Marriage in Literature: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and “The Story of an Hour”
On the surface, it would not seem as though Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” would be comparable because of their varying tones, the former is comedic and the latter is more serious, and themes, escapism vs. reality. However, at the heart of both stories is a marriage that is unhappy. In both stories, the protagonist has been slowly suffocated by their husband or wife. They both are extremely unhappy in their unions and use their imagination to escape their realities. The stories differ in how the protagonist deals with the intrusion of reality into their happy fantasy; one continues on in the fantasy world, making it less and less likely that he can survive within reality and one admits that she cannot return to reality and dies.
In James Thurber’s short work “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” the eponymous character spends the majority of the story imagining himself in these amazing situations where he is someone of great importance. Mitty, in his real life, is a middle-aged man who is henpecked by his wife. In reality, he has no power. So, it would make sense that his fantasy life would place him in positions of power and respect, but all the fantasies call upon Mitty to perform an act of heroism and save the day. What makes Walter Mitty different from men in similar positions is that he spends more of his life in this fantasy world than he does in the real world. Walter Mitty is decidedly unhappy in his life. He escapes it by becoming an author in his own mind.
The story begs for the reader to understand what it is like for this oppressed and dissatisfied man and to relate to his need for an existence more imaginative and more adventurous than he could ever experience in reality (Belsey 2005,-page 2). In reality, Walter Mitty is taking a simple drive to town with his wife to do their weekly shopping and so she may go to the beauty parlor. His life is so uneventful that the greatest achievement of his life is going to the store with his wife. This is the highlight of Walter Mitty’s life; at least it is the highlight of his real life.
Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” is an account of a marriage in the late 1800s. This was the era of the cult of domesticity where the little wife was supposed to be the angel of the house, running the domestic sphere and leaving the outside world to her husband. In short, a Victorian woman’s life was her marriage. Her last name was her identity and her interests were supposed to include nothing outside of the home and her domestic duties. In “The Story of an Hour,” Mrs. Louise Mallard tastes freedom from the identity she has earned through marriage after hearing that her husband is dead. This freedom takes over her body and soul and when the moment of realization comes that this freedom was only fleeting, Mrs. Mallard is unable to exist any longer. When that freedom is taken away, she simply can no longer be. Louise Mallard is tasked with choosing between the freedom of her soul and the shackles of her marriage and is destroyed in the process.
Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” begins with a woman being told that her husband has been killed in a horrible train accident. Her family worries that the news will destroy her because she has a weak heart, not an unattractive trait for a Victorian woman. “Mrs. Mallard’s heart trouble is not so much a physical ailment, as the other characters in the story think, as a sign of a woman who has unconsciously surrendered her heart (i.e. her identity as an individual) to the culture of paternalism” (Jamil 2009,-page 216). Louise had once believed that she would be forever wed to this man for whom she has little or no affection. “It was only yesterday [Mrs. Mallard] had thought with a shudder that life might be long” (Chopin 2007,-page 194). Instead of going to pieces at the news of her widowhood, she comes to realize the failures of her marriage. Though she was doing her duty as a wife, she was miserable in it. After hearing of her husband’s demise, Louise reflects on the truth of her marriage. “There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature” (Chopin 2007,-page 194). She realizes that it has been a long time that she has been unhappy with her marriage, but that she was impotent against it.
In the first fantasy, Walter Mitty is a captain piloting a boat during a huge storm, then a magnificent surgeon, an assassin testifying in a courtroom, a member of the Royal Air Force (RAF) in Britain volunteering for a suicide mission, and finally as a man facing a firing squad prepared to meet death with courageous stoicism. Each of these fantasies is interrupted by the real world in the form of outside individuals. However, Mitty is never really fully engrossed in his fantasies. Despite his most fervent efforts, the sound of the car’s sputtering motor still makes its way as a sound effect in each of his fantasies. This influence prohibits Mitty from fully escaping into his fantasy world. After the first fantasy, Mitty is recalled to reality by the nagging of his wife to slow down the car. “She seemed grossly unfamiliar, like a strange woman who had yelled at him in a crowd” (Thurber 1939). It is evident from this line that slowly, Mitty is becoming more and more reliant on these fantasies to make it through his mundane existence. The fantasy is becoming closer to truth for him than a woman whom he has been married to for many years.
The reader is meant to sympathize with Walter Mitty above any of the other characters in the short story. While speaking with his wife, he talks in curt, short sentences but it is clear that she is the dominant one in the relationship. Their conversation right before she exits the car involves Walter going to purchase overshoes while she goes to get her hair done. He meekly replies, “I don’t need overshoes” (Thurber 1939). Mrs. Mitty is completely domineering of her husband. She demands that he buy overshoes, that he wear his gloves, and constantly reminds him that he is not a young man. Basically, Mrs. Mitty infantilizes her husband at every opportunity. In this way, she is systematically minimizing his importance as a man. This is why in his fantasies, Mitty is an unparalleled powerhouse. No one in the fantasy world can diminish his importance. It is not only his wife that makes Walter Mitty feel enfeebled. He also gets mocked by the policeman and by a strange woman on the street who laughs at him. At the climax of each fantasy, Mitty is called out of his fantasy by the reality of his life. Each time this happens, it is harder and harder for Walter to reconcile his desires with his true set of circumstances and he dives deeper and deeper into depression. At the very end of the story, Walter Mitty is reconciled with his wife. Their conversation is brief. He has purchased the overshoes that she was so set upon. Still Mrs. Mitty is unhappy because her husband did not put on the despised overshoes while he was in the story. His reasoning for this is that “I was thinking” (Thurber 1939). For the first time, Mitty stands up to his wife, to anyone in the real world when he asks her, “Does it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking?” It is evident from this that Walter never confronts his wife. He never questions her desires or stands up for himself or does anything in reality against her demands. In response to this she declares that Walter must be ill. No healthy version of her husband would have the audacity to stand up for herself in the slightest way.
