James Thurber has long been recognized as one of America's leading modern humorists. His stories, sketches, and cartoons are engaging, often leading to chuckles of wry reminiscence. But when he created “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Thurber wrought better than he knew, for he had touched upon one of the major themes in American literature—the conflict between individual and society. Mitty's forerunners are readily observable in native folklore and fiction. On one side Mitty is a descendant of Rip Van Winkle and Tom Sawyer. On the other side he dreamwishes qualities customarily exhibited by the legendary frontier hero. Yet, while Thurber's story derives from American culture tradition, it presents the quest for identity in an unmistakably modern context. In what may be the final scene in an unfolding tapestry of heroic situations, Mitty struggles to achieve a measure of self-respect, but finds himself restricted to the pathways of retreat and wishfulfillment.
Mitty's closest literary forerunner is Rip Van Winkle, the “good-bad boy” of American fiction. Like Rip, Mitty has a wife who embodies the authority of a society in which the husband cannot function. Mitty's world is routine, trivial, and fraught with pigeon-holes; it persecutes the individual, strips his life of romance, and dictates what his actions (if not his thoughts) should be. The husband is often reduced to the status of a naughty child (as demonstrated by a prepubertal mentality); and he attempts to escape rather than confront a world symbolized by a wife who, more often than not, seems to be a mother-figure rather than a partner. Because of the threat which the wife-mother poses to the American male psyche, Rip must go hunting, Deerslayer cannot marry and dwell in the town, and Huck seeks the river rather than be sivilized. (p. 283)
Because his imagination depends upon what he has read rather than what he has done, Mitty lives a vicarious existence. And, conversely, Mitty's misuse of words and concocted over-dramatizations betoken his unwillingness to dwell in a dimension which cannot feed his imaginative faculties. Given his routine external life, how could it be otherwise? ... A dual purpose is evident here, for while Thurber deliberately places these wrong-way signposts to reveal Mitty's ignorance of the heroic experience Mitty remains oblivious of his blunders as he succeeds in fashioning his own reality. Simultaneously it is a sad and amusing show.
Mitty's visions, however, are more than mere adolescent fantasies with their theatricality and simplistic crises, they are surprisingly true to what Lawrence in Studies in Classic American Literature defined as the fundamental American male psyche: “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.”...It must be noted that nearly all of Mitty's visions deal with violence, and even the one exception dramatizes a matter of life and death. This kind of situation allows the ultimate in symbolic action in which the questions of self can be answered and personal values defined. One can speculate whether Mitty's visions of crises and correspondingly heroic responses are so familiar because they are inherent in the national unconscious or because they recur with such frequency in the national literature. The speculative game is one of chicken and egg; the undeniable fact suggests serious and alarming possibilities concerning the American male mentality in a time when football and military force provide over-simplified moral and physical confrontations.
This quality of self-reliance, so directly traceable to the American past, is manifested by Mitty's dream-self to a considerable degree. In both the frontier literature and that of the New England Romantic tradition, the hero always defined himself through actions which dramatically delineated his inner self and established his identity.... A youthful culture naturally produced heroes with youthful qualities, most notably an unshaken self-confidence which framed their belief that they could always adapt to the world, no matter what the world might prove to be. This kind of unqualified optimism in one's ability (one side of the Romantic coin) reveals itself most clearly in Cooper's Natty Bumppo, Emerson's “Self-Reliance” and Thoreau's exploits in Walden. It is this swaggering self-assertion and a conviction regarding the control of one's destiny which characterize at once the American hero and Mitty's alter ego. (One need only recall how Mitty substitutes the fountain pen for the faulty piston in the failing anaesthetizer, how he strikes the villainous District Attorney from a sitting position with his one good arm in the chivalrous defense of a Byronic heroine, and how he prepares to fly, alone and weary, on a vital mission against the “Archies.”) Like Davy Crockett, Mike Fink, and Natty Bumppo, the dream-Mitty can out-shoot, out-fight, and out-do any and all opposition. But the man who can surmount catastrophes, man-made or natural, exists today only in the mind of a bewildered and hen-pecked protagonist. Whether the potential for heroic action was greater in the past, or whether there were indeed giants in those days, Mitty, like Miniver Cheevy, can only think about it. “The greatest pistol shot in the world” is reduced to ordering puppy-biscuit, to fetching and carrying for his wife, and he has difficulty even recalling the name of the product. (pp. 284–86)
The current world of industrialism and specialization severely restricts any potential for heroic action. With the frontier gone, and physical and psychological space limited, the typical male is reduced to fantasy-visions as outlets for that action which is now denied him. If it is depressing that Mitty cannot rise to traditionally heroic statue in today's world, it is also realistic. Today, Thurber seems to say, the combat is so unequal that the path to heroic action lies through the inner mind. The would-be hero must resort to the world of dream in order to inflate himself to that state where he can psychologically compete and win. Lacking the resources of the natural hero, the modern man acquires them by wish-fulfillment. Unfortunately, the victory, if and when it is attained, must occur in that same world of make-believe. (p. 286)
[Mitty's comment, “Things close in,” circumscribes] much of the contemporary American male's feelings toward adult responsibilities. Small wonder that he returns to boyhood methods of dealing with a world which confuses him—and small wonder that he conceives his wife as threat and stifler of his inner self.... In so many ways the American male resembles a child who has not yet awakened, or who prefers to pull the blanket over his drowsy head rather than confront and cope. Babbitt's coventional escapes—his lukewarm affair and fishing trip—are less disturbing than Paul Riesling's solution of shooting the wife. And just as serious is Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom's method of running away physically from adult relationships after he has committed himself to fatherhood. Mitty's internal flights are harmless by comparison, but the motivating factors are identical. (pp. 287–88)
The heroic mold has generally been cast by a juvenile imagination in America. Certainly the folk heroes were inflated to larger-than-life proportions. And the Romantic imagination would naturally have seized upon the frontier as a natural landscape whereon heroic deeds of a corresponding size and nature could be performed. But in Thurber's modern man only a dim memory of a heroic past remains, nurtured on puerile fantasies propagated by films and pulp fiction. With the frontier gone, and space and privacy at a premium, there is only one place where Mitty can hope to fulfill himself—in a world of self-projection. And even here he cannot totally escape, for the real world apprizes him of its presence by shattering each delusion before it can be climaxed.
As a result of being perpetually interrupted at crucial moments in these fantasies, it seems only proper that Mitty's final role should be that of the condemned man about to be executed by a faceless firing squad for reasons not explicitly given. This vision is a marvelously telling projection of Mitty's place in the world as he feels it. How fitting it is that the story ends, as it began, with a day-dream and that, to the external world (his wife, among others), Walter Mitty wears that “faint, fleeting smile” and remains “inscrutable to the last.” (pp. 288–89)