The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty by James Thurber, 1939
The magic trick:
Having a great comedic concept
What needs to be said about “Walter Mitty”? It’s a brilliant concept, probably the best of Thurber’s career. The cold open reads like a great war novel until the concept reveals itself and the reader learns that this adventure has only been the interior monologue of Walter Mitty’s mind. Even after Thurber shows his hand, he continues to pull the same prank on the reader for the rest of the story with great comic results. His writing is every bit as strong as the story’s concept.
Of course, the entire idea is pretty mean-spirited when you really think about it. Walter Mitty’s wife is such a nagging nuisance that his only defense is to disappear from reality into his own imagination. This week we’ve looked at a wide range of Thurber stories from his most playful (“The Night The Bed Fell”) to his most misogynistic (“A Couple Of Hamburgers”). “Walter Mitty,” I think, finds the best balance between the two extremes, and as a result, is probably Thurber’s most representative story. And that’s quite a trick on Thurber’s part.
Walter Mitty stopped the car in front of the building where his wife went to have her hair done. “Remember to get those overshoes while I’m having my hair done,” she said. “I don’t need overshoes,” said Mitty. She put her mirror back into her bag. “We’ve been all through that,” she said, getting out of the car. “You’re not a young man any longer.” He raced the engine a little. “Why don’t you wear your gloves? Have you lost your gloves?” Walter Mitty reached in a pocket and brought out the gloves. He put them on, but after she had turned and gone into the building and he had driven on to a red light, he took them off again. “Pick it up, brother!” snapped a cop as the light changed, and Mitty hastily pulled on his gloves and lurched ahead. He drove around the streets aimlessly for a time, and then he drove past the hospital on his way to the parking lot.