The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was authored by James Thurber and was first published in 1939 in a magazine and later in 1942 as a book. It is a short story about a Walter Mitty who accompanies his domineering wife for a weekly visit to the beauty parlor and shopping. As they go about their day to day activities, Mitty experiences some episodes of fantasy. These fantasy episodes are five in number and feature him as a pilot of a U.S. Navy hydroplane caught up in a stormy weather, a skilled and renowned surgeon executing a unique surgery, an assassin testifying in a courtroom, a daring Royal Air Force pilot in a secret suicide mission and the fantasy ends with him facing a firing squad. Each of the fantasy is induced by an occurrence in his surroundings. This short story aims to portray the American culture adeptly.
On the other hand, Country Lover is also a short story that was authored by Nadine Gordimer. It was published in 1980 in a short story collection known as A Soldiers Embrace. Originally, it was referred to as Town and Country Lovers (Gordimer, 1980, p. 332).The main aim off the narrative was to expose the strained relations- racial segregation, which bedeviled the nation of South Africa during apartheid. In particular, she uses the two characters of different racial backgrounds to bring home the idea of a society that was zero tolerant to inter-racial relationships. The story is about two lovers, one white and the other black, known by the names Paulus and Thebedi respectively. Their relationship begins from childhood and continues up to adulthood resulting into sexual encounter. Consequently, Thebedi becomes pregnant without the knowledge of Paulus. She is later married to Njabulo, a fellow black, when Paulus leaves for college. Upon realizing that he has a child with Thebedi, he returns and as alleged, murders the child under mysterious circumstances even though Njabulo has accepted. This essay seeks to look at the aforementioned short stories comparatively in the light of gender roles and marriage themes.
The main characters of both narratives are in a relationship that seems to be hit by some personality and societal turbulence. In Thurber’s Secret Life, Mitty seems to be left at the devices of everyone and his wife in particular. As they are driving to Waterbury, Mitty is caught up in his first fantasy, where he imagines himself as a pilot of an eight-engine Navy hydroplane. Unknown to him, he accelerates the car from 40 to 55. His wife shouts at him saying, “Not so fast! You're driving too fast!...What are you driving so fast for...You were up to fifty-five.” Later on, after they alight from the car at their destination, she orders him to remember to get some overshoes even though Mitty does not need them. Thurber writes,
"Remember to get those overshoes while I'm having my hair done," she said. "I don't need overshoes," said Mitty. She put her mirror back into her bag. "We've been all through that," she said, getting out of the car. "You're not a young man any longer."(Rabkin, 1997, p. 203).
On the other hand, in Gordimer’s Country Lovers, Paulus and Thebedi are on a relationship that is not approved by their society faced by racial differences. Therefore, interracial marriages are disapproved of by the societal fabric. This status quo thus introduces some fear in their relationship and later on proves to separate the two even though they have a child together.
Moreover, in Secret Life, there seems to be reversed gender roles as opposed to Country Lovers. In Secret Life for instance, Mitty is a henpecked husband who is ordered around by her wife to perform some duties as if he was a child. Mitty’s wife reminds him to wear his gloves after they alight from the car but later on Mitty removes them. Thurber writes,
“Why don't you wear your gloves? Have you lost your gloves?" Walter Mitty reached in a pocket and brought out the gloves. He put them on, but after she had turned and gone into the building and he had driven on to a red light, he took them off again. (Rabkin, 1997, p. 203).
