“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” by James Thurber is the first piece of short fiction that I teach in my Intro to Fiction course. It’s a good place to start, I think, because it’s a piece that has both many things going on and a pretty simple storyline. Though the language is sometimes a hang-up — it’s a very mainstream, 1942-type of writing, none of the whiz-bang of the modern stuff that students are used to now — what makes the story work, generally, is that people relate to Mitty. Most students can say, no, I totally get that desire to escape. And it’s easy (at least to me) to modernize the fantasies here, to point out that it’s a story about a man escaping reality in the only way he can, without rocking his world completely — much in the same way that many students today might play several hours of video games, or watch hours and hours of television shows with predictable endings.
And so it’s a relatable protagonist, and from there we can talk about why it’s still relevant (because it would have had a different read, a different urgency of escapism in the 1940s), and we can talk a little about why we keep reading the story once it starts. From there, I get to introduce what I consider to be the first building-block of a short story: the idea that the protagonist must have an Opportunity for Change. With Mitty, I think the path toward that opportunity is what propels the reader onward. We get from the first page that this is a man looking for escape, and we soon understand his reasons, and so we spend the story waiting to see both how his method of escape has an effect on his life and whether he’s going to do anything to change his misery. Thurber does a great job of slowly blending Mitty’s fantasy segments with his reality checks. The moment comes when Mitty is sitting in the hotel lobby, and his wife interrupts his fantasy and he doesn’t quite come out of it — he says, instead, “Things close in,” and he says it “vaguely,” and then, then! he confronts her: “I was thinking,” he said. “Does it occur to you that I am sometimes thinking?”
Of course it doesn’t. The reader’s sympathy is firmly, forever, won over in this moment, when Mitty makes this pale attempt at standing up for himself. Here, then, it seems he’s put on the edge of a choice: he can go further with this confrontation, tell his wife to back off, to let him think, and he can begin to develop a life he doesn’t need such escape from, or he can return to life as it is, as it has been.
Just for having the choice, just for coming that close to it, Mitty becomes a real and complete character, a sympathetic protagonist. That he doesn’t change is part of the beauty of the story, because all of the build up to that moment is also telling us, at every turn, that this is not a man who can change the world, or himself, or his place in it. But the story survives because that choice is there.