James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”

A garden path short story

Seminar Paper, 2007

12 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Garden Path Phenomenon
2.1. A Garden Path Beginning
2.2. Indications for Fantasy Scenes

3. Real world vs. Daydreams
3.1. Development in Mitty’s Daydreams
3.2. The Henpecked Walter Mitty
3.3. Thurber – Parallels to Mitty

4. Thurber’s Narrative Style

5. Seriousness of Thurber’s Humour

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography
7.1. Primary Sources
7.2. Secondary Sources

1. Introduction

In the following pages I want to focus on James Thurber’s famous short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” which was first published in 1939 in the magazine The New Yorker. Thurber tells the story of a Walter Mitty, a man who lives in a dream world to escape from the routines and humiliations which he suffers in everyday life.

Today the name “Walter Mitty” also exists in the English language and is used for people who are daydreaming and not paying attention to the real world. Walter Mitty became an archetypal American figure.

By reason of the structure of the short story and “Thurber’s own narrative style – economical, lightly ironic, and wonderfully expressive” (Holmes 218) it seems that this short story can be seen as a garden path story. The expression “to lead someone up the garden path” means “to deliberately deceive someone”. Manfred Jahn analysed this short story with respect to his garden path short story theory. Can “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” generally be regarded as a garden path story? What is of particular interest is whether the reader is misled by Thurber’s narrative technique especially at the beginning of the story. What are the reasons for Walter Mitty’s escapist daydreams and how is Mitty’s character presented in the story?

Firstly, I will describe the garden path phenomenon and applied to “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” I will analyse the beginning of the short story. In addition, I will name some hints where the reader realises Walter Mitty’s various daydream episodes. In the next chapter I will concentrate on the story’s two narrative levels. First of all, I will describe Mitty’s development in the course of his daydreams and then I will take a look on the real Walter Mitty. Moreover, I will briefly try to find similarities between James Thurber and Walter Mitty. Afterwards, James Thurber’s narrative style and his sense of humour will be presented. The conclusion will comprise the main points and some suggestions for further discussion.

2. The Garden Path Phenomenon

In his short story theory with reference to garden paths Manfred Jahn starts with the famous garden path sentence – “a type of sentence that causes unexpected processing difficulty” (Jahn 167). He goes on and defines the garden path sentence also in this way: “a type of sentence that traps the reader in a processing failure and requires an act of reanalysis to recuperate its actual structure and meaning” (Jahn 169).

The garden path phenomenon was already treated in cognitive linguistics, discourse analysis, linguistic stylistics and psycholinguistics. Many linguists found out that readers can recognise some ambiguous structures and sometimes readers can also get gardenpathed by ambiguous sentences. Pritchett proposed a hypothesis that “there exist processing strategies which are invariably pursued during parsing – thus leading to the correct analysis in certain instances and failing in others” (541). When the reader gets gardenpathed he realises that something has gone wrong and tries to find the source of error and to recover from it.

Normally ambiguity is “resolved on the basis of situational and contextual knowledge” (Jahn 173). But context is not always the best method to identify ambiguity and therefore Jahn mentions frames, scripts and preference rules. He points out that they “provide the presuppositions that enable one to understand what the discourse is about” (176). Jackendoff defines a preference rule system as follows:

A preference rule system is a means of producing a judgment or analysis on the basis of a number of discrete conditions. In any given field to which the system applies, each individual condition contributes a preferred analysis, with an intrinsic strength or weight of application. The overall analysis arrived at by the system is the one that receives the greatest weight from individual conditions. (252)

It is a normal thing that people can sometimes misunderstand something and this is “nowhere more apparent than when one is led down a garden path” (Jahn 176). Jahn puts this in simpler words – “a garden path triggers a preference-rule system failure” (176). This means also that there was a change of frame and therefore, for the reader, a correction is needed. There exist also garden paths which “do not depend on ambiguity at all” (Jahn 176). Normally the reader prefers what makes more sense.