Throughout the narrative, Mitty does not seem to be in control of his real life contrary to the hero depicted in his fantasies. He is not able to do even a simple task like parking his car properly. It takes a city “parking-lot attendant” to align his car properly at the parking bay as depicted in this statement,
“Back it up, Mac!! Look out for that Buick!” Walter Mitty jammed on the brakes. “Wrong lane, Mac, said the parking-lot attendant, looking at Mitty closely. “Gee. Yeh” muttered Mitty. He began cautiously to back out of the lane marked “Exit only.” “Leave her sit there,” said the attendant. “I’ll pull her away.” Mitty got out of the car. “Hey, better leave the key.” “Oh,” said Mitty, handing the man the ignition key. They’re so damn cocky, thought Walter, walking along Main Street; they think they know everything (Rabkin, 1997, p. 204)
In Country Lovers, gender roles take on the normal societal routine were the men are seen to be in charge while the women do not have a say in most of the matters. This status quo is brought out so well when Paulus comes back and kills their daughter. When the case is taken to the courts, Thebedi acknowledges that she saw Paulus pour some liquid into their daughter’s mouth thus killing it. Later, after a year had passed, she denied seeing Paulus poisoning their daughter. This is evident in the following words during the trial:
She cried hysterically in the witness box, saying yes, yes (the gilt hoop ear-rings swung in her ears), she saw the accused pouring liquid into the baby's mouth. She said he had threatened to shoot her if she told anyone…More than a year went by before, in that same town, the case was brought to trial. She came to Court with a new-born baby on her back. She wore gilt hoop ear-rings; she was calm; she said she had not seen what the white man did in the house (Gordimer, 1980, p. 336)
It is clear that Thebedi must have changed her version of the story perhaps after hearing threats coming from the Eysendyck family particularly Paulus. She had to alter the storyline not only because she was black but a black woman for that matter.
Another similarity that is noticeable in both stories is the theme of escapism. In Secret of Life, Mitty resorts to daydreaming all the while as a way to quell the marital frustrations he experiences. Most of the time, she is caught by his wife confused and out of touch with reality making her think that he is sick. She says, "You're tensed up again…It's one of your days. I wish you'd let Dr. Renshaw look you over” (Rabkin, 1997, p. 202). The domineering nature of his wife seems to motivate him to rely on fantasies as a way of intoxicating away his low self-esteem due to a troubled marriage. This proves to provide him some solace in the meantime. In Country Lovers, escapism is seen when Paulus murders his daughter perhaps to avoid his marriage responsibility and to shield himself from any embarrassment that may come from a community that is against interracial marriages. Although it is not clear why Thebedi later denied Paulus responsibility in the death of their daughter, the racial segregation that permeated in their society gives us strong proof to believe that he was the culprit. After being acquitted due to lack of evidence, he rejects the congratulatory words coming from the press and the public and instead chooses to shield himself from photographers. Gordimer writes, “The young white man refused to accept the congratulations of press and public and left the Court with his mother's raincoat shielding his face from photographers” (Gordimer, 1980, p. 336). This reaction can be attributed to Paulus disturbed conscience probably because of performing a heinous crime of killing an innocent child.
Furthermore, a striking difference in the two literary masterpieces is in their style of writing. Secret of Life is full of humorous incidences that ease the reader’s emotions even though he uses surreal descriptions of the fantasies. These humorous instances help to sooth Mitty as he muses over these imagined events. They help the protagonist, Mitty, to forget his marital struggles as they send chills and soothing sensations through his body. For instance, when Mitty says, “With any known make of gun…I could have killed Gregory Fitzhurst at three hundred feet with my left hand”. Although Mitty is right handed, Thurber tries to bring the humor that Mitty could kill somebody of Gregory Fitzhurst caliber just with the help of the left hand with a huge distance separating them. However, Country Lovers is melancholic with only few instances of humor. It is characterized by death, slavery and injustices experienced in South Africa and try to let the reader get the facts in a storyline. A somber mood is evidenced by the fact that Thebedi’s daughter dies mysteriously and nothing is done about it in the Court.
The two stories, Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Nadine Gordimer’s Country Lovers reveal the dire situation facing the key characters. In Secret Life, Mitty’s lack of assertiveness has put his marital life at a precarious state. As the story line comes to a halt, Mitty is daydreaming that he is facing a firing squad. This could mean that he has resolved to take some action and, therefore, eliciting several possibilities that could turn his life around for better or for worse. For instance, he could decide to become assertive and in control of his life in general, consult a psychiatrist for counseling, resolve their marital issues or stop it altogether. Other more bizarre options could be to silence his wife and/or himself.
In Country Lovers, the climaxing statement does not show a solution to the cancer that is facing Thebedi’s society, racial segregation. Thebedi’s words, “It was a thing of our childhood, we don't see each other anymore,” show that she and Paulus can no longer continue in the childhood relationship they enjoyed perhaps because of the looming racial barriers. The struggle out of this racial cocoon must therefore continue to liberalize the parties in question, Blacks and Whites, out of their sorry state of affairs. Even though South Africa managed to gain freedom from the White majority, behavior change messages have to be preached continuously to ensure a paradigm shift in both cultures that fosters racial integration.