Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

"Things Close In": Dissolution and Misanthropy in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

"Things Close In": Dissolution and Misanthropy in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."

Article excerpt

"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is quite possibly the best known American short story. "Walter Mitty" as a character type has penetrated the popular imagination: we speak of a person inclined to day dreaming as a "Walter Mitty." Mitty, by consensus, represents the American little man, comfortably suburban, but bored to death with a middle-class, middlebrow life. Clearly his life is severely conventional, and it is obvious that Thurber is suggesting that American middle-class life offers little in the way of opportunities for romance, heroism, "a life full of passion, poetry, and hate," as a song written eight years before "Mitty", "As Time Goes By," puts it. The story has become folksy--Mitty is seen as endearing, the amiable little man, who dreams his dreams like all of us, and who triumphs in his dreams over the dull, gray world of suburban (and for that matter urban) America. The feature film made of the story in 1949 presents him thus; and two generations have seen him as a character rather like Dagwood Bumstead: the American middle-class everyman, presented to us with a wry but friendly smile.

But the story itself, and the story when set within the context of Thurber's life and career, can be read quite differently and, I think, in terms truer to Thurber's comic imagination. Mitty's rejection and withdrawal from the world are more radical than can be denoted by the idea of "daydreaming." In fact, we witness the descent of Mitty into ever increasing preoccupation with his fantasy life and increasing rejection of the so-called real world. His withdrawal is symptomatic not of mild-mannered exasperation with a trivial world, but of anger and misanthropy.

Although the story is charming, critics have not done justice to what lies below its surface laughter: clearly Mitty is gradually withdrawing into his daydreams, into an interior reality progressively stronger and more satisfying. The so-called real world becomes increasingly distant and unavailable for Mitty: "things close in." A note of unjustified critical optimism is found, for example, in the introduction to the story in a popular anthology of short stories: The editors suggest that Walter Mitty "is a changing character," in the process of change. In his own way, he is coming to grips with the real world."(1) This is misleading. Yes, Mitty is in the process of change, but it is to misanthropy, withdrawal, and final dissolution. Mitty's feelings of insignificance, his awareness of his own negligibility, his bitterness towards the world, lead him to covert aggression which must be expressed indirectly, or in a hidden manner.

Thurber himself made claims for the essential seriousness of his stories: "In anything funny you write that isn't close to serious you've missed something along the line."(2) The most powerful claim for the seriousness of Thurber's humor came from T. S. Eliot, who called Thurber his favorite humorist and said:

It is a form of humor which is also a way of saying something

serious. There is a criticism of life at the bottom of

it. It is serious and even somber. Unlike so much of humor,

it is not merely a criticism of manners--that is, of the

superficial aspects of society at a given moment--but something

more profound. His writings and also his illustrations

are capable of surviving the immediate environment

and time out of which they spring. To some extent, they

will be a document of the age they belong to.(3)

This is well illustrated in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," where the daydreams are seen not merely as momentary escapes from a dull reality into exciting fantasy, but also as an index to Mitty's anger, desperation, and willingness to escape permanently into the more satisfying dream world of his imagination. In his interview with George Plimpton and Max Steele, Thurber remarked that in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" he had "tried to treat the remarkable as commonplace. …

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