Power of Glamour, I included the following passage about the story, which is all about the protagonist's glamorous, but ridiculous, daydreams.

Just as a single glamorous object may evoke different desires, different objects may reflect the same underlying yearning, as illustrated in the comic 1939 short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Author James Thurber contrasts a series of glamorous daydreams with the protagonist’s real life as an infantilized, bumbling husband. The story opens with a scene pieced together from movie clichés. Though technically ridiculous, its dialogue makes emotional sense. We meet Mitty as the brave and competent commander, respected and obeyed by his crew.

“We’re going through!” The Commander’s voice was like thin ice breaking. He wore his full-dress uniform, with the heavily braided white cap pulled down rakishly over one cold gray eye. “We can’t make it, sir. It’s spoiling for a hurricane, if you ask me.” “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!” The pounding of the cylinders increased: ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa- pocketa-pocketa. The Commander stared at the ice forming on the pilot window. He walked over and twisted a row of complicated dials. “Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!” he shouted. “Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!” repeated Lieutenant Berg. “Full strength in No. 3 turret!” shouted the Commander. “Full strength in No. 3 turret!” The crew, bending to their various tasks in the huge, hurtling eight-engined Navy hydroplane, looked at each other and grinned. “The old man will get us through” they said to one another. “The Old Man ain’t afraid of Hell!”. . .
Suddenly Mitty’s real life breaks the reverie, as Mrs. Mitty berates her husband for driving too fast, then nags him to buy overshoes and wear his gloves. Over the course of the afternoon Mitty imagines himself as a series of glamorous masculine archetypes, with each daydream broken by some mundane, ego-deflating interruption. He’s a world-renowned surgeon operating on a millionaire banker and able, in mid-surgery, to repair a broken anesthetizer with a fountain pen. He’s a crack shot on trial for murder, shocking the court by destroying his own alibi—an injured right arm—when he declares, “With any known make of gun, I could have killed Gregory Fitzhurst at three hundred feet with my left hand.” He’s a gallant British aviator, taking his bomber up over Germany against impossible odds. Finally, he becomes a spy being led to his execution: “erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.” None of these scenes has a coherent plot. They are all glamorous snapshots, portraits of yearning fulfilled. And all reveal the same longing—for competence and respect. Each allows Mitty to escape a reality in which he is constantly reminded of his failings: “He was always getting something wrong.”
As varied as these daydreams are, however, they not only express the same underlying desire but do so in a relatively narrow way. They are all masculine, and several of them are martial, not surprising in a story published in 1939. We could imagine many more archetypes with the potential to express the same longings—and to be punctured with the same glamour-deflating humor. In another era, a similar character might picture himself a sports star winning the championship with a well-placed shot, a scientist rushing to intercept an Earth-destroying asteroid, or a CEO doing multi-billion–dollar deals from his private jet. The desire for competence and respect could express itself in daydreams of Martha Stewart–style domestic perfection or in that common fantasy, the Oscar acceptance speech. Depending on their personalities, and cultural contexts, different people will respond to different glamorous objects reflecting the same desire.

The passage made the chapter drag too much, but I do like the example and am glad The New Yorker (and the new movie) have given me an excuse to share it. Go read the story now.

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