Archive for October, 2011

I would have liked to publish my essay on an archetypal response to “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”  Unfortunately, when I did this for Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” it proved too great a temptation for student plagiarists.  So rather than print my final essay, this is my working outline.  All the concepts and ideas are included, but the content is not developed into lucid sentences with finely crafted segues to connect the paragraphs. The supporting quotes are not included.

[Introduction] Buckeye author James Thurber tapped into the xylem of nearly every softwood in the human forest when he penned “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  Yes, Walter Mitty is a bit of a sap.  In 1939, Thurber created a fictional character that has become the archetype of the chump who is continually berated by his wife.  (March 18, 1939, issue of The New Yorker)

Archetypal settings — Outwardly – the streets of Waterbury (CT) the archetype is Main Street USA; weekly trips, the archetype is structured routine. Dream sequences – archetypes are high-pressure zones.

Archetypal characters — Walter archetypal patsy, debilitated by his wife (sap, weaken attenuate) Mr. Mitty’s dream-phase alter egos are all superhero archetypes: commander, surgeon, expert marksman, knightly defender of the dark-haired damsel, WWI flying ace. Mrs. Mitty, archetypal domineering wife. (The parking attendant, policeman, and pedestrians are all extensions of Mrs. Mitty’s archetype.)

Archetypal symbolism — Overshoes, gloves, puppy biscuits: The Mundane. Guns and gadgets: The masculine anti-sap.

Archetypal dilemma — The insignificant, purposeless life vs. the aspirations of meaning and fulfillment. The archetypal dilemma is big picture/universal and nearly everyone can identify with it easily.  It transcends times and generations.

Archetypal resolution — Escapism. Other than in-the-moment escapism, Walter makes no progress toward a goal, and the work is more of a protracted series of sketches than a short story; there is no true resolution.

[Conclusion omitted]


Compare and Contrast with “The Story of an Hour,” K. Chopin

The archetypal dilemmas are nearly identical – the suffocation/repression of the Human Spirit is the unifying theme of these short stories. But the gender roles are reversed. The initial resolutions share mental escapism, however, Walter, in a fashion consistent with his archetype, takes no remedial action and only dreams of death.  Mrs. Mallard actually dies.

The Anti-Archetype — most archetypal analysis of literature examines the Journey, whether geographically physical, figuratively mental, or existentially spiritual. Sometimes the journey is leaving home (or a metaphor for home) to gain something of value. Other times the journey is about returning home in an Ouroboros-like circle of completion. Either way, the climax of the story usually involves an arrival at journey’s end. Both “The Story of an Hour” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” deviate from the standard model or pattern on this point.
In stark contrast of story structure, Mrs. Mallard embraced planning her journey, but never got to take it. Conversely, Mr. Mitty will be repeating his weekly trips to Waterbury into perpetuity and never getting anywhere.


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Upon first-read, Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour” (1894) comes off as a melodrama well-suited for an old Twilight Zone episode. It has all the right elements: a mass transit disaster, a mistaken identity, psychological intrigue, and the coup de grâce, a death. But on further analysis, when viewed from an archetypal approach, one realizes that Ms. Chopin has penned a very insightful story about a rarely discussed crime: suffocation of the human spirit.

The archetypal approach to literary criticism is a broad one. It is at once both primordial and universal. R. W. Clugston (2010, § 16.2) describes it this way. “Every archetypal pattern illustrates how a particular human goal is commonly achieved or how a universal human dilemma is resolved.” To be sure, “Story of an Hour” is filled with archetypal patterns.

The opening sentence is centered by the phrase, “afflicted with a heart trouble.” Already, the reader is entering the throes of a classic human dilemma. Mrs. Mallard, the protagonist, if not full-fledged heroine, and owner of the afflicted heart, is about to hear that her husband is dead.

Indeed, the late Brently Mallard’s best friend took the precaution of eliminating false hope or rumor by confirming that his name topped the list of casualties before delivering the dreadful message.

By paragraph 3, the new widow has been caught in yet another archetypal situation, a “storm of grief.” She quickly retires to her room to be alone. But it is here that the conventional model changes. She sits “facing the open window,” and the reader shares her first symbol of escape. Chopin describes “tops of trees that were all aquiver with the new spring life,” the “notes of a distant song,” and sparrows “twittering in the eaves.” (para.5)

The body of the story is embedded with archetypal references to the freedoms of earth’s heavens and the confinements of a spiritual hell. “There were patches of blue sky showing here and there through the clouds,” (Chopin, para 6) and that is where Mrs. Mallard fixed her gaze, and her heart.

For the next hour she slowly throws off her chains. Chopin describes the transformation, “she saw beyond that bitter moment a long procession of years to come that would belong to her absolutely. And she opened and spread her arms out to them in welcome.” (para. 11)

As the liberation of the spirit proceeds, the reader gleans hints of her husband’s character. “There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence…” And surely she felt his will had been as prison bars for her, for in the very next sentence she views his acts as “a crime.” (Chopin, para. 12)

By the end of the hour, Mrs. Mallard has broken all the psychosomatic ties that bound her. In the most archetypical of lines, Chopin declares, “There was a feverish triumph in her eyes, and she carried herself unwittingly like a goddess of Victory.” (para. 18)

Then the sword of Damocles drops. There is a turning of a latchkey and her husband enters. Mrs. Mallard dies of shock. The doctors attributed it to “the joy that kills.” Most readers who spent some time with her in the bedroom know better.

What does it mean beyond the superficial entertainment value of the ironic twist?

The archetypal pattern is one of Mrs. Mallard being cut down by physical death, just as she had completed a cathartic emotional rebirth. She had found Mr. Mallard to be suffocating. Invigorated by her chance for happiness (and yet another archetype: the merry widow), she was not going to forfeit her new-found freedom. She would rather die first. Mr. Mallard, the oppressor of her soul, had committed one of the most grievous crimes one human can commit against another: the suffocation of the human spirit. And yet, in an irony that far exceeds that of Mrs. Mallard’s death, society usually offers such criminals consolation rather than justice.

© twisting truth

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