“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”
Versus “The Necklace”
James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace” are two significant stories that portray alternate gender roles and the means to cope with those roles. James Thurber’s piece describe a man in the not so common feminine role, while Guy de Maupassant’s piece describes a woman in the usual feminine role. The stories were created in different historical periods, in various states of the relationships and in completely different settings. While the characters of these pieces experience different fates and the stories’ plots have dissimilar endings, some similarities can be drawn. For instance, both stories raise the issues that can occur in marriage and the characteristic gender roles that are at the base of every marriage. Also, in terms of literary form, both of them are clearly short stories that use similar tools, such as irony and sarcasm. In essence, with detailed analysis of each piece, it is possible to state that “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and “The Necklace” share more similarities than differences, in which these similarities are detrimental in understanding gender roles in a marriage. These similarities will be identified in further analysis of the themes, literary forms and styles.
Having taken up Mr. Mitty’s role, his wife acts in a manner typical for a man rather than a woman. She wouldn’t be described as beautiful and she doesn’t aim to please. It is Mr. Mitty’s job to please in the relationship. For example, in one point of the story Mrs. Mitty returns home from the hairdresser’s and meets Walter in a hotel. When she finally comes across him sitting in a chair, she pushes him in the shoulder and addresses him in a rough manner not typical for a woman, which might come off as harsh. The manner, in which she addresses him in their rough rendezvous, makes their conversation look more like quarrelling, as seen in this quote,
“Something struck his shoulder. ‘I've been looking all over this hotel for you,’ said Mrs. Mitty. ‘Why do you have to hide in this old chair? How did you expect me to find you?’ ‘Things close in,’ said Walter Mitty vaguely. ‘What?’ Mrs. Mitty said. ‘Did you get the what's-its-name? The puppy biscuit? What's in that box?’”
The foregoing example and further examples throughout the story clearly portray the masculine front that Mrs. Mitty has taken on in their marriage, which also describes the tone in which they address each other. A typical woman in a marriage wouldn’t dare hit her husband, but Mrs. Mitty feels no fear or shame in the action. She also blames her inability of finding him on his choice of seating, like it is his fault, or a problem at all, that she had to spend another moment or two searching for him. He has to be the incompetent and the lesser person in their relationship, no matter what the situation warrants. More or less, she is not the type of women that most men choose to admire. Indeed, her masculinity and dominant manner would divert any typical male; there would be a clashing of roles.
On a similar note, one of the themes explored by Guy de Maupassant in “The Necklace” revolves around a relationship and the gender roles of the people within it. However, Guy de Maupassant switches the roles so that the woman takes on the more feminine and less dominant part, which is characteristic to most marriages. Unlike Mr. Mitty’s spouse, Mathilde is described as “beautiful” and “charming”; basically, the one who longs to be adored by men. Mr. Mitty’s wife was in no way portrayed in this manner. She needed to be pleased in order to be happy, and there was no reason for her to charm and seduce. It was almost as if the act was illogical and ridiculous. This is partly because Mr. Mitty’s wife didn’t need anything from him, while Mathilde did need and want. Evidently, this desire is the greatest motive to get expensive things and to live a frivolous lifestyle. For example, in the story it reads
“She had no dresses, no jewelry, nothing. And she loved nothing else; she felt herself made for that only. She would so much have liked to please, to be envied, to be seductive and sought after.”
All she knows, or cares to know, is the materialistic world that is the stereotypical staple for being feminine. She aims to please and charm because it seems to be the only way to get what she wants or needs; to feel beautiful or to get jewelry and fine things. Apart from this, Mathilde’s femininity is demonstrated by her excessive sensitivity and overwhelming emotions. The male-dominated world, that is the evident platform in the story, highlights these feminine attributes.
On another note, both stories depict the common theme of escapism. Essentially, in Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, escapism is the central theme. Walter Mitty is described as “a middle-aged, middle-class man who escapes from the routine drudgery of his suburban life into fantasies of heroic conquest” (Napierkowski, 1998). It is daydreaming that takes up a considerable part of Mr. Mitty’s life, and with reason. In his constant struggle to be a man in an unwarranted feminine role, his only solution is to daydream a different life for himself, which is essentially an escape from his miserable position of being weak and unneeded. Hence, Walter Mitty uses his imagination to create in his mind the image of himself as an unrivalled hero. The image clearly opposes reality, but it manages to offer some form of solace. His need for this solace is quite obvious since he escapes more than five times in any given time of day.
Similarly, in Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace”, the main heroine daydreams excessively, as well. Mathilde’s escapism, however, focuses on bringing changes to her current social status. Being a member of the middle class in France, the protagonist dreams about moving up the social ladder to the glorious upper class and grasping the luxuries that appear to be just out of reach. Also, since her marriage was formed for reasons other than love, the young lady imagines crowds of handsome men who dote upon her and act in a chivalrous manner. In addition, with her love of expensive lifestyle, Mathilde feels hatred towards the house where they live since it doesn’t quite live up to her standards. Interestingly, the Loiselsare described by the author is not poor at all, which can be seen by the fact that they were able to hire a servant. Her hatred was simply due to the fact that the lifestyle was insufficient to her dreams. And yet, greed causes Mathilde to desire more. Her ever-present vision of a frivolous lifestyle with handsome men is a product of that greed. Similar to Walter Mitty, Mathilde lives in her imagined world and constantly savors her fantasies. Her daydreams, just like those of Mitty, have many sophisticated details, which are compared to her real life and cause the untamable discontent.
