An Analysis of Thurber's "Mitty" and Chopin's "Story"
James Thurber's comic "Secret Life of Walter Mitty" and Kate Chopin's "Story of an Hour" may at first glance seem to have little in common. One is the humorous tale of an aloof husband who spends more time in his imagination than with his wife in reality. The other is a short, level-toned narrative that describes a woman's exultation upon learning that her husband has died. Setting style and structure aside, the two stories actually begin with a common theme (even though they treat of it differently): that theme is the escape from one's spouse. This paper will compare and contrast the theme, structure, literary elements, style and definition of Thurber's "Walter Mitty" and Chopin's "Story" and show how the two authors take one idea in two completely different directions only to arrive at the same place -- escape through death (rather real or imagined).
As has been stated, the theme of the two stories is similar, but the treatment of the theme is different. Thurber illustrates the theme of the "desire for separation from one's spouse" by way of Walter Mitty's "secret life" -- which are nothing more than his daydreams. Mrs. Mallard also has a "secret life" but it is not as vividly or richly described. When she realizes that she is "free" of her husband and that her life is her own again, her Imagination carries her away just as Mitty's does (although his tends to carry him away to action adventure fantasies). But while Thurber's story is filled with hilarious observances and remarks, Chopin's is much drier and more straight-forward. For Chopin, the theme is too serious to be treated in a kind of slap-stick manner. This difference in approach affects the style, structure, and definition of both stories.
Chopin's style may be explained by Alfred Habegger's (1976) assessment that "there is a long-standing tradition in the United States that women have, and ought to have, a basic incapacity for humor or wit" (p. 884). Yet, such tradition is hardly universal, and one suspects that in America -- if in fact such a tradition exists -- it has something to do with the pragmatic, Puritanical propriety that governed the early years of the nation's development. As if to challenge the view, Habegger relates one woman's witty reply to the notion that women are -- in effect -- witless: "There is a reason for our apparent lack of humor…Women do not find it politic to cultivate or express their wit. No man likes to have his story capped by a better and fresher from a lady's lips" (p. 884). The witty retort of Habegger's anonymous female offers an insightful look into the cause of Chopin's Mrs. Mallard and the straight-forward depiction of her conflict in "Story of an Hour." It is perhaps that precise "politic" cultivation that Mrs. Mallard is overjoyed to escape from. She sees in her husband bondage to a way of life that limits and constrains her desires. When she hears that he is dead, a new life springs up in her.
Thurber's "Mitty" on the other hand treats the theme more playfully. The style is comedic and witty. Mr. Mitty's wife is a nagging, controlling, domineering woman when viewed in contrast to her husband's self-effacing, mute, but reluctant ambivalence. In fact, each one of his daydreams is "capped off" by the intrusion of another of his wife's missives: "You're tensed up again…It's one of your days. I wish you'd let Dr. Renshaw look you over…Remember to get those overshoes while I'm having my hair done…Where's the what's-its-name? Don't tell me you forgot the what's-its-name…Why do you have to hide in this old chair? How do you expect me to find you?" Thurber intimates that Mr. Mitty has been receiving such "cappings off" since the day he met his wife, thus thrusting him into his own world of escapism: it is Mitty's reply to the transformation marriage necessitates -- only in his case, as exaggerated by Thurber, the transformation called for is a complete overhaul of Mitty as a man -- which he resists.
So again, one can see that the central characters reject the idea that they must alter themselves to fulfill their role of spouse. While both stories are written from the third person perspective, both are penned by an omniscient narrator who reveals the "secret" thoughts of the two very different (yet similar) protagonists. The antagonist of each is the respective spouse -- Mitty's wife, Mallard's husband -- and each protagonist ultimately is led to the same conclusion, that the only way out of their arrangement is death. Mrs. Mallard dies of a stroke upon realizing that her husband is not dead and that the bliss she initially experienced is not real (for her husband literally steps through the door)! Mr. Mitty imagines his death scene in a new fantasy in which he is blindfolded and set in front of a firing squad. Chopin's ending uses irony to convey effect: she states that Mrs. Mallard died of joy -- but the revelations concerning her character earlier in the story show that she has died rather of shock. Thurber uses satire to convey effect: he shows how Mitty escapes into his own world to elude the real one. Thurber suggests that such daydreams are part of the human experience. But Thurber does it to an exaggerated degree in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," as the protagonist pictures himself in an exciting "montage of motion picture cliches and dramatic climaxes" to punctuate the boring, daily routine of married life (Ellis, 1965, p. 310).
Thus, Thurber's "Mitty" appears to suggest that Imagination is a powerful tool -- and a necessary one -- for dealing with a hostile reality. It appears, for example, that Mr. Mitty has no desire to be the leader in his marriage -- he has taken a much more obedient and docile role; and it appears that his wife has no desire to take orders from her husband. Yet, such appearances can be misleading for two reasons: 1) Walter Mitty daydreams of playing the role of strong, heroic leader; and 2) his wife's frustration at her husband's apparent inattention and ineptitude points to a desire on her part to have a husband who, in fact, does take a more active role in the relationship. Considering these points, the reader may argue that the gender roles in Thurber's "Secret Life," although apparently reversed, are not adopted out of any active desire, but rather out of necessity. The transformation that the coupling of the two characters should have effected (him to assertiveness, her to docility -- according to gender norms of the time), has seemingly backfired in Thurber's tale, resulting in docility on his part, and overbearing assertiveness on her end. One may argue that it is not only Mr. Mitty who is using his Imagination fulfill a role he does not play in real life, but that it is also Mrs. Mitty who may be imagining herself to be subservient.
As for Mitty himself, he eventually tires of his wife's nagging, but instead of doing anything about it, he lights a cigarette and pretends to be standing in front of a firing squad. Mitty appears to be resigned to the fact that he will never fill the role he is meant to fill, and his contempt is manifest in the stance he takes as he awaits his wife's return once more: he is "proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated" -- undefeated, however, only in his imagination. In reality, he is the persona of the failure of a generation to honor the gender codes of that particular day and age: Mitty is Thurber's reproach to American masculinity, which, as symbolized in the protagonist, is more likely to daydream of cinematic heroism than it is to effect that kind of heroism in every day life.
Chopin's story, on the other hand, is governed by a "reversal," as Daniel Deneau (2003) illustrates (p. 210). Chopin sets her story up not as a comedic illustration of the relationship between man and wife, but as a kind of indictment of that relationship. The "reversal" is used at the end to effect the sense of bondage felt by Mrs. Mallard in her marriage state. Lawrence Berkove (2000) states that Mrs. Mallard is actually "an immature egotist and a victim of her own extreme self-assertion" (p. 152). In a way, this connects her even more deeply to Thurber's Walter Mitty, who is himself a kind of adult-boy, still fantasizing about boyish escapes in an attempt to flee from the world that others foist upon him. Immaturity may be said to be at the root of both protagonists' being, which would in turn make each protagonist his (and her) own antagonist as well. Such an idea may be seen as implicit in each story, but it depends, of course, on a reading…