The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Questions and Answers
by James Thurber

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty book cover
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In "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," what is the main conflict? Why?

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Madeleine Wells eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In the story, the main conflict is between Walter Mitty and his wife. This is because the entire story consists of Walter's desperate attempts to break free from his wife's control.

To make his reality more palatable, Walter indulges in daydreams. All his daydreams have one thing in common: he is the hero in all of them. In the five daydreams he has, he is undeniably confident, capable, and courageous. He is not the bumbling fool his wife makes him out to be.

Walter's first daydream consists of him imagining that he is the fearless Navy commander guiding his hydroplane crew through a terrible storm. Notice that when Walter's pleasant daydream is rudely interrupted, his wife is yelling at him about driving too fast. Walter's response is telling: his wife appears to be some strange woman yelling at him in a crowd, and he can barely recognize her as someone worth listening to.

The second daydream sees Walter saving the life of a millionaire banker. While the four medical professionals are stumped, Walter has all the answers. He is the only one who can repair the anesthetizer and stabilize the patient. In the third daydream, Walter is a skilled marksman who is on trial for murder. When his attorney argues that Walter's injured right arm proves his innocence, Walter coolly asserts that he could have shot the victim with his left hand if he wanted to. This third daydream is the only one that has a beautiful girl fall into Walter's arms. In this daydream (unlike his dismal reality), Walter calls the shots and is delightfully ambushed by an admiring female.

In the fourth daydream, Walter is again the hero of the hour. This time, he is a captain during World War One and the only one left who can fly the bomber plane into enemy fire. Even though his subordinate advises him against going alone, Walter is resolute. He downs some brandy (to the frank admiration of his sergeant) and walks out the door, confident in his ability to secure victory.

The last daydream consists of Walter bravely facing a firing squad. He rejects the handkerchief or blindfold, preferring to face the squad with his eyes open. The conflict between Walter and his wife resolves with Walter deciding that he will face down his domineering wife without fear, no matter what happens. In his daydreams, he is the epitome of the courageous hero. Now, he wants to be "Walter Mitty The Undefeated" in real life as well.

In the story, the conflict between Walter and his wife largely drives the plot. In between his wife's attempts to control him, Walter indulges in fantastical daydreams to protect his sense of self. Thus, this alternating reality versus daydream sequence highlights the main conflict of the story.

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Susan Hurn eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The main conflict is found in Mitty's relationship with his wife. She hovers, nags, controls, and directs every aspect of his daily life; he resents it. We can interpret this as the main conflict for several reasons. First of all, this is the only continuing conflict in the story and the only one that is rooted in reality. It is introduced quickly into the story, and it is the conflict to which the story returns at the end. Mitty's conflict with his wife provides the frame of the story, with his various, unrelated fantasies making up the rest.

Even his daydreams, however, support the idea that his conflict with Mrs. Mitty is the major problem. Mitty fantasizes in order to escape his life--and his wife--but even in his fantasies, parts of his real life intrude. He can't get away completely. Mitty's final fantasy in the story is both humorous and ironic. When he is back in his wife's company, she sends him outside to wait for her. As he does what he is told, standing in the rain waiting, he daydreams again, this timeĀ about standing in front of a firing squad. This particular fantasy makes Mitty's conflict with his wife very clear; Facing a firing squad is preferable to dealing with Mrs. Mitty.

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