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  • Writer's pictureTiffany Tsai

Surrealism- Parallel Between Persistence of Time and Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Updated: Apr 9, 2020

I still remember how much I hated the short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber when I first read it in my 9th grade English class. The storyline seemed to be so boring and stupid. The main character Walter Mitty keeps falling into fantasies in the middle of the day and there did not seem to be a plot at all. However, recently I came across the painting The Persistence of Memory by artist Salvador Dalí while researching the Roaring 20’s, and my thoughts on The Secret Life of Walter Mitty changed. Both pieces of work revolve around the concept of Surrealism and share the common theme of temporary absence from reality.

Surrealism is a movement in both visual arts and literature that spread across Europe between WWI and WWII. The movement produced anti-art that deliberated defied reason while rejecting idealism and the basic values of modern society such as rationalism and progress. The objective of the movement was to raise self- awareness in the society by mocking society through mirroring the absurdity in the world. André Breton, a major spokesman of the movement who published The Surrealist Manifesto asserted that “Surrealism combines the conscious and unconscious realms of experience to an extent where the world of dream and the everyday rational world unite in ‘an absolute reality, a surreality. Such ideas are seen in the artwork the Persistence of Memory and the short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

In the short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the main character Walter Mitty repeatedly fell into the different surreal situations in his mind, ignoring the reality that’s happening around him. He attempted to escape from real-world challenges through his fantasies due to his lack of courage to express himself. The challenge he faced was the authority that his wife had over him, as she commands Mitty to run errands for her. For this reason, he dreamed of being an important figure in critical situations. For example, when he rode past a hospital, he imagined himself as a famous surgeon saving the life of an important figure. In addition, he dreamed of himself as the commander of a Navy hydroplane during a storm, all showing that he wanted to be the person in power. By escaping into the unconscious realms of reality, Walter Mitty was able to have the authority that he wanted in the real world.

Such ideas of being lost in thoughts and dreams can also be seen in the work of art, The Persistence of Memory. Several parts of this piece of art demonstrate surrealistic features. The watches in the painting appear to be melting, symbolizing that the passage of time is neglected in a surreal situation, as seen in the case of Mitty. The one watch that appeared to be unaffected has a corsage of ants on top of it. The ants represent decay, as people that fell into dreamlike realms are often not aware that dreams are insufficient to compensate for what people struggle within reality.

Salvador Dalí painted The Persistence of Memory in the year 1931 in Spain. The nation in the midst of the Great Depression. In the United States, where the Persistence of Memory was well received by the public, millions of Americans became unemployed. A. Everett Austin Jr, art director at Wadsworth Antheneum Museum of Art, said, “These pictures are chic. They are entertaining. They are of the moment. We do not have to take them too seriously. We need not demand necessarily that they be important...” Surrealistic arts provide enormous freedom to interpretations that people under stress and undergoing economic crises in the real world were able to temporarily forget about their struggles and escape into the obscure and surrealistic world.

Similarly, the short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” was written during the time of the Great Depression, in 1939. Mitty’s inability to live a life that was fulfilling resembles the situation most Americans experienced at the time. Mitty went to his form mental fantasies to escape his problems, just as the viewers of the work The Persistence of Memory look to the artwork for escape.

Surrealism is determined by psychological thought processes instead of logic. Each artist uses their own interpretations to create their art. Some creations have a set storyline, while others were created with indefinite meanings, allowing viewers to form their own interpretations. With the amount of freedom, both James Thurber and Salvador Dalí were able to express the power of imagination that was previously rejected by the rational mind through their works.

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