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James Thurber’s short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, introduces a man who creates his own fantasies in an attempt to escape the mediocrity and mundane aspects of life. The author presents historical aspects of the 1930s through Walter’s daydreaming, as well as through a number of literary devices. First, Thurber utilizes the hero archetype to show how people felt during the Great Depression, and what many of them wished for―strength and stability. Second, the setting of the story, Waterbury, Connecticut, alludes to the series of trials many politicians underwent. Finally, numerous references are made to World War II and the fear or determination many American citizens had considering the involvement of the U.S. After a thorough analysis of Thurber’s short story, The Secret of Walter Mitty, it can be said that the work exhibits a multitude of historical events that occurred in the 1930s, all of which are portrayed through the use of an archetype, setting, and allusions.
All throughout the story, Walter Mitty is portrayed as a very inept and absent-minded character, especially since he seems to be unable to handle simple tasks. Walter also shows he has a creative imagination, as he imagines commanding a Navy hydroplane through a storm in the opening sentences. This illustrates Walter’s suppressed feelings of confidence and his actual meek and passive personality. When Mrs. Mitty pulls him out of his reverie, she symbolically tells him to slow down, and sets a limit to the physical speed of the car, as well as his individuality and masculinity. This creates a humorous and “…ironic juxtaposition of the fantasy and the reality.” (LitCharts.com). Walter views his wife as “grossly unfamiliar,” which indicates the deterioration of his marital relationship. Mrs. Mitty suggests that Walter see Dr. Renshaw, again proving the fact that she is not close with her husband, especially since she does not realize that Walter requires psychological healing rather than physical.
In Walter’s second fantasy, he imagines himself as a highly respected medical specialist. Multiple doctors compliment him throughout the fantasy, which seems to suggest that Walter is mentally countering his own feelings of shame and inadequacy. He seems to be trying to boost his own self-esteem. Walter is then again snapped from his daydream as he drives into an exit-only lane. He remembers his inability to change his tire chains, which further indicates his emasculation and dependence on others.
Walter falls into another reverie, where he is being tried for murder. This represents Walter’s thinking that he is being judged by others. As commotion arises in the imaginary courtroom, a beautiful woman appears out of nowhere into Walter’s arms. The district attorney tries to attack her but Walter fights him off. This hints at Walter’s failing relationship with his wife, the deprivation of his manhood, and the absurdity of most heroic conventions. Walter suddenly remembers to buy dog biscuits, and says “puppy biscuits” aloud, which causes a woman to laugh at him. This interaction shows how he realistically socializes with women. His personality directly contrasts with his masculine and heroic persona in his fantasy.
Walter next waits at a hotel where he is expected to meet his wife. He drifts into yet another daydream where he is a highly courageous British fighter pilot. This again represents Walter’s concealed desires to have a more heroic and bold personality rather than his realistic demeanor of stoicism and placidity. When his wife arrives, she takes him home, still believing he is suffering from an illness. Before the couple reach the car, Mrs. Mitty decides to buy something at the drugstore. Walter stands in the rain and lights a cigarette as he delves into the final dream of the story. He imagines being in front of a firing squad, and proudly faces the imaginary death without the blindfold. The rain gives the end of the story a very gloomy aura, which is further developed by Mrs. Mitty’s inconsiderate attitude, as she leaves Walter outside in the cold, despite her concerns for his health. Walter’s imaginary death symbolizes his full emasculation and the point at which he entirely loses his independence and dignity.
A very prominent literary device Thurber incorporates into his work is his use of an archetype. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was published in 1939, which was near the end of the Great Depression. This was a time of uncertainty and anxiety for many people, as many faced extreme financial problems. During this period, people looked for hope, stability, and leadership. Walter reflected his desire for these attributes in his fantasies, which all involve himself, but as an extremely courageous and heroic person. The first reverie presents a Navy commander, which indicates a desire to have control, specifically in life. The second portrays a highly respected doctor, seemingly suggesting how people in the Great Depression wanted America to be admired again. All of Walter’s dreams convey the hero archetype―something people wished for during the ‘30s. This point is proven in an article on the context of this story. “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.” (LitCharts.com).
Another way Thurber illustrates historical context is through setting. The story takes place in Waterbury, Connecticut, during the year 1939. This is significant as the location is the site of the Waterbury Trial of 1938. This event involved the trials of the mayor of Waterbury, the lieutenant governor of Connecticut, and approximately 20 other city officials. These politicians were indicted for corruption and taxpayer fraud, which surprised many citizens, as this was the first scandal in Connecticut history. Although the story did not reveal the state, it did mention the city of Waterbury, so it can be assumed that the setting involved Connecticut, especially since a newsboy in the story yelled about the Waterbury Trial. Another article analyzing the setting agreed upon this. “Waterbury is a pretty big city in Connecticut. Though Thurber never mentions the state, just the city, we can take a pretty solid guess that he’s talking about the only major Waterbury close to the Tri-state area. Also, a newsboy goes by shouting about the Waterbury Trial, which pretty definitively refers to the Waterbury Trial of 1938, which took place in CT.” (Shmoop.com).
The final historical event referenced in Thurber’s piece is World War II. He does this by directly alluding to it. Near the end of the story, Walter picks up a magazine entitled, “Can Germany Conquer The World Through The Air?” This refers to the growing power of the German military in Europe at the beginning of World War II. The title of the magazine also relates to the growing anxieties many American citizens and government officials had about Germany and the possibility of another world war. The reverie Walter engages in after this not only embodies his feelings for expressing masculinity and power, but also represents the feelings of most citizens who wanted America to be involved in World War II, again, in order to express nationalistic dominance. Finally, in another review of the context of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, this argument is elaborated upon. “While Walter Mitty, a middle-aged man, dreams of being a captain in the First World War, the dream is triggered by his reading an article intimating World War II in Liberty magazine…The articles contain ‘pictures of bombing planes and of ruined streets.’ In the late 1930s and early 1940s, American men like Walter Mitty had to confront their fears of and desires for proving their manhood in battle.” (Encyclopedia.com).
Conclusively, one could conjecture that Thurber beautifully and skillfully presents historical events in his short work, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The many fantasies Walter imagines exemplifies his feelings for being more confident, respected, and masculine, as many American citizens wanted their country to be after the Great Depression. The setting refers to the Waterbury Trial of 1938, as it is speculated to have occurred in the story at the described location. Finally, the direct allusions to World War II communicated the fear and even desire some American people had about the involvement of the U.S. in said conflict. James Thurber’s piece, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, conveys the condition of the U.S. and its citizens in the 1930s through multiple literary devices, such as the use of a clichéd archetype, direct allusions, and an allegorical setting.