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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

by James Thurber

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What is the main conflict and theme of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"?   

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Author James Thurber is one of America’s cleverest humorists of the twentieth century. In 1939, he penned the short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” for New Yorker magazine, and it promptly became a popular classic.

The story’s protagonist is Walter Mitty, a middle-aged man escaping his frustrations in life by leading an on-again-off-again fantasy existence. As the tale unfolds, a military commander is attempting to navigate an airplane through a pending hurricane and it seems that all hope is lost. Nevertheless, the crew has faith in the Commander’s heroism:

The crew, bending to their various tasks in the huge, hurtling eight-engined Navy hydroplane, looked at each other and grinned. “The Old Man’ll get us through,” they said to one another. “The Old Man ain’t afraid of Hell!”

Suddenly, the reader discovers the military pilot to be Walter Mitty, who is actually in the midst of a fantastic daydream while driving his car. The apparently neurotic protagonist is snapped out of his fantasy by his overbearing and domineering wife for whom he is performing his usual menial daily tasks:

"Not so fast! You’re driving too fast!" said Mrs. Mitty. "What are you driving so fast for?"

"Hmm?" said Walter Mitty. He looked at his wife, in the seat beside him, with shocked astonishment.... "You were up to fifty-five," she said. "You know I don’t like to go more than forty. You were up to fifty-five." Walter Mitty drove on toward Waterbury in silence.... "You’re tensed up again," said Mrs. Mitty. "It’s one of your days. I wish you’d let Dr. Renshaw look you over."

As the story continues, Thurber carefully develops both the conflict and theme of the tale through a series of similar events portraying Mitty as a daydreamer who envisions himself as a hero in the imagined scenarios his mind produces whenever he escapes his actual weak, bumbling personality and moves into a fantasy world. The pattern continues right to the end of the story as he waits for his bossy wife to complete her shopping tasks:

At the drugstore on the corner she said, "Wait here for me. I forgot something. I won’t be a minute." She was more than a minute. Walter Mitty lighted a cigarette. It began to rain, rain with sleet in it. He stood up against the wall of the drugstore, smoking.... He put his shoulders back and his heels together. "To hell with the handkerchief," said Walter Mitty scornfully. He took one last drag on his cigarette and snapped it away. Then, with that faint, fleeting smile playing about his lips, he faced the firing squad; erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.

The main character’s conflict is not with his nagging spouse. It is with himself. Thurber stresses this internal conflict until the main theme of failure becomes clear to the reader. The archetypal masculine traits the author finds commonplace in the early twentieth century such as strength and courage are lacking in Mitty and found only in his vivid imagination. The hero feels himself to be a failure in ordinary life and a man whose only successes occur during his fantasy departures from reality.

The short story also carries a hidden theme. The hero suffers from a gender conflict. He endures public ridicule by women, tolerates a constantly complaining wife, and demonstrates his personal fears at being emasculated by others. His fantasy dreams are diametrically opposed to the realities of Mitty’s ordinary existence, and many of those mental diversions involve gender conflicts. This secondary conflict and related theme are evident to the discerning reader, but further research might reveal the gender neurosis to be the author’s attitude toward cultural changes among men and women in the twentieth century.

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The principal conflict in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is the clash between fantasy and reality. The theme, which is closely related, is the superiority of fantasy in every respect, as the story explores the ways in which a man with a tedious and unsatisfactory everyday existence will construct an exciting secret life inside his mind.

The story begins in the midst of a daydream and appears at first to be a tale of high adventure, until the protagonist's wife breaks the illusion with the mundane and critical observation that he is driving too fast. Fantasy is not only superior to reality, it also seems more real. When Walter is first rudely awakened from his fantasy life, his surroundings and even his wife seem strange to him:

He looked at his wife, in the seat beside him, with shocked astonishment. She seemed grossly unfamiliar, like a strange woman who had yelled at him in a crowd.

Through the story, some aspect of reality will intrude upon Walter's fantasy life, bringing him back to reality for a short while until he seizes on some detail of his surroundings to propel him back into the realm of imagination. The fantasy takes over so quickly and regularly that Walter is like the Chinese philosopher, Zhuangzi, who dreamed he was a butterfly and, upon awakening, was never quite sure that he was not a butterfly dreaming he was a Chinese philosopher. Walter Mitty's imagination is so vivid and his everyday life so dreary that the reader has little difficulty in sympathizing with his preference for fantasy over reality.

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In "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," the main conflict is that of the Individual's Desires against Reality; the main theme is A Person's Dreams for Life vs. Society. 

  • Conflict - Individual's Desires vs. Society

No matter who talks with Mitty, he seems to be in conflict with her or him because he is subjected to defeat in his encounters. Not only does he have recurring conflicts, the boundaries for Mitty between fantasy and reality are too often porous. Thus, he is pulled from one daydream to another by his ineffective dealings in real-life society.
That Mitty wants to be strong is evinced in his daydreams--"The Old Man ain't afraid of Hell!" the crew shouts in his imagining of himself as a Commander of a Navy hydroplane. In fact, in every daydream, Mitty places himself in roles of command and authority. However, in real life Mitty is irresolute and subservient to his wife, who embodies the authority of society. In fact, Mitty succumbs to the questionable authority of even a parking lot attendant.

  • Theme - Dreams for Life vs. Reality 

Judging from the content of his daydreams, it is apparent that Walter Mitty desires to be a strong and self-reliant man; however, it is only in dreams that he can be effective. For this reason, he repeatedly retreats into these dreams. In the end of the narrative, at the hotel, he certainly has found refuge in his daydream as he sits in the winged chair, shielding himself from public view. For, when his wife accosts him, demanding to know why he hides in the old chair, in his effort to assert himself, Mitty replies,

"I was thinking....Does it ever occur to you that I am sometimes thinking?"

With no respect for her husband's feelings, Mrs. Mitty speaks to Walter as though he were a child: "I'm going to take your temperature when I get you home." Then, when she has him wait outside the drugstore while she runs in for something she has forgotten, Mitty stands against the wall, imagining himself as facing a firing squad as even his dreams are defeated.

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