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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

by James Thurber

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What is the conflict in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"?

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The primary conflict in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is internal, as it is Walter against himself. Walter is dissatisfied with himself, so he daydreams about being a more daring, heroic person. The secondary conflicts are person against society and person against person. Walter senses his opposition to the boring world of his daily life, and the story shows the constant low-level antagonism between him and his wife.

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The primary conflict in James Thurber’s story is internal. Walter Mitty is engaged in a constant struggle within himself. On a given day, he escapes into his daydreams multiple times. Walter is shown as being dissatisfied with himself but largely unable or unwilling to take steps toward changing. His fantasies display a stark contrast between the way he behaves in daily life and the ways he imagines behaving in challenging circumstances. As he fantasizes about being a risk-taking, “Type A” person, such as a pilot or a surgeon, he continues to be passive in real life.

There are important secondary conflicts in the story as well. Both are equally important in their support for Walter’s internal conflict.

One of these secondary conflicts is Walter against society. Thurber positions Walter in conflict with the world around him, which he finds boring and unappealing. The conflict is conveyed largely as petty hassles, with Walter challenged in accomplishing even simple errands, such as buying overshoes or puppy biscuits.

The other secondary conflict is person versus person. Walter is presented in opposition to his wife. She plays the dominant role in their relationship, constantly ordering him around and finding fault with the way he does things.

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

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

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 time 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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What is the central conflict in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"?

There is no direct conflict in the story, but Walter Mitty is fighting back subconsciously against the conventions of society and his role in it. Society has made him a timid and quiet man without any larger ambitions, and he is pushed around by pretty much everyone in his life. However, in his daydreams, he is a man of action, a hero who saves the day and is admired by everyone he meets.

"The Old Man'll get us through," they said to one another. "The Old Man ain't afraid of hell!" . . .

"Not so fast! You're driving too fast!" said Mrs. Mitty. "What are you driving so fast for?"
(Thurber, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," bnrg.cs.berkeley.edu)

In that sense, the central conflict is Man versus Society. Mitty dreams of adventure, but his only real drama is forgetting the errands his wife wants him to run while she is at the salon. He doesn't run into any actual adversity, but he dreams of conquering vast difficulties and coming through with his dignity intact. Society, however, has other plans, and he ends the story much as he starts it, in a daydream with no other future ahead of him.

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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.

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

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

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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What conflicts are portrayed in "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty"?

Stories almost invariably contain conflict across multiple levels (even if some are more prominent than others). "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is no exception, tying together external and internal conflict. Usually, conflict tends to be divided into four kinds: person versus self; person versus person; person versus society; and person versus nature. "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" utilizes the first three of these four categorizations.

To begin, the most apparent source of external conflict lies between Walter Mitty and his wife. Hers is a very dominant personality, which appears to exert a stifling effect on Walter himself. But external conflict is hardly limited to his wife alone. Walter emerges as someone ill at ease within conventional society, constantly receiving its disapproval.

Finally, there is internal conflict as well. When looking at the tenor of his daydreams, we see consistently a strong, domineering force of personality by which Walter Mitty can play the role of the hero, even as he is continually stifled by the society around him. There is a tension between the reality that he experiences and the daydreams to which he retreats. This reflects the conflict internal to Mitty himself and his dissatisfaction with his life.

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