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Friday, 30 May 2014 15:24

A comparison between The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Thurber) The Necklace (de Maupassant) Featured

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Title: Gender role in literature: A comparison between The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Thurber) The Necklace (de Maupassant)

The representation of women in literature has greatly evolved from the Victorian time to modern writing.  The evolution of woman in literature can be classified into three main evolution periods that include the feminine, feminist and the female age. The feminine period represent a period in history from around 1840s to 1880s which was characterized by the use of male pseudonym. The feminist period began after 1800 to around 1920s while the female period persists up to date.  

The modernist error represents women as an independent being, able to do different things or to compete with men. Gender roles in matrimony are the tasks and activities performed by male and female partners. The society predominantly defines these roles. For centuries, these roles have remained intact. Conventional, the role of women, even in developed countries, were predefined. Men were expected to shoulder responsibilities of feeding and maintaining the household while women responsibility regarded child care and marinating the house. In traditional American society, men were typified as powerful, assertive, autonomous, aggressive and controlling (Benthin, 2009).

 Early literature presented women as housewives whose role was to stay at home, take of the family and children and remain inferior to men. However, the story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by Thurber represents a break from this representation of women. Thurber presents a strong, domineering woman. Contrary, Maupassant in his story “The Necklace” represents a woman in bondage. “The Necklace” is one of the most famous short stories by Maupassant. It tells the story of a disgruntled middle-class lady whose dreams of wealth and glamour ends in disaster. Mathidle, the main character of the story are 19th century typical French desperate housewife. Because she is a woman in a man’s world, she has almost no control over her life.

She finds herself married to a husband she does not care for, cooped up in a house she despises. Her desires are to be desirable to other men. However, she is frustrated because in spite of possessing all the “womanly” virtues such as she is charming, graceful and beautiful; she does not succeed to get men’s attention.  The woman is in a loveless marriage and has to toil all day to repay a necklace.  However, the two stories use marriage to construct the role of gender in the society. Often, women are depicted doing house chores, cooking, playing with Dolls and performing other “feminist” activities. Men is depicted as masculine, sporty and stronger than women.   

 Gender role in marriage

James Thurber is regarded as one of the greatest humorists in the America literary. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is one of the best ever known stories. The main character of the story is a middle-aged man (Witty) who escapes from the routine drudgery of his suburban life into the world of fantasies of heroic conquest. Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace” is a story of a young woman, Mathilde, who desires dreadfully to be accepted into a high society. The story rotates on a necklace that Mathidle borrowed to impress in party. However, the necklace got lost, and she and her husband have to toil ten years to repay the lost necklace. The popularity of “Walter Mitty” fantasies resulted to the coining of the term “Walter Mitty type” to describe persons with particular neurotic and daydreaming characteristics.  

The representation of gender role is a break from the tradition where women are characterized as women, sexist and dominated by men. The story portrays a marriage in which the wife is domineering, controlling, and bossy while the husband, Walter Mitty is passive, submissive, and his wife’s control.  However, it can also be noted that Thurber portrays Mrs. Mitty as sexist. He portrays a unique marriage, which is controlled by a bossy wife. Mrs. Witty is depicted as aggressive, patronizing and arrogant. The story clearly presents a unique gender role reversal considering that Mrs. Witty is given the “expected” traits of Mr. Witty.  On the other hand, “the Necklace” presents a feminine woman.

 Maupassant gives the woman character conventional traits that are desirable to men.  Her desire was to be liked, envied, sought and seduced. She is in an unhappy marriage. Her husband is a middle class clerk.  She lives in a world dominated by men who control various aspects of her life.  Maupassant successfully depicts Mathidle emotional and sensitive, characteristics also characterized by feminist writers. The contrast in emotion is evident when Mathidle receives the news of her invitation to the big occasion. The author depicts a happy, jubilant lady who is eager to attend the occasion. However, when the husband hands her the invitation, she slams it to the door. Methidle reacts by sobbing bitterly.

She claimed that she did not have a nice dress to attend the party. She was agitated. This scene can be interpreted to indicate how female characters use emotion exploitation to solicit favors from men.  In the third scene of the story, Mathidle experiences the horrible life of the needy after incurring debts to repay the lost necklace. She dismisses her maid, and she and her husband are forced to rent a garret under eaves. She learns to clean, cook and do laundry. The emphasis given to these house chores undermines the role of woman in marriage. The woman is reduced to doing kitchen staff and laundry, which traditionally were used to define a typical obedient woman (Suzanne & Kroll, 2002).

 The secret life of Walter Mitty is a classical case where the societal expectations regarding gender roles are reversed. The society expects Mitty to be powerful, autonomous and self-determined. His wife, Mrs. Mitty, is expected to be submissive, and dedicated to taking care of her family. The existence of Mitty is presented as boring and controlled. It is only in his daydreaming and fantasies he achieve the typical traits of a “man.” He constantly imagines himself as a doctor, navy pilot commander, sharpshooter and a noble victim of a firing squad.

 The gender role of women has gradually transformed over time from the traditional perspective. Women are attaining more freedom and independence (West, 2007). However, gender discrimination still exists, and it is currently considered as a pertinent issue that requires the intervention of the society.  In the Victorian era, a woman was expected to be at home. Marriage was the expected career of a woman. Women were expected to be helpless and weak and incapable of solving problems, leave alone making sound decisions. Maupassant seems to represent this Victorian woman in the story “The necklace.” Methidle is completely dependent on her husband, and her chores are reduced to taking of the family.