At the same time, the two forms of escapism and daydreaming differ quite significantly. Whereas Walter Mitty’s daydreams portray a masculine hero whose only passion is to help others, Mathilde Loisel’s daydreaming is rooted in her greediness and dissatisfaction with life typical for the French middle class. Specifically, Walter dreams about sacrificing his efforts to make other people healthy and happy. Unlike Mathilde, he is not haunted by thoughts of how to get rich and to seek unrequited admiration. Instead, he finds himself dreaming about aiding others by sacrificing his physical health or performing other acts of kindness. His form of daydream portrays a man taking on a masculine role. He is trying to experience the type of person he wishes to be, but can’t seem to obtain in the real world.
On a further note, Water Mitty survives off his daydreaming; it is the only method that has proved sufficient enough to help him cope with his living situation. Mathilde, on the other hand, isn’t happier from her daydreaming. It is not a method of coping and, in fact, it quite possibly makes her situation much worse. The constant reminder of the life she longs for is what causes the hatred and negative emotions for the life that she has (Thurber, 2011). While it may not be clear to her, she is unhappy in the feminine role that she was forced into. She wants to achieve greatness and to reach high standards, but in her society, that is the role dedicated to the man. She had no choice, but to accept the man and the position he has put her in.
One more common theme that can be found in the stories is the contradiction between characters’ appearances and reality. According to Napierkowski, Madame Loisel is beautiful yet dissatisfied. Hence, her beauty is merely an appearance. For instance, let us take the episode at the ball. Although Mathilde is very successful and admired even by the minister, her beauty is not real, just an appearance covering up the inner darkness, since the young woman pretends to be something she is actually not. Thus, as Napierkowski concludes, “ it is not the reality of wealth or high social class that is important for Madame Loisel, just the appearance of it” (Napierkowski, 1998). As for Mr. Mitty, he resorts to daydreaming for the purposes of fleeing from the somber reality of his dissatisfying life. In the story, the heroic and leading roles that Walter plays mean to be a compensation for this character’s secondary role in his real life. In other words, Walter Mitty also wishes to appear to be something that he actually isn’t. While Mr. Mitty’s heroic appearance doesn’t hurt anyone or have the potential of causing harm in real life, Mathilde’s beauty can turn against her. Once the façade drops, who will admire her?
In essence, the two stories, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and “The Necklace” conceal the real selves of their major heroes or idols via appearance. Mr. Mitty uses a range of characters represented in his heroic daydreams, while Madame Loisel conceals her real self by creating an appearance of being a member of the French upper class. Still, the most evident similarity is that both characters put forth appearances of a person in which they can never actually be.
Both pieces may be short stories, but there are a few apparent differences in the literary form. James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace” were written from what is known in literary theory as the third person limited perspective. Also, it has been said that the stories have been created with the help of the so-called historical/ biographical approach. Specifically, James Thurber is believed to have been a prototype of Mr. Witty when he was in his first marriage, which eventually failed (Fensch, 2001, p. 267). As for Guy de Maupassant, he depicts the life of the French society and existing classes, which he was very familiar with. It appears that the major difference between the literary forms is that Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace” is a kind of inversion story, in other words a story, which uses the surprise-inversion technique. This becomes clear in the unexpected ending.
A common tool used in both literary styles was irony. For example, in Thurber’s story irony may be traced in clear discrepancies between something Walter wants to be and the person Walter actually is. As for “The Necklace”, irony can be found quite often in the author’s language, which, at times, takes on a more sarcastic tone. More specifically, Madame Loisel is portrayed in an ironical way in the “The Necklace”, particularly at the end. For example, in the following paragraph the irony can be identified rather clearly,
“Her tastes were simple because she had never been able to afford any other, but she was as unhappy as though she had married beneath her, for women have no caste or class, their beauty, grace, and charm serving them for birth or family, their natural delicacy, their instinctive elegance, their nimbleness of wit, are their only mark of rank, and put the slum girl on a level with the highest lady in the land.”
(Guy de Maupassant, 2011)
In conclusion, various similarities can be drawn from “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and “The Necklace”. Namely, these are common themes including issues in relationships and gender roles, the common literary form, and use of irony in style. The main characters in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and “The Necklace” are unhappy with the roles that they have been placed in. Mr. Mitty partially had the choice of falling into the feminine role while Mathilde was forced into it by the standards of society. Although the stories end in a different way and are set in different time periods with different social structures, they both deal with the issue of escapism, misplaced gender roles in marriage, as well the theme of appearance versus reality. Each character’s form of escapism depicted a life preferred over reality, but while Mr. Mitty’s dream improved his ability to survive the real world, it was actually harmful to Mathilde. Lastly, both stories were created from the perspective of a third person limited and were written with help of the historical/biographical approach.
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