19 Short Stories of James Thurber

Ms. Sreemoyee Banarjee

epgp books



What is the Module About


The module provides you information about the author James Thurber. The module then provides a summary and critical analysis of the selected short stories which are the Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the Night the Bed Fell, The Rabbits who Caused All the Trouble, Greatest Man in the World, and The Night the Ghost Got In.


James Thurber


“Humor is a serious thing; I like to think of it as one of our greatest earliest natural resources, which must be preserved at all cost.”

James Thurber

The Author and his Times:


James Thurber, the celebrated author of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and the creator of numerous New Yorker magazine cover cartoons, was born in Columbus, Ohio on December 8, 1894. One of the principal American humorists of the 20th century, his matchless wit and pithy prose covered a breadth of genres, including short stories, modern commentary, fiction, children’s fantasy, and letters.


Thurber’s father was a civil clerk, and his mother, Mame, was an eccentric woman who influences many of her Thurber’s stories.


From 1913-1917, Thurber attended the Ohio State University where he was a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. Consequently, the Thurber’s rented the house at 77 Jefferson Avenue, which became Thurber House in 1984.


After college, Thurber went to Paris, France to work for the American Embassy. He returned to Columbus in 1920 and started working at the Columbus Dispatch as a reporter. Thurber spent his evenings working on skits for the Strollers and Scarlet Mask theatre groups at Ohio State–where he met his first wife, Althea Adams. The couple shifted to Paris in 1925 and Thurber started working on the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune.


The Thurber’s moved to New York in 1926. Thurber started his career as a freelance writer while working for the New York Evening Post. At a party, Thurber’s friend, E.B. White (creator of Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web) introduced him to Harold Ross, editor at the New Yorker, who hired Thurber soon after the party.


White and Thurber shared an office at the New Yorker, where they work together on their first book, Is Sex Necessary, including a number of Thurber cartoons. After the book’s publication, Thurber’s cartoons were featured regularly in the New Yorker; Thurber left the staff position at the New Yorker in 1935, but continued to submit cartoons and stories.


Thurber’s daughter Rosemary was born in 1931. His famous autobiography, My Life and Hard Times was published in 1933. It is considered his greatest work as he relates  in bemused deadpan prose the peculiar incidents related to his family and the town beyond. The book was a best seller and also attained critical acclaim. Russell Baker writing in the New York Times said it was “possibly the shortest and most elegant autobiography ever”. Ogden Nash said it was “just about the best thing I ever read”‘, and Dorothy Parker said “Mad, I  don’t say. Genius I grant you.”


Thurber and Althea got divorced in 1935. Thurber married Helen Wismer later that year. She persuaded Thurber to leave New York and move to Connecticut. Helen was Thurber’s editor and business manager, as well as his wife and caretaker, until his death.


After talking for years about writing a play together, Thurber and fellow Phi Kappa Psi brother, Elliot Nugent, finally wrote one. In 1940 they wrote the Broadway hit– The Male Animal. The play was very successful and later turned into a movie in 1942.


Thurber spent much time in and about the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. Though never a formal member of the Algonquin Round Table, he was a favorite among many of its members including, Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley.

Thurber wrote nearly 40 books, and won a Tony Award for the Broadway play, A Thurber Carnival, in which he often starred as himself. One of his books, My World and Welcome To It, was turned into an NBC television series in 1969-1970 starring William Windom.


Thurber succumbed to pneumonia on November 2, 1961. He was buried in Columbus’ Greenlawn Cemetery.

“Every time is a time for comedy in a world of tension that would languish without it.”

Short Stories

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty:



“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is a short story involving Walter Mitty, meek commoner of Connecticut who elevates to the position of a hero in his daydreams. He frequently goes on and off his dreams, with an incident or a word, or a picture triggering his imagination. Mitty is an underachiever, bullied by people, be it the parking attendant or his overbearing wife, and seeks to escape from his seemingly boring and uneventful life into a world of fierce events where he is sometimes a suave doctor or a war hero.