Louis Mallard is trapped in a marriage, a union she despairs of and upon learning of her husband’s demise, she does not mourn as a proper wife should. Instead, she finds herself. “When she abandoned herself a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips. She said it over and over under her breath: ‘free, free, free!” (Chopin 2007,-page 194). For Louise, the news of her husband’s state of existence killed her. Witnesses mistakenly believed it was a heart attack brought on by joy. “When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease — of joy that kills” (Chopin 2007,-page 194). The reader is aware that this is entirely ironic. It is not joy which has caused Mrs. Mallard’s death but the knowledge that she must once again become “Mrs. Mallard.” Louise’s husband demolished her individuality until she felt she had no sense of self. His death gives Louise her individuality back. Selina Jamil (2009) writes, “Until her moment of illumination, Mrs. Mallard’s emotions have been stifled and suppressed to fit into the mold of hollow social conventions” (page 216). When that freedom is taken away again by the return of the no longer deceased Mr. Mallard, she collapses under the weight of her ball and chain, knowing that with his continued existence comes her further incarceration. Louise even questions to herself whether she ever loved her husband at all. “What could love, the unsolved mystery, count for in face of this possession of self-assertion which she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of being” (Chopin 2007,-page 194). She comes to the conclusion that her supposed affection was one out of societal necessity, not her own true affection. Louise, as a woman of class, was destined from birth to marry within her class, produce offspring, and eventually die a contented woman with all the comforts of her station. It would be inappropriate, and indeed even unwomanly, to desire anything more. Mrs. Mallard could no longer survive without freedom and yet she was too weak either physically or emotionally to claim that freedom when faced with any opposition.
Walter Mitty spends the final moments of the story entering into another one of his fantasies, this one much darker than the others. In all of Mitty’s previous fantasies, he was successfully combating an outside force, everyone around him depending on his services to save the day (Gander 1999,-page 203). The final fantasy is Mitty preparing to stand before a firing squad awaiting his execution. “He took one last drag on his cigarette and snapped it away. Then, with that faint, fleeting smile playing about his lips, he faced the firing squad; erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last” (Thurber 1939). There are many ways to interpret this final part of the story. Most assume that Mitty is just entering into another fantasy and that it too will be interrupted. Mitty’s life has been full of similar fantasies and the reader has just been the witness to one afternoon’s worth of imagination. However, if the reader looks more closely at these final lines, it becomes clear that this particular fantasy is more determined than the others. The finality of the words would lead the reader to believe that Mitty has made a decision. Standing on the sidewalk in a heavily-trafficked area, all Mitty has to do is to step into traffic and forever indulge in his world of fantasy and imagination by facing this metaphorical firing squad.
Like Mitty, Louise Mallard is married to a person who does not understand her. She is unhappy but in a general way, without specific things to complain about. This is because she too, like Mitty, is a nonentity (Smith 2010). Mrs. Mallard has no identity outside of her husband. When this man, this identity, is removed, she is reawakened. For the first time in ages she awakes from her self-imposed hibernation. Louise can hear birds and smell the nature around her. She is alive following her husband’s perceived death. Of course, Mr. Mallard comes home, having missed the train that would have ended his life. Faced with the knowledge that she will be once again encapsulated by her last name and the man who owns it, she instead dies.
Walter Mitty and Louise Mallard are both married. They are married to people who they cannot live with, in both a literal and figurative way. Neither is happy and they escape their misery by descending into a world of fantasy. Mitty’s fantasies have become so real that they take over his real life, to the point where he very likely ends his life rather than give up the fantasy. Mrs. Mallard indulges in a fantasy where she is finally a whole person who does not have to exist under the thumb of her husband. In the end, neither can accept when the ideal of the fantasy life is stripped away. Rather than become a dutiful wife again, Mrs. Mallard dies from a heart attack. Though debatable, there is enough evidence to state that Mr. Mitty, unable to handle being anything less than the hero of his imagination, Walter Mitty commits suicide by walking into traffic.
Belsey, C. (2005). Culture and the Real: Theorizing Cultural Criticism. Taylor and Francis: New
Chopin, Kate. (2007). “The Story of an Hour.” Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing. 6th
(Boston: Thomson/Wadsworth) 193 — 94.
Gander, Eric (1999). The Last Conceptual Revolution.” State University: New York, NY.
Jamil, S. (2009). “Emotions in the Story of an Hour.” The Explicator (67.3) 215-20.
Smith, Nicole (2010). “Literary Analysis of ‘Story of an Hour’ by Kate Chopin: Language,
Emotion and Marriage.” Retrieved from http://www.articlemyriad.com/story_hour.htm
Thurber, J. (1939) “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”
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