Life Lessons in August Wilson's Fences and James Thurber's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Life Lessons in August Wilson's Fences and James Thurber's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

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In comparing August Wilson's play "Fences" and James Thurber's short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," it can be seen that the main characters in each of these stories face a similar universal human conflict. Both Troy, of "Fences," and Walter Mitty live lives in which they, like most everyone, are limited to some extent by forces beyond their control as to how they live their life. These limitations, unfortunately, cannot be avoided throughout life and can be very stressful at times. When a person experiences stress, they're future reactions to stress tend to be magnified even more (Carpi). Therefore, it is best to find a way to cope with stress to prevent from falling apart. Some people, like Troy, are unable to deal with these limitations and eventually do indeed, fall apart. Others however, like Walter, create ways of overcoming these restraints that life throws at us and learn to become better people in the process.
In Troy's situation, the responsibility of providing for his family places great limitations on his life. Troy must give most of his money up to his family to provide for his wife Rose and son Cory. In one example, Troy hands Rose money he has just received from work while saying to his friend Bono, "There it is. Seventy-six dollars and forty-two cents. You see this, Bono? Now, I ain't gonna get but six of that back," and again later, Rose requests money from Troy saying, "You can hand yours over here too, Troy," in which Troy remarks, "You see this Bono. You see how they do me." Troy would obviously like much better to keep all of his hard earned money for himself so that he can do things that he wants to do.
In one argument with his son Cory, Troy says, "A man got to take care of his family. You live in my house … sleep you behind on my bedclothes … fill you belly up with my food … cause you my son. You my flesh and blood. Not ‘cause I like you! Cause it's my duty to take care of you," clearly indicating that if it was not for the fact he were his son, he could care less about him and wouldn't be giving him anything.
As for Walter Mitty, he tends to be limited by the overpowering and demanding personalities of the people around him, the biggest of which is his wife.

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Through the short few-hour time span covered by the story, Mrs. Mitty is always getting on Walter's case, telling him to slow down when driving, to put on his gloves, etc. She tells him to make sure he buys overshoes and even though Walter doesn't believe he needs them, he ends up buying them anyway, surrendering to his wife's authority over him.
In addition to his wife, Walter deals with a "cocky" parking-lot attendant, who parks his car for him, and a passing woman who laughs at him after he mumbles a few words to himself. The attitude of Walter's wife, along with these people, is something that Walter cannot control, and it certainly affects the way he lives.
While both Troy and Walter's desire for freedom is limited, they choose to cope in different ways. Troy slowly becomes more and more stressed out with his life and can't handle everything that life is throwing at him. It seems the more stressed out he becomes, the more he does things that cause him more stress. This may be due to the fact that Troy had a rough childhood and was abandoned by his father at an early age. In John Carpi's article "Stress: It's Worse Than You Think," Dr. Jean King says that "we have known that losing a parent when you are young is harder to get over than if your parent dies when you are an adult," and "what we now believe is that a stress of that magnitude occurring when you are young may permanently rewire the brain's circuitry, throwing the system askew and leaving it less able to handle normal, everyday stress."
Troy's story begins with an argument between himself and his son Cory over football. Troy forbids Cory to play football because he doesn't think he will succeed in a racially segregated society. This leads to many rough fights between the two and eventually to Cory essentially being kicked out of the family. Troy also has a secret affair throughout a large portion of the play and eventually decides to tell his wife that he is going to be the father of another woman's baby. The baby is raised by Rose, but Troy has, in essence, lost his wife. By this time, Troy is all alone and becomes more depressed, to the point where he sits in his back yard awaiting death to come take him away.
Walter on the other hand, deals with his problems in a much more beneficial way. Throughout the story, he is constantly daydreaming and making up imaginary worlds, with the help of the environment around him, where he is usually a very successful person. In one dream he is the commander of a Navy hydroplane. In others, he drives past the hospital and suddenly becomes a well known doctor who has published a book on streptothricosis and is trying to save a wealthy banker, he hears a newspaper boy yelling about a trial and becomes a murder suspect being put on trial, he views pictures of bombing planes and views himself as a courageous captain/bomber pilot in World War I. All of Walter's daydreams are related to things he is doing at the time. This is because daydreams are usually started by a cue, visual or audile (Klinger, 2).
Many people may believe that Walter was just going crazy, but it can be seen that these daydreams are Walter's way of escaping his everyday life where he feels he is mistreated and deserves more respect. In Eric Klinger's article "The Power of Daydreams," he states that "people who are given to fantasy may even have special psychological strengths. Psychologist Roni Beth Tower found that ‘in general, imaginative children [those who pretend easily and comfortably] are more lively, concentrate better, are more attractive to others, tolerate frustration better, [and] tend to show less fear.'" Instead of becoming stressed out and doing things he may regret, such as Troy did, Walter ignores everything and views himself as a more successful person via daydreams, ultimately making things better for him rather than collapsing under pressure.
In conclusion, there are many different circumstances in life that may create limits on the way we live and slow down our quest for freedom and self-expression, only a handful of which are illustrated by the experiences of Troy and Walter in these stories. When life throws out things beyond your control that keep you back, the best thing to do is learn to deal with it because life isn't easy and if stress overwhelms, you may end up like Troy in the end.

Works Cited

Carpi, John. "Stress: It's Worse Than You Think." Psychology Today Jan/Feb 1996.
22 May 2005 < 000027.html>.

Klinger, Eric. "The Power of Daydreams." Psychology Today Oct. 1987. 22 May 2005

Thurber, James. "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." Reading and Writing from Literature. Ed. Suzanne Phelps Weir et al. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. 617-21.

Wilson, August. "Fences." Reading and Writing from Literature. Ed. Suzanne Phelps Weir et al. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. 911-61.
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