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

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

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