The failures of Mr. Witty and his successes in the dreams are connected to gender role. The life of Witty is characterized by daily ridicule by women.  A good example is the women who hear Witty mumbling “puppy biscuit” on the street and his wife who is constantly nagging him.  Mitty is emotional separated from his wife completely, and it is as if they are thousands of miles apart. The emotional separation is emphasized by the desire to escape, for his wife is depicted as a pure harridan (Fisher & Silber, 2010).  His wife is depicted as a female protagonist who disobeys the “expected’ norm of the society.  In the story, the female character attempts to secure a relatively autonomous sense of self.

However, these desires are prolonged disengagement that is never fully achieved, is characteristically wrenching, and leaves a residue of guilt, a sense of failed responsibility, and even a sense of self-betrayal that cannot be finally overcome. Among women, Witty is depicted as subservient and an object of derision.  Walter fails to meet the traditional characteristics of masculine man. He is embarrassed by the inability to fix his car, when he attempts to replace tires he ends up winding the entire tires with chain and he had to seek assistance.  A “young” and “grinning” mechanic comes to tow his truck.  The description of the young mechanic implies that, the young and virile mechanic was laughing at the ignorance of Witty. This makes Witty feel emasculated.  

He resolves to take the car to a shop next time to have chains removed.  Often, Witty compensates his “inadequacies” or inabilities to meet convention expectations of masculinity in his daydreams.  The subject of his daydreams rotates around traditional expectation of masculine prowess. For example, he can comfortably hit a target that is three hundred feet away, he fixes sophisticated machinery with a common fountain pen, and he can walk bravely into war in his fantasy world. Thurber’s representation of gender may be suggesting that males in contemporary society are being weak and ineffectual while women are becoming increasingly aggressive.

On the other hand, Thurber may be suggesting that men are constantly lacking opportunities to perform meaningful, heroic actions, due to the economic constraints. Maupassant describes the female character with the word “she”. The word is used repeatedly in the beginning of the story to describe her, until the mention of her husband when she is referred as Mathidle. The use of the distant single pronoun with past verbs and failing to mention or refer the name or title gives an overwhelming meaning of paragraph. The paragraph indicates a lack of “identity” (Ahmad & Al-Makhzoumi, 2006).  This indicates the dominant role men play in giving women identity. At the end of the story, mathidle is referred as “madame Liosel.”

The title signifies her role in the marriage which is as a result of the new found identity after marriage.  In addition, Mathidle lost her name and assumed the name of her husband. This represents the patriarchy theory in which the man is the head of the family.  The character of Mathidle represents the status quo of traditional characterization of women. Her husband has to work for long hours so as to meet the needs of the family while the wife stayed at home.  Unlike Mitty who ends up heroic after years of fantasies, Mathidle does not achieve her desires. This signifies the will and determination of men as Mitty did not give up on all the ridicule, but pushed(Tao, Biaqiang, 2008).Scholar critics disagree on Thurber’s portrayal of women.

Blair and hill consider Thurber as a misogynist; she hates women.  They argue that Thurber view Mrs. Mitty as the one responsible for Mitty’s loss of independence and his incapacity to function. They believe that Thurber is opposed to strong, empowered and strong-willed women.  However, other critics such as Tobias, praises Thurber’s assertive female character.The historical context of the two stories reinforces their theme of gender role in marriage.  “The Necklace” was written in 1884 after the enactment of the Married Woman’s Property Act. Women were not allowed to own property until the late 19th century. Therefore, the story was written during an era when women had a great desire to break away from the societal bondage that often regarded them as inferior.

This period was characterized by numerous women activists fighting for women’s independence and autonomy (Sudha, 2000).  Mauppassant presents Mathdile as feminine character whose values are gauged in terms of her beauty. The secret life of Walter Milly was written shortly before the second war II (1939). This period was characterized by women’s independence, empowerment and autonomy.  The United States and other western countries were experiencing massive reformations, which enabled women to acquire formal education and take up competitive jobs.  The wife of Mitty presents such an empowered woman who is autonomous and independent. She is a perfect epitome of a reformed woman who has a rightful place in society.


The two stories represent different and contrast gender roles. “The Necklace” is a perfect example of sexism and oppression of women. Right from losing her right to choose her husband to all her efforts to please men, Mathdile represents a woman who is dominated by men.  In the entire story, the husband is the entire making decisions; he conceived the idea of lying to the owner of the necklace after it got lost, and the idea of borrowing money to repay the necklace was his.  

Power is held in public and domestic life, which depicts a picture of obedient and repressed women. Male chauvinism and pride dominate the story.   “The secret life of Walter Mitty” presents a reformed woman who defies the traditional perceptions of a woman. She is aggressive, controlling and empowered.  Walter, on the other hand, is depicted as a weak man, who is dominated by women, and uses fantasies to escape this reality. These stories reflect the evolution of gender role not only in literature, but also in society.


Ahmed & Al-Makhzoumi, (2006). The role of micro and macro elements in understanding a text: An analytical study of G. De Maupassant.  Najah University Journal. Vol. 20 (2),

Benthin, A. (2009). Redefining Gender Roles: The Image of Women in Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’. GRIN Verlag

Fisher J. & Silber E (1998). Analyzing the different voices. Feminist psychological theory and literary texts.  Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Maryland, USA.

Kaufman (1994). “Things close in”: dissolution and misanthropy in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” Studies in American fiction.

Sudha, D. (2000). Gender roles. New Delhi: APH Publishing

Suzanne I & Kroll J (2002). The classic readers theatre for young adults. The teacher Idea Press. New York, USA.

Tao, Biaqiang (2008). Identifying and Combating Sexism in EFL Textbook. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED502011.pd on 21/11/2013.

West, R. (2007). Marriage, sexuality and gender. Paradigm Publishers


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