The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1939) is a short story by James Thurber. The most famous of Thurber's stories,[1] it first appeared in The New Yorker on March 18, 1939, and was first collected in his book My World and Welcome to It (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1942).[2] It has since been reprinted in James Thurber: Writings and Drawings (The Library of America, 1996, ISBN 1-883011-22-1), is available on-line on the New Yorker website,[3] and is one of the most anthologized short stories in American literature.[4] The story is considered one of Thurber's "acknowledged masterpieces".[5] It was made into a 1947 film of the same name, with Danny Kaye in the title role, though the film is very different from the original story. It was also adapted into a 2013 film, which is again very different from the original.

"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"
AuthorJames Thurber
CountryUnited States
Genre(s)short story
Published inThe New Yorker
Publication typeMagazine
PublisherHarcourt, Brace and Company
Media typePrint (Periodical, Hardback and Paperback)
Publication date1939 (magazine), 1942 (book)
Preceded by"Death in the Zoo"
Followed by"Interview with a Lemming"

The name Walter Mitty and the derivative word "Mittyesque"[6] have entered the English language, denoting an ineffectual person who spends more time in heroic daydreams than paying attention to the real world, or more seriously, one who intentionally attempts to mislead or convince others that he is something that he is not. In the United Kingdom a further derived word "Walt" is used to describe a military impostor or similar fantasist, invariably in derogatory terms.[citation needed]

Warner Brothers studio head Jack L. Warner in his autobiography My First Hundred Years in Hollywood, described the actor Errol Flynn in the following way: "To the Walter Mittys of the world he was all the heroes in one magnificent, sexy, animal package."


The short story deals with a vague and mild-mannered man who drives into Waterbury, Connecticut, with his wife for their regular weekly shopping and his wife's visit to the beauty parlor. During this time he has five heroic daydream episodes. The first is as a pilot of a U.S. Navy flying boat in a storm, then he is a magnificent surgeon performing a one-of-a-kind surgery, then as a deadly assassin testifying in a courtroom, and then as a Royal Air Force pilot volunteering for a daring, secret suicide mission to bomb an ammunition dump. As the story ends, Mitty imagines himself facing a firing squad, "inscrutable to the last." Each of the fantasies is inspired by some detail of Mitty's mundane surroundings:

  • The powering up of the "Navy hydroplane" in the opening scene is followed by Mrs. Mitty's complaint that Mitty is "driving too fast".
  • Mitty's turn as a brilliant surgeon immediately follows his taking off and putting on his gloves as a surgeon dons surgical gloves, and driving past a hospital.
  • The courtroom drama cliché "Perhaps this will refresh your memory", which begins the third fantasy, follows Mitty's attempt to remember what his wife told him to buy, when he hears a newsboy shouting about "the Waterbury Trial"
  • Mitty's fourth daydream comes as he waits for his wife and picks up an old copy of Liberty, reading "Can Germany Conquer the World Through the Air?", and envisions himself fighting Germany while volunteering to pilot a plane normally piloted by two people.
  • The closing firing-squad scene comes when Mitty is standing against a wall, smoking.


Mitty is very much a Thurber protagonist, so much so that he has been called "the archetype for dreamy, hapless, Thurber Man".[4] Like many of his male characters, such as the husband in "The Unicorn in the Garden" and the physically unimposing men Thurber often paired with larger women in his cartoons, Mitty is dominated and put upon by his wife. Like the man who saw the unicorn, he escapes via fantasies. A similar dynamic is found in the Thurber story "The Curb in the Sky", in which a man starts recounting his own dreams as anecdotes as an attempt to stop his wife from constantly correcting him on the details.

In his 2001 book The Man Who Was Walter Mitty: The Life and Work of James Thurber (ISBN 0-930751-13-2), author Thomas Fensch suggests that the character was largely based on Thurber himself. This is consistent with Thurber's self-described imaginative interpretations of shapes seen with his "two-fifths vision" in his essay "The Admiral on the Wheel". Neurologist V.S. Ramachandran suggests that Thurber may have had Charles Bonnet syndrome, a neurological condition that causes vivid and bizarre hallucinations in blind people.[7]

Thurber's love of wordplay can be seen in his coining of several nonsense terms in the story, including the pseudo-medical jargon "obstreosis of the ductal tract", "streptothricosis", and the recurring onomatopoeia of "ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa." The medical nonsense that "coreopsis has set in" uses the name of a flower which sounds vaguely like a horrible medical condition.

