CC: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

This week’s story, James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a classic.  You probably had to read it in school.  And now they’ve made a movie out of it which, if the trailer is to be believed, completely missed the point of the story.  Fortunately, you can ruin the movie, but they can’t destroy the text it’s based on.

I wanted to pull this one out for analysis because it does something that’s a lot harder than it looks: it mixes scenes and vignettes inside a larger story without externally marking the shift and without confusing the reader.  Readers are frequently stupid and notoriously bad at psychically intuiting what the author wants them to know, so pulling off the conceit of this story is no mean feat.

There are a couple things Thurber does to signal transitions and keep the reader grounded on whether they’re in the fantasy or reality.  The first of these are the ellipses.  They’re a really subtle visual cue to mark a transition.  He also keeps them embedded in the fantasy – they’re the first thing at the opening when you’re transitioning into it and the last thing you see on your way out.    This works really well as a device and sets up the mid-paragraph transition at the end.

One of the other techniques he does is to remind you that you’re in a fantasy when you’re in the fantasy sections.  It’s not jus tthe exuberant fawning over Mitty that happens in the fantasies, but the “pocketa pocketa pocketa” sound that gets pulled into each of them.  Even in the first section before you know it’s a fantasy, the noise is there.  This supports Mrs. Mitty’s assertion that there’s something medically wrong with Mitty – his brain has some weird aural quirks going on – but aside from that, it’s a gentle reminder to the reader that the scene they’re reading right now has something in common with a previous scene, namely that it isn’t really happening.

The best of the structural cues build into the story is the way the inspiration for the fantasy ties directly into a trigger from real life.  In the first fantasy the pilot fantasy is lanuched by driving.  Talk of needing to see the doctor launches the surgeon fantasy, trying to recall a detail launches the courtroom investigation.  The inspirations are blatant without being tacky.  Turber wants to make sure the reader notices the correlation because the meaning of the final transition hinges on that understanding – living his ordinary life with his mundane wife is triggering the firing squad fantasy, a commentary  on his feelings about his life.  Since Thurber was straightforward with his technique in the rest of the story, he doesn’t need to preach or say out flat out for us to know it, and it’s a message that’s much more effective for being delivered that way.

Next week: Wikihistory by Desmond Warzel.

Followed by: And Their Lips Rang With the Sun by Amal El-Mohtar.

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