Comparable yet Dissimilar
Marriage is a legal commitment under which a man and a woman establish their decision to live as husband and wife. (Dictionary.com) Marriages become complicated situations and are never perfect no matter whatever circumstances arise. This can be seen in the marriages presented in the short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber and in the play “I’m Going” by Tristan Bernard. Both, the story and the play portray married couples in two different ways. In one the wife is shown as the dominating member of the two and in the other the husband is dictating. These two stories show how things change from decade to decade, in ‘I’m Going’ a woman is treated as if she is the husband’s property who can treat her in any way he wanted, however, in ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ the woman has equal rights as men yet she controls her spouse. The themes of both well known literary pieces of art revolve around married couples and their attitudes towards each other but the story and the play are very much alike yet many a times different at many points.
The story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is about a middle aged man who daydreams about such events that he visualizes being a part of. He lives in a world of fantasies and heroism, to escape from his routine life as a husband of an outspoken wife, and a middle class man. His inferiority complex of being part of the middle class society leads him to imagine being someone successful, brave and tough. As stated in the story he dreams initially of being a brave Commander on whom all his company has complete faith, “The Old Man’ll get us through”. (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, para. 1) Secondly he dreams of being a successful surgeon who is the main doctor of the hospital and everyone turns to him for help, in the case of a millionaire the surgeon says, “If you would take over Mitty.” (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, para. 5) In another incident he dreams of being in the witness stand and recognizing his gun which he used to kill another person, as said by him, “I could have killed Gregory Fitzhurst at three hundred feet with my left hand.” (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, para. 9) Moreover, he finds himself as a pilot in a bombing squad who is going on a mission with his crew and was brave enough to go alone towards the enemy, as quoted, “I’ll fly alone.” “Somebody’s got to get the ammunition dump.” (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, para. 12) Finally, in the end also he dreams of being a victim of a firing squad as narrated in the story by Thurber, ‘he faced the firing squad, erect and motionless, proud and disdainful’. (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, para. 14) Thurber also describes Walter as a phobic man, who is overshadowed by his wife, unable to repair his own car, and so dwells in his imaginations becoming an archetypical stature of the scholarly, cowardly, clumsy man in American culture. (as cited in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: enotes, 2002, p. 3)
Unlike Thurber’s short story, the play “I’m Going’ by Bernard is a French drama and an act of comedy play with ten pages. It has a realistic approach which happens with many couples belonging to any culture. The play starts with a friendly and loving discussion, but lands up with a disagreement of a husband and wife, where the wife compromises so as to end the disagreement. This is a typical situation of the wives before the 20th century, who used to give up before their husbands and fulfilled their husband’s will whether willingly or unwillingly, she had to accept the husband’s way of life.
‘I’m Going’ has an outstanding theme of humor where the husband and wife are engaged in a humorous argument. The married couple discusses how to spend their Sunday in a very pleasant atmosphere. Henri the husband has planned to go to the horse race and Jeanne his wife wishes to accompany him. At his disagreement Henri makes excuses that she should not accompany him by saying “Now if you go with me, I must get a special carriage, and that costs twenty francs.” “I have to buy a lady’s ticket for you-ten francs.” “Personally I can’t see spending thirty francs-well, say twenty five-for something that gives you no pleasure.” (I’m Going, p.1). Taking this into consideration, his wife agrees to let him go alone while she desired to visit her friend, hence both enjoy the Sunday in their own ways. Henri refuses and he restricts her to stay at home, as quoted, “I know you were going to meet someone-but I tell you I’m not the man to be trifled with!” (I’m Going, p.10). The theme of mistrust and maltreatment by the husband shows him as a dominating figure. When he is determined to go he requests his wife for a kiss which she rejects because he had called her ‘little minx’. The play has a realistic approach which is true even today with many couples.
The play revolves around the theme of love; as they call each other ‘dear’ and ‘dearest’ which symbolizes their love for each other and the kiss is evidence which also shows the love between the husband and wife. Many a times Henri is found hugging and embracing her and enjoys the Sunday. However the lack of communication between them creates misunderstandings and a new tone in their argument. On the other hand, the short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” moves around the theme of failure of Mr. Mitty due to which he dreams to be someone successful and influential. To escape from his dominating and nagging wife he dreams about being a hero, but is always awakened either by his wife’s voice who tries to prevent the accidents occurring due to his lack of concentration or any other factor. According to Thurber, the shortcomings in Mr. Mitty’s life were because he belonged to the middle class which he hated and hence he preferred to live in his imagination.
