The Secret Moral of Walter Mitty

A Spartan helmet rests on rocks with a blurry background.

In 1939, a man named James Thurber published a short story titled, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” The story is about a rather henpecked, ordinary man who spends most of his life daydreaming about being far more extraordinary than he is. However, these daydreams amount to little change in his actual life, for by the end of the story, he remains the exact same quiet, henpecked dreamer. Strangely, this proves to be the one thing that makes him genuinely extraordinary: he does not change. This fact presents the greatest moral of the story and of his life: refuse to give in to others and become someone you are not.

The short story of Walter Mitty begins and continues with several different daydreams. In the story, he dreams of being a war pilot, a doctor, a sharp-shooter, and a captain. In the final daydream, Mitty imagines himself smoking a cigarette while in front of a firing squad. This situation may be a contemplation of his own death or the death of his imagination. But the ending line is not one of defeat; it is one of triumph: “erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.” (Thurber, James. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” In Realms of Gold Vol. 2. ed. Michael J. Marshall. Charlottesville: Core Knowledge Foundation, 2000. 108. Print.) This tone is one of a man who refuses to be defeated. There will always be people, like his wife, who will dismiss him for being withdrawn and quiet. These people are his “firing squad.” By choosing to remain his proud, if ordinary, self, he rebels even in their line of fire.

Some readers may dispute that his action is not a true act of rebellion. What makes the story of Walter Mitty so powerful is that he refuses to change any element of himself. This is his rebellion. That is not to say that a man should refuse to change himself entirely, but rather he should not change traits or quirks that he accepts about himself, even if others do not. Rather than run from the firing squad or grab a gun and shoot them all in his fantasy, Walter Mitty stands there, willing to take the bullets. In the same way, he is willing to endure the bullets of criticism and dismissiveness from his wife and those like her. His reaction is a rebellion against their expectations for him to keep his head in worldly matters. No, he says. I will not be what you expect of me. I am myself and that is all I desire to be.

 

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