The story was first published in the March 18, 1939, issue of The New Yorker. Harcourt, Brace and Company published it in October, 1942, in a book collection of Thurber’s works, My World–and Welcome to It. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” narrates the story of the aging Walter Mitty on a trip into town with his domineering wife, Mrs. Mitty. Walter is incompetent in many things; he is an absent-minded driver, he can’t handle simple mechanical tasks, and he forgets things easily. What makes Walter unique is his imagination.

While Walter goes through an uneventful day involving ordinary tasks and errands, he escapes into a succession of romantic fantasies, each impelled on by some humdrum reality. As he drives his car, he imagines he is commanding “a Navy hydroplane” through a terrible storm. When he rides past a hospital, he imagines he is an iconoclastic surgeon saving a VIP’s life with nothing more than a fountain pen. When he hears a newsboy shouting about a trial, he imagines he is a crack shot being questioned in the courtroom. As he waits for his wife to finish at the hairdresser’s, Walter perceives pictures of German plane and imagines himself to be a British pilot willing to sacrifice his life for his country. Lastly, as Mitty waits outside against a wall for his wife to buy something in a drugstore, he visualizes that he is an intrepid man about to be shot by a firing squad. The story ends with the inscrutable Walter Mitty waiting for this romantic death. His “secret life” that is his world of daydreams is as eventful and exciting as we wants it to be.


Characters: Walter Mitty


Walter Mitty is a meek an ordinary Connecticut resident, who is used to getting bullied and chided by his wife, and on occasions by people he meets like the parking lot attendant. Mitty has low self-esteem and lacks confidence. He can’t do simple mechanical things and depends on people for getting them done. He’s forgetful. He’s not a great driver, and people always seem to be either bellowing or laughing at him for one mistake or another. To compensate for his shortcoming, Mitty creates an entire “secret life” for himself: a series of fantasies in which he is influential, decisive man, admired by those around him. He compensates for his failures in his real life by constructing a larger than life image of himself in his daydreams.


Author James Thurber meticulously intertwines Mitty’s fictions with his real life. It’s not simply a matter of leaping back and forth from reality to imagination; each fantasy is stimulated by some definite sound or word or event in the real world. The “pocketa-pocketa” sound that Mitty hears in several of his fantastic dreams is likely the sound of his car. When Mitty passes a hospital and immediately imagines himself to be an eminent doctor, engaged in saving the life of a VIP. When a newsboy shouts about the Waterbury Trial, Walter imagines himself in a courtroom. He is wearing a sling in this fantasy, just as he thinks of wearing a sling the next time he goes to a garage. The phrase “You miserable cur!” is what reminds Mitty of the puppy biscuits he forgot. The Liberty magazine with pictures of air bombers sends him into an illusionary military trench.


These perceptible associations between fantasy and dream remind the readers to look for deeper, emotional relations. In Mitty’s first fantasy, for example, he is piloting a “naval hydroplane” through a storm while those around him look on in awe and amazement,  his deed inspiring veneration. This is interrupted by Mrs. Mitty’s plea for him to slow down. Mitty is incompetent in mechanical tasks, so he dreams of being a surgeon – an agile genius. As he sits impassively waiting for his wife in the hotel lobby, he dreams he is a man of action taking matters into his own hands.


Walter Mitty and his fantasies can be interpreted in two ways. The first, and probably more forthright approach, is to see Mitty as a placid married man who quite harmlessly accedes to fantasy to get through what seems to be a pretty boring day of errands with his wife. One could argue that Thurber, through his third person omniscient narrative strategy wants his readers to support Mitty. One could argue that this story is a testament of human ability to enjoy and make good of even most banal of events.


In contrast to the above idea, another way of examining Walter Mitty (and, consequently, the story of “Walter Mitty” as a whole) encompasses detecting some darker themes in Thurber’s work. This interpretation is probably sparked by the fact that Mitty’s final fantasy is of a firing squad, which is a bit ominous. Is Mitty just endlessly persecuted by his more logically- minded foes in the real world? Are his fantasies defeated by reality? Or does he remain, as Thurber writes, Walter Mitty the Undefeated?


