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Domestic Prison

Gender Roles and Marriage

The Domestic Prison: James Thurber's "Secret Life of Walter Mitty" and Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour"

James Thurber's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (1939) and "The Story of an Hour" (1894) by Kate Chopin depict marriage as a prison for both men and women from which the main characters fantasize about escaping. Louise Mallard is similar to the unnamed narrator in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" is that they are literally imprisoned in a domestic world from which there is no escape but death or insanity. As in all of this early feminist fiction, the women characters are defined as 'sick', either physically or mentally, for even imaging a situation on which they might be free, for they are allowed no lives of their own. Louise Mallard was overjoyed when she heard that her husband was killed in an accident, and began to hope and dream again for the first time about what the world might be like as a free human being. She no more regretted his death than Walter Mitty would have been upset over the sudden passing of Mrs. Mitty, but drops dead of a heart attack only when he ends up coming home after all. In fact, this story was based on the actual death of Kate Chopin's own father in a railroad accident and the feeling of sudden freedom and liberation that it gave to her mother. Walter Mitty is an ironic and satirical reversal of this type of feminist writing, since in Thurber's story the husband is the 'feminine' character who is trapped by marriage and social convention when he would really rather be off alone having some type of male adventures. Only on the surface is Walter Mitty a charming or humorous character because the reality under the surface is that he lacks any identity of his own, and is trapped in a routine, modern life of domestic tasks. Mrs. Mitty is like radio static or background noise that he tries to tune out, since she is a control freak and authoritarian, who not only tries to 'mother' him but control his every thought and move. Whenever he shows the slightest sign of independence, imagination or personality, she suggests that he is must be 'sick' and should see a doctor or have his temperature taken. Both of these stories present an extremely bleak and hopeless picture of marriage, gender relations and domestic life in which the main characters would truly rather be just about anywhere else.

In the classic 1939 short story by James Thurber, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," Mrs. Mitty, lacks even a first name and is nagging, thoroughly unpleasant wife,. Walter simply tries to escape from her into a fantasy life of a great surgeon or war hero, anything but dull normality of his life. Many of Thurber's stories featured wives who were "the stereotypical nagging, niggling partners (which was objectionable to modern feminists) who browbeat their husbands" (Greenberg and Watts, 2009, p. 252). In satirical and humorous American fiction, from Rip van Winkle on into the 20th Century, wives like Mrs. Mitty are conservative and "unimaginative upholders of the status quo, who serve as foils to the boyish imaginations of men; their stern common sense makes them dull and unimaginative" (Walker, 1988, p. 43).

Mrs. Mitty has a large number of unpleasant characteristics which come out whenever she intrudes on Walter's fantasies and daydreams, which never involve her. She is a backseat driver who complains that she does not like him to go more than forty miles per hour, and suggests that he should see a doctor. As usual, Walter hardly listens to her at all and she appears to be "grossly unfamiliar, like a strange woman who had yelled at him in a crowd" (Thurber, 1979, p. 203). She tells him how to dress, cautioning that "you're not a young man any longer," complains when he sits in an old chair at the hotel, and when he does not wear his overshoes. When he asks "does it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking," she responds that she is going to take his temperature when they get home. In short, Mrs. Mitty has a talent for making even those ordinary domestic chores thoroughly unpleasant, which is why he "he hated these weekly trips to town -- he was always getting something wrong. Kleenex, he thought, Squibb's, razor blades? No. Tooth paste, toothbrush, bicarbonate, Carborundum, initiative and referendum?" (Thurber, p. 205).

Walter is continually lost in a dream world, when makes him oblivious to everyday realities, like noticing when the light turns green or using the correct lane to enter the parking lot. When not fantasizing, he is simply empty and aimless, with very little going on in his mind at all. People passing him on the street laugh when he talks to himself and mechanics make fun of him for being unable to handle simple mechanical tasks, like removing the chains from his tires. Only in his daydreams can be a fearless pilot and navigator, a world-famous surgeon with nerves of steel and millionaire patients, or a murderer on trial for his life with expert knowledge of firearms and deadly accuracy. Neither Walter Mitty nor Mrs. Mitty seem to have any real job or profession, at least none that is mentioned in the story. Mrs. Mitty goes shopping and gets her hair done once a week, but she seems to be basically a domestic character rather than an independent feminist woman, although she also rules the household. No children are mentioned, and if Walter has a job at all it is most likely a very dull and routine one. In every respect, he is the opposite of the "erect and motionless, proud and disdainful" character in his masculine adventure-story fantasies (Thurber, p. 207). In fact, all of his fantasies appear to have originated from movies, newspapers, adventure stories and other forms of popular culture, nut in real life Walter Mitty is not very much of anything, and the story does not even give any clues about what his job is, although it was very probably a dull one. At the end of the story, he picks up a magazine called Liberty and glances at an article called "Can Germany Conquer the World through the Air?" As he "looked at the pictures of bombing planes and of ruined streets," he imagined himself in the war, flying a bomber on a dangerous mission over Germany, although it sounds more like the First World War than the Second. This dream does not last very long, and although Mrs. Mitty always 'wins' in the end, the "reader's sympathy is supposed to remain with the dreaming, downtrodden husband," while she seems to be more like a humorous plot device than a full-fledged character (Walker, p. 44).

Walter Mitty as in effect reversed roles with the passive domestic Louise Mallard of the Victorian Era and become passive and 'feminized'. In the forty years that elapsed between the writing of these stories, that status of women had indeed improved in the U.S. since they received the vote in 1920 and had more educational and professional opportunities, although even in 1939 it was still very much a male-dominated world in politics, culture and economic life. Walter Mitty was obviously not in any position of real power, of course, either inside or outside the domestic sphere, and far from being a great surgeon, aviator, sailor or other stereotypical masculine hero, was an ordinary middle class man who had trouble operating simple machinery. In every respect, he was more like the trapped and depressed domestic servants portrayed in the Chopin and Gilman stories, lacking any real life of his own or even the will to make one.

After the Civil War and continuing through the beginning of the 20th Century, many new female authors emerged in American literature. Some, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Louisa May Alcott, articulated explicitly feminist points-of-view, while others, such as Kate Chopin, were less obviously revolutionary in their intentions but still brought new perspectives in to American literature. Even so, the women characters in her fictional work also shared a strong desire to escape from the constraints of Victorian marriage and family life. She was born into a French Catholic Creole family in St. Louis, and later lived in Louisiana with her husband until she became a widow, and most of her fiction work takes place in these locations. Unlike Louisa May Alcott and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, she never explicitly described herself as a feminist or reformer, although the female heroines in her short stories and novels were highly unconventional by 19th Century standards. Her family also supported the Confederacy during the Civil War, though, and Chopin's attitudes toward blacks were hardly sympathetic. In short stories like "Neg Creol," for example, even the freed slaves were always shown as loyal to their former masters, and this is what most…[continue]

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