Another theme explained through this story is the role of genders. Thurber through his story shows that the husband has a weak personality whereas the wife has a strong one, which is contrary to the play “I’m going” by Bernard where the husband has a strong persuasive personality and the wife seems to be vulnerable. Furthermore, due to the man’s weakness Walter dreams of his success as different professionals converting his feelings of failures into achievements. He couldn’t remove the chains of his tires showing his incapability of doing manly things. Also he being derided by women around him, is submissive and the person of disparagement. (as cited in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: enotes, 2002, p. 5)
The setting of the story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is the urban town of Waterbury where the couple goes for their weekly shopping for groceries and the wife goes to get her hair done. Most of the story takes place outdoors in the open and in shops where Walter goes to make purchases and the in the hotel where he waits for his wife. However, the setting of the play “I’m Going” is the small, well furnished living room of a couple’s apartment in Paris, where the conversation between the couple takes place on the planned outing of the husband. In the play, the day is Sunday and the weather is pleasant, partly cloudy and rainy. The couple is made to sit indoors and on the opposite sides of the room organized by Bernard. This stage setting symbolizes the different desires of the couple.
The writing style of the story by Thurber is narrative, as he narrates a day spent by the couple in the town for groceries. Thurber links the narrative style to third person in his story expertly, so as to provide smooth shifts to the reader from the dreams of Mr. Witty to the real life. The story is so well written that even shifting from one narration to another as a reader you are not confused. Thurber’s use of vocabulary and literary allusions is amazing through his humorous and witty style of writing. The use of the name of a specific gun “Webley-Vickers 50.80” makes this story closer to real life. To portray the absurdities of humanity Thurber effectively brings about reality through speech distortions (as cited in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: enotes, 2002, p. 6). Whereas, Bernard has written a play to explain the couple’s time spent in conversing in an argumentative style. Bernard represents a very humorous style and portrays historical events in a very innate way. He inculcates suspense because the audience is not sure whether Henri was successful in his attempt to go alone to the horse race. He has conveyed the entire event through satire and dialogue in a comical form. His writing style entertains his audience as the reality in it makes them find resemblance in the characters. The central idea of the play is a social message through a variety of comedies. However, the message conveyed in the story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is a dreamer cannot survive. Dreams do not compensate the reality of life, as they are temporary illusions that come to an end when one wakes up.
The wives in the story and play are of different nature. Mrs. Mitty is more dominating then her husband Mr. Mitty, as she continuously nags him to buy the “overshoes”, forces him to wear his gloves and buy the dog biscuits. Also her character is developed so strong by Thurber to cover up her husband’s incompetency and carelessness, as it was because she pulls Walter out of his daydream when he was driving too fast which might have resulted in an accident. To show his manliness Walter Mitty lives in the world of fantasies in which he proves himself as a hero, who saves lives, steers his enemy through his bravery and courage. On the contrary, Jeanne in the play by Bernard is total different character than Mrs. Mitty. Though she is outspoken, is always subjugated by her husband who is dominating. She compromises with all his decisions and does not show her own desire and feelings as she loves and cares for her husband.
Moreover, the husband, Henri, shows all affection towards his wife, Jeanne, yet restricts her from her desires, which shows his selfish nature as he only cares about his enjoyment and not hers. He does as he wishes whereas he persuades his wife to do as per his will. As Henri had decided to go to the races all alone without his wife and when Jeanne wanted to go out by herself to her friend’s house she was not allowed. Instead Henry manipulated her and convinced her to stay at home by showing his anger and pretending not go to the race himself. As stated in the play, p. 10, “My pleasure is all spoiled anyway” and later on ‘He strikes the table with his fist’ this shows that he does not trust his wife enough to let her go alone and visit a friend and hence he shows his anger. Jeanne being emotional and considerate towards her husband decides not to go out and hence in the end allows Henri to go to the races alone. As she says on p.11, “You’re not satisfied to leave me all alone and neglected, but you even insist on my going out! (Sobbing) All right then I won’t go out! I’ll stay here!” this shows that she loves her husband and cares about him when he is upset at anything without realizing his manipulations.