Characters: Mrs. Mitty


Mrs. Mitty is an overbearing and dominating wife, and stands out in a story which has her deliver five lines. Behold all of Mrs. Mitty’s dialogue, which pretty much speaks for itself:


“Not so fast! You’re driving too fast! […] What are you driving so fast for?”


“You were up to fifty-five. […] You know I don’t like to go more than forty. You were up to fifty-five. […] You’re tensed up again. […] It’s one of your days. I wish you’d let Dr. Renshaw look you over.”


“Remember to get those overshoes while I’m having my hair done, […] You’re not a young man any longer. […] Why don’t you wear your gloves? Have you lost your gloves?”


“I’ve been looking all over this hotel for you. […] Why do you have to hide in this old chair? How did you expect me to find you? Did you get the what’s-its-name? The puppy biscuit? What’s in that box? […] Couldn’t you have put them on in the store? […] I’m going to take your temperature when I get you home.” (14)”Wait here for me. I forgot something. I won’t be a minute.”


Mrs. Mitty is, throughout the story, dictating Walter what to do and rebukes him for the mistakes he commits. Thurber’s treatment of Mrs. Mitty is rather sexist as he presents a caricature of what wives in their middle ages might be. He confines the character of Mrs. Mitty to nothing more than a stereotypical dominating matriarch. A counterpoint can be that Mrs. Mitty is just a humorous character and not a comment on women in general. Thurber needed an over-the-top wife to explain Mitty’s retreat into fantasies, and Mrs. Mitty fits the bill.


The Night the Bed Fell



The Night the Bed Fell is a short story written by American author, James Thurber. The story presents a brief account of an incident that took place at his house in Columbus, Ohio. It appears as chapter one of Thurber’s My Life and Hard Times. The story is a memoir written in the first person-James Thurber. The narrator shares his perspective on a series of events ordered chronologically. There are seven main characters, including James (the narrator) and several other family members such as his mother, father, two brothers, cousin, uncle, three aunts, and his grandfather.


The narrator relays an incident of his youth when a bed fell on his father. The father occasionally slept in the attic where he could contemplate in peace and in the process, would eventually sleep on an old wooden bed. The house is filled with an eclectic range of family members including a paranoid cousin afraid of falling asleep as he apprehends death by choking while asleep. He shares a room with the narrator who assures to pay heed to the rhythm of the cousin’s breathing. One of his aunts fears the day when someone robs her by administering chloroform. By midnight of the particular night, everyone was in bed. At two in the morning, the narrator’s own bed (an army cot) tipped over while the narrator was still asleep. The noise awoke his mother who thought that the wobbly headboard on the bed in the attic had fallen on the father. His cousin awoke on hearing the mother shout, believing that he was not breathing and poured a glass of camphor over his head and begins to chock. It’s at this point, the narrator awoke, believing that his family was trying wake him as he might be in a perilous situation. The mother rushed to open the attic door but it was stuck. The battering on the attic door awoke the father who thought the house was on fire. He yelled  that he’s coming. His family misinterprets this and thinks he is dying. The narrator and the brother finally emerge from the room and the dog, alarmed by all the noise, leaps at the cousin mistaking him for an intruder. Finally, the father opens the attic door to ask what’s happening to which the family put the incidents together to understand the crux of the matter.



Thurber sometimes combined fiction and nonfiction, as in “The Night the Bed Fell,” to produce what might be deliberated as a new literary genre. The development of the concept of the “casual” at the New Yorker undoubtedly contributed to this, for the moderately light tone combined with a focus on familiar, humdrum occurrences was well harmonized with the author’s personality. The casual was also conducive to the technique of starting with an actual event in the writer’s past and then branching off into fiction, spreading out the plot in order to carry a theme to an unlikely conclusion. Thurber was a master of casting such premises in a purely fictive mode as well. In either case, the writing style remains the same, encouraging a merging of fiction and nonfiction in the reader’s mind.


