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