What Can We Steal From James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”?
Title of Work and its Form: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” short story
Author: James Thurber
Date of Work: 1939
Where the Work Can Be Found: The story first appeared in The New Yorker’s March 18, 1939 issue. Wow…believe it or not, Zoetrope: All-Story has posted the story online. Very cool, Francis Ford Coppola.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Reader Orientation
James Thurber is one of the greatest writers and humorists of the twentieth century. The man was prolific and famous. (Can you believe it? A famous writer?) He was a native of Columbus, Ohio—Go Bucks!—and you can even visit his home. Thurber House is a museum and an important part of the thriving Columbus literary scene. Perhaps his most famous story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” was made into a 1947 film starring Danny Kaye. The film is being remade, of course, and will be directed by its star, Ben Stiller.
The story is short and sweet, though it isn’t simple. Walter Mitty brings his wife to her appointment at the hairdresser. But don’t drive too fast! And while he’s waiting, could he pick up a dog biscuit? And don’t forget that new pair of overshoes. And don’t be late! Walter Mitty deals with the emasculation and mundanity of his life by relaxing into periodic fantasies. Instead of being a henpecked husband, he’s a highly respected surgeon and a war pilot and a crack shot “with any known make of gun.”
A lot of folks (myself included) enjoy messing around with time and place in narrative. Flashbacks are fun. Hypothetical looks into the future are fun. The problem is that it can be hard to bring the reader along with you. Why don’t the transitions in “Mitty” confuse the reader? Let’s look at the beginning of the story:
“We’re going through!” The Commander’s voice was like thin ice breaking. He wore his full-dress uniform, with the heavily braided white cap pulled down rakishly over one cold gray eye. “We can’t make it, sir. It’s spoiling for a hurricane, if you ask me.” “I’m not asking you, Lieutenant Berg,” said the Commander. “Throw on the power lights! Rev her up to 8,500! We’re going through!” The pounding of the cylinders increased: ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa. The Commander stared at the ice forming on the pilot window. He walked over and twisted a row of complicated dials. “Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!” he shouted. “Switch on No. 8 auxiliary!” repeated Lieutenant Berg. “Full strength in No. 3 turret!” shouted the Commander. “Full strength in No. 3 turret!” The crew, bending to their various tasks in the huge, hurtling eight-engined Navy hydroplane, looked at each other and grinned. “The old man will get us through” they said to one another. “The Old Man ain’t afraid of Hell!” …
“Not so fast! You’re driving too fast!” said Mrs. Mitty. “What are you driving so fast for?”
“Hmm?” said Walter Mitty. He looked at his wife, in the seat beside him, with shocked astonishment. She seemed grossly unfamiliar, like a strange woman who had yelled at him in a crowd. “You were up to fifty-five,” she said. “You know I don’t like to go more than forty. You were up to fifty-five.” Walter Mitty drove on toward Waterbury in silence, the roaring of the SN202 through the worst storm in twenty years of Navy flying fading in the remote, intimate airways of his mind.
So the story begins with the climax of an adventure. Mitty is piloting the hydroplane into the gaping maw of danger—when his wife nags him for driving too fast. While there is a brief sense of disorientation, Thurber gently guides the reader into understanding. Look at that ellipsis. Immediately following that is a line of dialogue that does NOT fit into the hydroplane narrative. Then Thurber gives us that all-important exposition. Walter Mitty is in a car. With his wife. He’s going to Waterbury, driving through a storm. What does that ellipsis mean? (I turned it red in hopes of making it more obvious.) We know that the ellipses bookend a fantasy. The signal is simple and powerful and helps the reader enjoy the idiosyncrasies of the story instead of being stymied by them.
What Should We Steal?
- Play with your reader, but make sure you guide him or her along. It’s your solemn duty as a writer to give the reader what he or she needs to understand your story. Confusion and disorientation should only be used for effect and should only be temporary. They should not be an ultimate goal.
- Establish clear signals. An ellipsis can be the difference between reality and fantasy.