The Rabbits Who Caused All the Trouble



The Rabbits Who Caused All the Trouble is a short modern fable written by James Thurber. It was first published in The New Yorker on August 26, 1939; and was first collected in his book Fables for Our Time and Famous Poems Illustrated (Harper and Brothers, 1940). The fable has since been reprinted in The Thurber Carnival (Harper and Brothers, 1945), James Thurber: Writings and Drawings (The Library of America, 1996, ISBN 1-883011-22-1), The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales, and other publications.


The events in the story occur within the “memory” of the youngest child of an anonymous family. It concentrates on a family of rabbits who resided near a pack of wolves. The wolves declared that they did not approve of the rabbit’s way of living since their lifestyle was dissimilar to that of the wolves. The wolves began to look for excuses to attack the rabbits and started a blame game. The death of several wolves due to an earthquake was blamed on the rabbits since “…rabbits pound on the ground with their hind legs and cause earthquakes”. On another such occasion the rabbits were blamed for the death of the wolves struck by a bolt of lightning“…for it is well known that lettuce-eaters cause lightning”. The wolves used such absurd reasoning to blame the rabbits for every calamity and mishap that occurred.


The wolves threatened to civilize the rabbits, which, scared for their lives, decided to abandon their current dwelling and run away to an island. But the other animals, who lived at a distance critiqued their choice and assured them of their safety, “You must stay where you are and be brave. This is no world for escapists. If the wolves attack you, we will come to your aid in all probability.”


The rabbits, convinced of their safety, began to reside near the wolves but were again accused of causing a flood that took a toll on the wolf population,”…for it is well known that carrot- nibblers with long ears cause floods”. The wolves attacked the rabbits and detained them in a dark cave. The wolves justified their cruelty by stating the imprisonment of the rabbits was for their protection and best interest.


When the rabbits went missing for some time the other animals in the woods demanded to know about their whereabouts to which the wolves cunningly answered that the rabbits were consumed by them and thus their absence is an internal matter. The other animals vehemently protested and demanded a satisfactory answer, the failure to provide which would subject the wolves to dire circumstances. The wolves, wittily remarked”

“”They were trying to escape,” said the wolves, “and, as you know, this is no world for escapists.””


The moral of the story states: Run, don’t walk, to the nearest desert island.


The appeal of the allegory is ameliorated through the moral it states. The new age fable teaches the audience survival strategies that they need to adapt in the face of ever changing political and social scenario.



A fable is an allegorical story containing animals as the main characters and they closely parallel the human beings. Fables, though mainly written for children, appeals to adults as well due to their underlying meaning. The author indirectly criticizes customs and practices of the human world without engaging in controversy.


The fable “The rabbits that caused all the trouble” by James Thurber is about rabbits and wolves who coexisted in a particular habitat. Despite being neighbors the wolves nurtured prejudices against the rabbits as a result of which the rabbits were absurdly and incorrectly blamed for every calamity resulting in the death of wolves. The rabbit’s scheme of seeking refuge in a deserted island has to be abandoned due to the assurance they receive from the other animals. The other animals promise to protect them and criticize their decision by labeling it as escapism and cowardice. What they fail to notice is that the rabbits were only trying to survive in the face of eminent danger. But they do not help and so the rabbits are locked in a dark cave by the wolves and are later killed by them. The moral correctly advises the readers, in the wake of acute political strife, to escape from a situation that entails a threat to life as soon as possible.

The story is ironic as the other animals are defeated with their own weapons when the wolves claim their action to be legitimate by reiterating what the other animals had said to the rabbits, that there is no place for escapists.


Another interpretation of the story, while considering the political background of the period to which the fable belongs allude to the chain of events that occurred during the Second World War. The rabbits represent the minority Jews who were ruthlessly persecuted byte Nazi Germans. The wolves represent the majority who demonstrate an unreasonable predisposition and detestation towards the minority, the rabbits. As proceedings disclose, the rest of the animals symbolize the allied powers who were dumb viewers of this merciless bloodbath infamously tagged as the holocaust.


