What You Don’t Know About Walter Mitty

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Ben Stiller in a still from The Secret Life of Walter MittyThe Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is one of the saddest short stories you will ever read. Before you see the new film, you should read it.

It’s a very short story. I promise.

  • Our hero, Walter Mitty, lives an ordinary life. Much of his day is spent dreaming.
  • Unfortunately, nothing big happens in those dreams.
  • Before Mitty can be the hero of his imaginary narrative, he is interrupted by real life.

Mitty doesn’t solve crimes. He doesn’t perform life-saving surgery. He isn’t a war hero. Just on the cusp of greatness, his dreams dissolve into the monotony of the real world.

This story broke my heart when I first read it as a young woman. I wondered why Mitty was so stuck. Why wouldn’t he try? Didn’t he deserve more?

And it breaks my heart now, as a middle-aged woman, because I know he will never change. He chooses this mediocre life. Just look at the last sentence.

Then, with that faint, fleeting smile playing about his lips, he faced the firing squad; erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.

Mitty is only undefeated because he doesn’t try. He is only inscrutable because he chooses not to be understood. And when Mitty finally stands before a firing squad to face his own truth, he doesn’t even have the audacity to die.

So sad. Also infuriating.

Anyway, the new film by Ben Stiller offers hope and optimism. And that’s fine because many people need hope and optimism, right now. But if you see this movie, I hope you remember that the story doesn’t end well for Mitty. It’s easy to acquiesce to mediocrity. Mitty’s life will never change. There is no happy ending.

But — and here’s where I agree with Ben Stiller — you are not a character in a James Thurber story. I think you are more than Mitty. You can still dream. You can accomplish big things.

I believe in you, and I’m not charging you $10 and a bucket of popcorn to tell you that.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

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