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…
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