1947 filmEdit

The story was made into a 1947 film starring Danny Kaye as a young daydreaming editor of pulp magazines. The film was adapted for the screen by Ken Englund, Everett Freeman, and Philip Rapp, and directed by Norman Z. McLeod. It was filmed in Technicolor.

Thurber was repeatedly consulted about the film's script, but his suggestions were largely ignored by producer Samuel Goldwyn, who had the writers alter the original story to showcase Kaye's talents.[8] In a letter to Life magazine, Thurber expressed his considerable dissatisfaction with the script, even as Goldwyn insisted in another letter that Thurber approved of it.[9]

A 1947 radio adaptation of the film, with Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo reprising their roles, was performed on The Screen Guild Theater.[10][failed verification] Because the show was a half hour, including commercials, Kaye's extraneous routines are minimized, making it more like the original story. Even closer to the original story is a 1944 radio adaptation from This Is My Best, with Robert Benchley as the daydreaming Mitty.[10]

2013 filmEdit

20th Century Fox produced and Ben Stiller directed another film adaptation in 2013, which also differs widely from the book. Stiller stars as Mitty, with Kristen Wiig, Shirley MacLaine, Patton Oswalt, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, and Sean Penn[11] also appearing in the film. The film was released on December 25, 2013 in the US and in other countries and had a production budget of $90 million.[12]

Stage adaptationsEdit

"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" was adapted for the stage by Thurber as part of the 1960 Broadway theater revue A Thurber Carnival. The sketch, which closed the show except for "Word Dance Part II", was nearly identical to the short story, except that at the end he cleverly avoids being shot.[13] The original cast for the sketch was as follows:[14]

The story was again adapted for the stage in 1964, this time by Joe Manchester. This musical version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty depicts Mitty at age 40, tempted by "would-be chanteuse" Willa De Wisp to leave his wife Agnes and really live "the Secret Life". It features 17 songs, with lyrics by Earl Shuman and music by Leon Carr.[15] The musical opened off-Broadway at the Players Theatre on October 26, 1964, and ran for 96 performances.[16] Time magazine referred to the musical's plot as having been "boldly extrapolated" from the short story, and called the result "a thoroughly pleasant musical evening".[17] Columbia Records issued an original cast recording on LP, also dated 1964.[citation needed]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Napierkowski, Marie Rose, ed. (January 2006). "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: Introduction". Short Stories for Students, Vol. 1. Retrieved 2008-07-14.
  2. ^ "Note on the Texts", James Thurber: Writings and Drawings (The Library of America, 1996, ISBN 1-883011-22-1)
  3. ^ James Thurber (18 March 1939). "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty". The New Yorker.
  4. ^ a b "Thurber: Mitty and Dangerous". Today in Literature. Retrieved 2008-07-14.
  5. ^ Dust jacket introduction, James Thurber: Writings and Drawings (The Library of America, 1996, ISBN 1-883011-22-1)
  6. ^ "Walter Mitty" ( The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company. 2004. Retrieved 2007-02-13.
  7. ^ V.S. Ramachandran; Sandra Blakeslee (1988). Phantoms in the Brain. HarperCollins. pp. 85–7.
  8. ^ Fensch, Thomas (2001). The Man Who Was Walter Mitty: The Life and Work of James Thurber. New York: New Century Books. p. 267. ISBN 0-930751-13-2.
  9. ^ American Film Institute. "Notes for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)". TCM Movie Database. Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2008-03-02.
  10. ^ a b
  11. ^ "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Official Trailer + Trailer Review : HD PLUS". YouTube. 31 July 2013. Retrieved 2013-08-13.
  12. ^ "Box Office Mojo - Movie Index, A-Z".
  13. ^ Thurber, James (1962). A Thurber Carnival. New York: Samuel French, Inc. ISBN 978-0-573-61668-6.
  14. ^ "A Thurber Carnival". Internet Broadway Database. The Broadway League. Retrieved 2008-03-01.
  15. ^ Manchester, Joe; James Thurber (1968). The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. New York: Samuel French, Inc. ISBN 0-573-68050-7.
  16. ^ Lewis, David. "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty". The Guide to Musical Theatre. David Lewis. Retrieved 2008-07-14.
  17. ^ "Time Listings". Time. Time Inc. November 13, 1964. Archived from the original on December 2, 2008. Retrieved 2008-03-02.

External linksEdit