Walter Mitty is a fictional character in James Thurber’s short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, published in 1941. Mitty is a meek, mild man with a vivid fantasy life: in a few dozen paragraphs he imagines himself a wartime pilot, an emergency-room surgeon, and a devil-may-care killer. He has become such a standard for the role that his name appears in several dictionaries.
The character was played by Danny Kaye in the 1947 film version, and is scheduled to be played by Owen Wilson in a future film version. Thurber opposed the 1947 production, possibly because it trivialized a darker and more significant message underlying the text. It is possible to read the events in the story as the responses to the stress of reality by an aging man who is sliding into senescence. In the brief snatches of reality that punctuate Mitty’s fantasies we meet well-meaning but insensitive strangers who inadvertently rob Mitty of some of his remaining dignity. His wife is the only inhabitant of reality that we meet more than once. Thurber cleverly leads us into accepting her as a nag by giving Mitty’s fantasies a charming lightness and comic-book simplicity that disarms deeper scrutiny. On the other hand, her final appearance suggests that she is a woman struggling to cope as her role shifts from loving life-partner to care-giver as Mitty slowly slides into his second childhood.