Unlike Henri, Walter is forced by his wife to do certain chores for them while she gets her hair done, as quoted in para 3, “Remember to get those overshoes while I’m having my hair done.” Walter being under control of his wife does as she asks him to do, that is, he wears his gloves when she asks him to “Why don’t you wear your gloves? Have you lost your gloves?”, buys the overshoes which he was not willing to do but still does it, as quoted, “I don’t need overshoes.” and seriously tries to recall the name of the dog biscuits so as to return back to his destined place before his wife comes back from the hair salon. (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, para. 3)
Bernard uses symbol like rain and cloudiness showing sadness that exists between Henri and Jeanne, but his approach is comical which created amusement and entertainment for the audience. It has a realistic approach which is very much related to the life of many couples. Rain is symbolic and ironic, because after such a pleasant incident of planning to spend a Sunday it conveys the irony through a gloomy atmosphere that portrays the disagreement of a husband who denies taking his wife with him to the race. The weather changes from bright sunny to grey cloudy, describing the mood of the couple which also changes from happy to upsetting and angry. Whereas Thurber uses symbolism like the ‘overshoes’ and ‘gloves’ that Mrs. Mitty wanted her husband to have in order to be safe from any harm. This shows her care for her husband as she was aware of his wandering imagination and also her control over him. Also the words ‘pocketa-pocketa-pocketa’ give a comic effect to the story. Moreover, Mitty also imagines beautiful ladies in his dreams, such as ‘the pretty nurse’ and ‘a lovely dark-haired girl was in his arms’ which show his lack of masculinity in real life to attract girls. Walter’s incompetency to do things is also symbolized by the policeman, the parking attendant, garage man as all these have some interference over his wrong actions in the narration.
The ending of the story and the play were both abrupt leaving the readers thinking as to what happened. For instance, in the story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” Walter was dreaming of being in front of a shooting squad ready to be executed, but it does not give a clear picture as to whether he died in his imagination or not as it was not related to his real life at all. As stated in the last line of the story, ‘Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.’ This leaves an impression on the reader as to how would he be undefeated, whether he cannot be stopped from day dreaming in his real life or is it related to the fantasy of him standing in front of the firing squad to be shot by them-yet he knew he would escape or death was the only way of escape in his mind. It was not very clear as to what would happen. Similarly, in the play “I’m Going” does Jeanne really stay at home after her husband leaves or she was just being sarcastic in saying, “What fun I’ll have trimming hats!” and will eventually leave for her friend’s house. As quoted on p. 12, ‘Waits for a moment, listens, and hears the outer door close, then rises, and goes to the door at the back’. It portrays her expectation that maybe her husband will come back for her, but when she hears the outer door close she is disheartened and still remains calm and decides to work on her hats. It does not surely say that she is disheartened or contented with the decision of staying home, hence as a reader one can make their own assumption about her feelings and her actions.
Bernard, Tristan. I’m Going!: a Comedy in One Act: by Tristan Bernard: Translated by Barrett H. Clark. Retrieved from http://archive.org/stream/cu31924027316219#page/n3/mode/2up
Thurber, James. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Retrieved from: http://bnrg.cs.berkeley.edu/~randy/mitty.html
Reese, Robert. (2004) Walter Mitty’s Reality. Retrieved from http://www.casawomo.com/essays/walter-mittys-reality
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Enotes. Retrieved from http://iblog.stjschool.org/stories/files/2011/09/The_Secret_Life_of_Walter_Mitty_eNotes.pdf
A Review of I'M Going; a Comedy in One Act. (2011, July 07). StudyMode.com. Retrieved from http://www.studymode.com/essays/A-Review-Of-I-m-Going-A-733369.html
Gender Roles and Marriage. (2011, December 17). Customwritingtips.com. Retrieved from: http://customwritingtips.com/component/k2/item/5743-gender-roles-and-marriage.html?tmpl=component&print=1