The absurd reasons provided by the wolves are illegitimate claims and illogical excuses provided only to validate their actions. This closely resembles the actions of the world leaders who engage in mass slaughter to satisfy their personal lust for blood.


The Greatest Man in the WorldSummary: The story, published first in The New Yorker revolves around the life of Jack Smurch who flew around the world without a halt, considered a superhuman achievement in the 1900’s. Due to his valiant endeavor, the people of his country worshipped him as a hero, but to the surprise of the press and politicians of his day it was discovered that this so called hero had many unheroic characteristics. He was insolent, a former delinquent, a philanderer, acquisitive man treating authority with downright impertinence.


This so called hero affronted all pilots who had flown before him. He was heartless enough to mock the failed attempt of two Frenchmen who died in an attempt to cross the Atlantic sea by plane. Appalled by his impertinence, the press categorically concealed him from the public scrutiny and sustained heralding him as the greatest man in the world, while he recuperated from the physical strain he incurred from the two weeks of relentless flying without rest or sleep.


When this media crated hero recovered and was ready to face the public, a party was thrown in his honor at a high-rise in New York. He created an absolute ruckus by denigrating everyone present in the gala event; his insolence was manifested in ties full form when he failed to recognize the President of the United States. Drunk in the self-glory, Jack went to the big window to shout out his greatness to the world. Sadly, one of the party’s patrons decided (with the President’s inaudible permission) to push the man out of the window, thus providing the final solution to the question that had been plaguing the media and the bureaucrats for long; How to maintain the farcical greatness of this not-so-great un-heroic hero in public eye. The funeral was lavish affair and the “hero”—who was by now disliked by most in his townsfolk and family members — was celebrated and bewailed by the public.


Analysis: The story offers an exponential treatment of media and politics who are commonly engaged in vituperative treatment of a real hero. Paradoxically in this story, the media and the politicians were, like always, disguising the truth, but by glorifying a non-heroic hero just to protect the image of an idealized conceptualized American hero from society. In the end, the hero has to be assassinated to save him the disgrace that he would eventually bring upon him, shattering the myth of the idealized American hero, an over achieving but virtuous man. It was a fact well known that heroes of the early 1900’s could never do anything that tarnished their established stereotypical image of the ideal American gentleman be it the American soldiers in the World Wars or the view of the “perfect” family that existed at that time. The great American Dream has magnified the idea of hero worship and has always idealized perfection. For them, everything has to fit the ideal image. The title of the story is ironical indeed. The country tries to magnify and glorify their hero who possesses nothing of the qualities being attributed to him and when the clash of myth versus reality becomes conspicuous, he is tactfully murdered, glorifying his death as a tragic fall and conduction an illustrious funeral ceremony to further enhance the underlying hypocrisy.

His fall is symbolic. Although he has flown around the world, he is not a so-called hero. He has an annoying personality, extremely materialistic, womanizing, and notorious character. Ironically, when Smurch survived his plane trip around the world, the authorities were secretly hoping he would drown. Even his mother hoped he would drown:


“His mother, a sullen short-order cook in a shack restaurant on the edge of a tourists’ camping ground near Westfield, met all inquiries as to her son with an angry, “Ah, the hell with him; I hope he drowns.”


Smurch was an appalling person of crude disposition. After the great leaders, including the President of the United States, tried to instilling Smurch the accurate manners for an interview, Smurch only engaged in mocking them and demanded money for his great feat.


His fall was made to look like an accident. Ironically, Smurch reached great altitude when flying around the world, only to come home and be pushed from a window. The irony is not funny, but when Smurch’s mother heard her son was dead, she tried to hide a strange, sly or mischievous look on her face:


“Mrs. Emma Smurch bowed her head above two hamburger steaks sizzling on her grill — bowed her head and turned away, so that the Secret Service man could not see the twisted, strangely familiar, leer on her lips.”


Smurch’s assassination was a necessary evil to keep alive the concept of an ideal hero alive in the minds of the American people.


