Obviously I'm a literature connoisseur because I'm an English teacher, right? Wrong. There are millions of texts, nay, trillions of texts, that I don't even know exist. This is so you understand that I didn't know The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was originally a short story because I don't know everything.
Now you'll understand my pleasant surprise when I found out about the short story.
The original, in only it's skin and bones, is not thrilling or particularly entertaining. To quote some of my sophomore students after reading the story, "What the (insert teenage expletive)?" "Where's the ending?" "That was dumb." If you don't understand the context of being a high schooler, allow me to give you a glimpse. Almost everything you experience can be followed by "What the (insert teenage expletive)?" Most things in English class are especially "dumb." And with many things going on in your life you often wonder, "Where's the ending?" So, in the context of being 15, these statements are not that unusual.
However, those reactions aren't often associated with short stories. Short stories are supposed to be a snippet of thrill, and a moment of being transported to another world and another mind. But Walter Mitty just doesn't seem to evoke the same reactions that a normal short story does. That's how I coined the phrase "being Walter Mitty-ed." I decided that's what happened to me when I saw the movie and again when I read the short story.
Walter Mitty's life is boring. The only thing that brings him any thrill is daydreaming about thrilling things. My question to my students, after reading the story, was "Why?" Why tell the story of this man and his painfully boring life and his overactive imagination?
When I first asked them that question I wasn't sure that I even knew the answer. But while I watched parts of the movie with my students and we talked it over, I think we may have discovered the answer. Or at least one of the answers.
There is a scene in the movie where it seems like Walter is daydreaming again, but something is different this time. This time he isn't glazed like a Krispy Kreme doughnut while the daydream happens. This time he jumps onto a lifting helicopter that's about to fly into a storm. His daydreams begin to mix with his reality. From then on he never has another daydream for the rest of the movie. But sometimes, as the audience, you question the reality of his reality, and wonder if he's slipped back into a daydream. But he hasn't. He goes on to fight a shark and run from an erupting volcano. He climbs the Himalayas and gets to see a rare snow leopard. He began living what would definitely have been daydreams only a few days before.
Asking my students what they thought of this, they became very angry. Probably because I provoked them to anger. Sometimes analyzing literature is best when you're feeling a powerful emotion. Or at least that's how I rationalize provoking them. I asked them how they could possibly know if he was dreaming or not. Their response was that he actually did something while he was daydreaming.
Mrs. L:But how do you know?
Class: Because he jumped on the helicopter.
Mrs. L: Well maybe the helicopter is part of the dream.
Frustrated class: It's not.
Mrs. L: Well then what is part of the dream?
Irritated class: Cheryl is part of the dream.
Mrs. L: Okay then how do you know the helicopter isn't?
Angry class: Because it's real.
Mrs. L: Well how can that be? When he daydreams he doesn't move, so either Cheryl is actually there or the whole rest of the movie is a dream. Which one is it?
Infuriated, leaping out of their desks with pitchforks class: BECAUSE SOME OF IT IS A DREAM AND SOME OF IT IS REAL! AAAAGGGHHHHH!
Mrs. L: Why?
I'm the best teacher.
In almost incoherent yells of frustration, draped with drool and framed by steam coming out of their ears, they tried to tell me why the filmmakers made this choice: to mix dreams and reality. We talked about what this represents to us as an audience and what it means for Walter Mitty as a character.
You see, Walter made a choice in that moment to stop daydreaming and instead DO what his daydreaming self would do. Jump on the freakin' helicopter. Notice how I didn't say "live his daydream."
My students and I came up with a theory: telling someone or telling yourself to "live your dreams" is stupid. We decided that Walter Mitty didn't choose to live his dreams--he chose to do what his dream self would do in real life. His dream self took risks. Dream Walter acted in whatever moment he was given. That's exactly what Walter started to do. So don't live your dreams. Instead, live like your daydreaming self. Be where you are, but be bold. Take risks. Do things out loud that you would normally only do in your head.
Go get Walter Mitty-ed. It's a thing.