“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is the most well-known story by one of the renowned humorists in the United States, James Thurber. When the story was published, readers began to acknowledge and recognize Walter Mitty as an archetypal American figure. Walter Mitty has become a renowned character in American fiction as well. No doubt, the main reason that “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” became so popular was because Thurber made it possible for readers to identify with Mitty since most people often find their lives disappointing and ordinary, and so they enter a more interesting world by using daydreams. However, on a personal level, it is the historical context of the story, namely the relation of Mitty’s war fantasies to the actual scenario of that time, and the modernism in the story. Thus, the purpose of this paper is to use a historical approach to analyze the story.
It was back in 1939 that James Thurber first published this story, and that was the year that marked the beginning of the Second World War. Poland had been invaded by German troops, a non-aggression pact had been signed between the Germans and the Soviets, and the Pact of Steel Alliance was formed between Germany and Italy. Despite the consolidation of Axis powers, Germany was in a state of war with Britain and France. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made the declaration that the United States would be neutral in the war, but the U.S. entered the war after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Albert Einstein suggested to Roosevelt that the United States should be a nuclear power; efforts began in the U.S. to build an atomic bomb. In Spain, The Spanish Civil War came to an end after Madrid was captured by the forces of the Spanish military leader Francisco Franco ("World war ii, 1939–1945,").
On the other hand we have Walter Mitty, an aging middle-aged man, who is bumbling and inept in real life. Considering the fact that Thurber published this story in a year when the world was at war, it is not surprising that he depicts Walter as a man who passes his day by fantasizing about different War-like scenarios in which he takes on the role of various bold, decisive and powerful men. For instance, Mitty fantasizes of becoming a captain in World War I after he reads an article titled, “Can Germany Conquer the World Through the Air?” (Thurber, 2008, p.15) in Liberty magazine about the Second World War. He saw “pictures of bombing planes and of ruined streets” (Thurber, 2008, p.15) in the article. This signifies that Thurber actually based the character of Walter Mitty on American men in the 1930s and early 1940s, who like Mitty had to face their desires and fears of proving their manhood in battle.
It has also been noted that the way Thurber explores the absurdity of modern life and uses wordplay in the story is somewhat related to modernist writing. Modernists made use of conventional dialogue and narrative in a playful manner, to try to approximate subjective experience and though. It is possible to compare Thurber's narrative technique in this short story to the writings that William Faulkner published in the 1930s. The fact that Thurber has used themes of absurdity and words quite playfully also reflects the fact that he was influenced by the poet Wallace Stevens, who also published a book of verse around the same time that Thurber published this story. As the story nears its end, there is a comment by Walter that, “things close in.” Carl M. Lindner claims that this represents the fact modern life had suffocating effects on “the Romantic individual” (Lindner, 1974), and that economic, social, and technological developments (for instance, Walter’s troubles with fixing his car) were causing the world to change.
Thus, a historical approach to analyze James Thurber’s story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” reveals how deep the historical context of the story really is. In this sense, Walter Mitty is truly an archetypical American hero because he had the same desires, fears and problems that the real men of that time did, and perhaps that is why readers are able to identify with him.
Lindner, C. M. (1974). Thurber’s walter mitty—the underground american hero. Georgia Review, (28), 283–289.
Thurber, J. (2008). The secret life of walter mitty. The Creative Company.
World war ii, 1939–1945. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.ltisdschools.org/cms/lib/TX21000349/Centricity/Domain/287/chapater_32.pdf