The Night the Ghost Got In


Summary: “The Night the Ghost Got In” is a fictionalized incident that took place one night in the household of James Thurber, in his boyhood years. Thurber provides the exact date as November 17, 1915. The story commences with a short preparatory paragraph that provides the readers for the more entertaining events that gradually unfolds.


The story begins with the narrator, James Thurber and hearing a noise downstairs in the dining room, very late at night. It sounds to him like footsteps. He assumes that it is his father or older brother but after a few minutes when the incessant footsteps don’t stop, he informs his brother Herman. Herman gets terrified when informed of the noise downstairs, goes back to bed, slamming the door. The noise seizes and Thurber explains, “None of us ever heard the ghost again.” However, the sound of Herman’s door alerts their mother enquires about the footsteps she had heard and concludes there are burglars downstairs. Since the telephone is downstairs as well, she devises a plan to call the police: She throws a shoe through the window of the house next door, which is close to the Thurber house, waking Mr. and Mrs. Bodwell, the neighbors. After a momentary confusion regarding whose house the burglars are in, Mr. Bodwell calls the police.


The series of events take a chaotic turn with the arrival of the police. Their group includes “a Ford sedan full of them, two on motorcycles, and a patrol wagon with about eight of them in it and a few reporters.” They go upstairs to unveil a chaotic situation and understand that burglars couldn’t have possibly broken in as all the doors and windows are shut from the inside. To make themselves fruitful, the police enter into a mock search which ends in finding nothing.


When the narrator’s grandfather, who sleeps in the attic, makes a minor noise, the policemen rise into action. They pace upstairs to look into the matter. The narrator discerns that this will enhance the chaos since his grandfather is “going through a phase”. He is under the impression that Civil War is still going on. Grandfather is occupied with the retreat of the Union army under General George Meade from the forces of Stonewall Jackson’s Confederate army. When the policemen arrive at his door, he is sure that they are Meade’s army. He calls them cowards and instructs them to go back to the battle. In a fit of rage, Thurber’s grandfather takes the policeman’s gun from his holster and shoots at him, hitting him in the shoulder. He fires twice more and then goes back to bed.


Back downstairs, the police are upset that there is nobody to arrest, but they are not willing to go back to the attic and risk being shot at again. The wounded officer’s shoulder is bandaged, and they start looking around the house again. A reporter asks the narrator about the suspicious entity that caused all the chaos and he tells him that it was a “ghost”.


The next morning at the breakfast table, grandfather behaved as if he had forgotten what had happened last night but to the surprise of the narrator, makes difficult the situation by his sudden query about the arrival of policemen the night before.


Analysis: ‘The Night the Ghost Got In ‘is a prime example of the storytelling technique of James Thurber. It was published in Thurber’s 1933 book My Life and Hard Times, a fictionalized account of his childhood in Columbus, Ohio. Like most of Thurber’s best works from that collection, the story conglomerates events that are conceivable with comic exaggeration and then adds responses that range from exaggeration to deadpan. The characters’ incongruous understanding of their world serves the dual purposes of entertaining readers while illuminating uneven balances of the human mind. The story also bears testimony to how misconception and misconstruction of a series of events can unfold utmost chaos and bedlam. The first person narrative technique makes the incident credible and realistic as it appears that the narrator is letting the audience knows about incidents that are currently taking place.

Thurber’s wit and humor is best displayed in the character of the grandfather who not only shoots policemen with élan but also forgets entirely about his heroic deed the next morning. The fictional ghost is penned alive through the reporter and therefore Thurber also holds then media under radar, subtly criticizing their tendency to exaggerate reality. The story is thoroughly enjoyable and remains a favorite among Thurber lovers.

Summary of the Module


The module provides information regarding the life and times of James Thurber, his works, his sense of humor and his use of wit, irony, sarcasm and allegory in his short stories. The module then provides a plot summary of the individual short stories followed by character analysis of the Walter Mitty and his wife from the story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, while provides summary and critical analysis of the rest of the short stories.

you can view video on Short Stories of James Thurber