2.1. A Garden Path Beginning

Thurber’s short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” begins with one of Mitty’s reveries of heroism and fame. Because of the fact that the story opens in Mitty's fantasy world with no explanation that it is Walter Mitty’s imagination, the reader assumes that Walter Mitty is the man who is first introduced: an admirable old commander who is getting his hydroplane through a hurricane. He is fearless, has much power and control, and holds the respect of his crew. But when his wife suddenly interrupts him, "Not so fast! You're driving too fast!" (Thurber 34. Page references in the text are to this edition.), she brings him back to reality and the reader realises for the first time in retrospect that the first paragraph was Walter Mitty’s illusion and not his real life.

The new story line, Walter Mitty and his wife driving in a car to Waterbury, suddenly appears and this is the moment where the reader realises the garden path effect. First readers “initially proceed on the preference to assume” (Jahn 185) that the beginning of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is Walter Mitty’s real world because they have no reasons for assuming that they are in Mitty’s fantasy world.

The most usual shifts take place from the level of the real world into the level of a character’s dreams and illusions. And at the end of the story the reader returns to the real life of a character. This is the reader’s preference to assume that the story begins in the fiction’s real world and that additional shifts between these two levels will be “textually signaled” (Jahn 185). Manfred Jahn also states that consequently “any text deviating from this pattern will present a garden path” (185). According to McHale this can also be a deliberate postmodernist method of “misleading the reader into regarding an embedded, secondary world as the primary, diegetic world” (qtd. in Jahn 185). In “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” the story, however, also ends with one of Mitty’s daydream episodes.

But the first daydream episode is not only recognisable when it is over. This scene, where Mitty imagines himself to be a commander, is presented in an exaggerated way and embodies melodramatic clichés of adventure fiction and movies. For this reason the beginning of the short story, Mitty’s first daydreaming fantasy, seems not to be his real life. While reading the first daydreaming episode the clever reader is getting more and more aware of the fact that this cannot be Mitty’s real life and that it must be his secret world of fantasy, long before Walter Mitty’s wife interrupts him.

Not only in the first heroic fantasy of being a commander “Mitty’s misuse of words and concocted over-dramatizations” (Lindner 284) become evident to the reader; this can also be seen in his daydreams throughout the whole short story. The first sentence reminds the reader of an ordinary adventure story or a movie. In his first fantasy he is wearing “his full-dress uniform, with the heavily braided white cap pulled down rakishly over one cold gray eye” (34). The attentive reader might get suspicious here. But when Thurber describes the onomatopoetic sound of the pounding cylinders, “ta-pocketa – pocketa – pocketa – pocketapocketa” (34) and the several command clichés it becomes clearer that this must be a sort of fantasy. This onomatopoetic sound also occurs in Walter Mitty’s second and fourth daydream “which runs throughout the tale like a comic leitmotif” (Holmes 218). In addition, there does not exist an “eight-engined Navy hydroplane” (34) with the description “SN202” (34).

Manfred Jahn holds the view that “yet these are dead giveaways retrospectively only” (186) and it is only when suddenly Mrs. Mitty interrupts her husband and the fiction’s real world appears to the reader that “the garden path’s symptom manifests itself in full force” (Jahn 186). He sums up the garden path beginning in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” in this way:

The initial garden path in “Walter Mitty” is functional not only because it forces us, at one point, to accept Mitty’s ridiculous dream world as ground-level reality, but also because it makes us undertake the cognitive leap from seeing it as a bungling B-movie narrative to reinterpreting it as the wish-fulfillment “dreamwork” of a protagonist whose real life has become all but meaningless. (186)


Excerpt out of 12 pages


James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”
A garden path short story
University of Stuttgart  (Institut für Literaturwissenschaft - Neuere Englische Literatur)
HS Short Story and Short Story Theory
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
417 KB
James, Thurber’s, Secret, Life, Walter, Mitty”, Short, Story, Short, Story, Theory
Quote paper
Anastasia Deibert (Author), 2007, James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” , Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/85711


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