The secret to long life of James Thurber’s continuously anthologized and adapted short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” lies in its utter universality. No matter how famous, rich and successful beyond your wildest dreams one may become, each and every human carries around with them a secret fantasy life. Everybody experiences those moments throughout the day when a word or a sound or a scent or memory stimulates a brief escape from reality into that realm of the imagination where all things are possible.
That being said, the secret life of the imagination of Walter Mitty into James Thurber affords us access is a very specific type of escape that is coincident with the very specific nature of relationships. That nature has evolved somewhat since the story was first published in the New Yorker magazine on March 18, 1939, but enough of it remains today to still lend it a universality. “Walter Mitty” has gone on to become a metaphor for the type of person with a rich and varied life inside their mind that stands in stark contrast to the mundane reality that everybody can clearly see, but, again, the Walter Mitty that Thurber created is an iconic representation of a quite specific example of this universal archetype: he is the henpecked husband.
Henpecked husbands still exist in likely the same rough percentage of the population as they did during Thurber’s time. Of course, sociological and psychological advances since then have contributed to transforming the image of this stereotype to a degree. As it relates to “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” that degree is only relevant to the extent that the passage of time has impacted how the submissive husband married to a dominant wife has no longer become one the central tropes of comedy. At the time Thurber published his short story, Mitty was not viewed as such a universal representative of the power of the imagination to allow ordinary people to escape their lives of quiet desperation. Readers in 1939 instantly recognized Mitty as the much more precisely drawn parody of a husband desperately searching for a way to establish autonomy and individuality in the face of a personality far too willing to submit to his wife’s own domineering personality.
The transformation of Walter Mitty into a far more universal figure of searching for individuality through fantasy and less a specific example of the henpecked husband can be tracked along a line following its adaptations into other media. Less than a decade after the story was published, the first film version appeared starring Danny Kaye. Notably absent from the plot was Mitty’s wife—replaced by both a domineering mother and fiancé--which did nothing to stop the movie from becoming a box office hit. A little over a decade later, a stage musical of the story was mounted with Mitty’s wife returned to a place of prominence in the plot. That version closed after less than 100 performances and essentially disappeared forever. The most recent film version directed by and starring Ben Stiller essentially put the final nail in the coffin to the story’s connection to being henpecked by utterly eliminating the presence of a domineering feminine influence on Walter’s behavior. Perhaps even more significant as an element in the evolution of Walter Mitty’s status as metaphor, Stiller’s movie also greatly diminishes the role of fantasy in Mitty’s life, tossing him headlong into the need to act heroically in real world situations at a point far earlier in the movie than the point in which Kaye’s Mitty comes into conflict between his heroic fantasies and the heroic demands of reality.