In “The River-Merchant’s Wife,” the main conflict revolves around the distant relationship between the wife and her husband. The wife is considerably young. She is a teen—fourteen, to be exact—when she marries. A year later, her feelings for her husband increase. She wants their “dust” to be “mingled” forever. In other words, she wants to be permanently entwined with her husband, even after they die. When the wife turns sixteen, her husband departs. He went to the river and hasn’t returned. He’s been away for five months.
The separation could be seen as the main conflict in the poem. Being away from her husband for such a long period has made her sad. Her forlorn feelings are emphasized by the “sorrowful” noises of the monkeys. The presence of the monkeys might also spotlight her loneliness. There are no humans around for her to interact with. Additionally, the prolonged separation seems to have made her unable to enjoy the enchanting parts of life. The autumn leaves and butterflies “hurt” her.
However, the wife is somewhat optimistic that the conflict will eventually resolve itself. She holds on to the belief that her husband will return, which is why she tells him that she will travel as far as Chō-fū-Sa to meet him when he hopefully comes back.