Michaeline: Structure and Conflict in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”

Dissecting a story can reveal strange and wonderful things!

Dissecting a story can reveal strange and wonderful things!

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is one of the touchstones of American culture, and there are references scattered throughout literature and the pop scene to the passive-aggressive dreamer who escapes into his own world as often as he can.

I see the structure of the story as something like this: the five episodes of daydreaming take their details and themes from the underlying reality of Walter Mitty’s daily life. The underlying reality is a thread, and the daydreams are bubbles that rise out of that thread. The conflict in the daydreaming is manufactured, of course, but takes shape from real conflict in his life – conflicts many of us face, and are a little boring, to tell the truth. The daydream episodes raise the conflict into High Drama.

The basic thread of Mitty’s real life is packed with everyday conflicts. Mrs. Mitty vs. Mr. Mitty on three topics (driving, mental health and overshoes) is followed by Mr. Mitty vs. a cop who tells him to stop dawdling at the stop light.

Next, Mr. Mitty has a run-in with a parking attendant – first the young man tells Mitty that he is in the wrong lane, then the boy reminds him to leave the key, and then the attendant backs the car up with “insolent skill”.

In this same period of reality, Mitty recalls a past conflict of man vs. machine when he couldn’t remove his tire chains. This conflict had escalated into a conflict with the garagemen as well as a conflict with Mrs. Mitty who insisted he not take the chains off himself. This dissolves into a conflict between Mitty and his hoped-for-self, and is expressed physically as he kicks the slush. Mitty goes back into the baggage of past real-life conflict as he remembers conflicts with his wife over forgotten shopping.

Mitty has another present-time conflict when a passerby mocks him for talking to himself in the street. There is a small victory when he remembers to buy puppy biscuit. Then, Mitty continues fighting with the wife-in-his-head as he hurries to the hotel before she can get there. He thinks he avoids future conflict.

But no. When his wife arrives, she criticizes him for “hiding,” for not putting on his overshoes, and she clashes with him (very subtly) about his physical and mental health.

arrow graphic paint for Walter MittyThe story, however, starts with a day dream conflict. Who wants to read a story about a forgetful middle-aged man? Instead, Thurber begins with a hydroplane commander. We have the Commander vs. the elements, but this is given a solid base in Commander vs. Lt. Berg. The conflict words are subtle but powerful: “going through,” “rev,” “switch on,” “FULL STRENGTH” (all caps mine) then POP, the daydream ends.

In the second daydream, we have a cardiac specialist. At first, it’s Dr. vs. Death, then the action switches to Dr. vs. Machine, and finally we have Dr. vs. Coreopsis (a disease in Mitty’s secret world, not a flower). The real-life discussion of illness has brought about a fantasy of medicine.

In the third daydream, Mitty is a sharpshooter defending himself against society. This conflict is strictly the District Attorney vs. Mitty. Words like “thrust,” “insinuatingly,” and Mitty’s “with my left hand” are punches of conflict, which then descends into blows as the DA hits the girl in Mitty’s arms, and Mitty strikes the DA. The daydream stems from his wife’s accusations, but it also resolves the issue of forgotten shopping.

In the fourth daydream, Mitty is a flying ace. The broader conflict is Mitty vs. the Germans in WWII, but is anchored in bodies when Mitty and his sergeant disagree. I think this is a reference to the battle of the sexes – the Germans are prompted by an old magazine Mitty reads while waiting. It’s not strongest conflict in the group.

In the fifth daydream, Mitty faces a firing squad. He is facing the unfair judgments of the world as well as death.

Conflict doesn’t change Mitty, and he is simply a reactionary character. His character shows a deep truth about the human condition: many of us retreat into our own fantasy worlds, and cause ourselves more problems in the real world as a result. That said, giving up the fantasy world is very painful, and Mitty chooses to face death (or at least living martyrdom) rather than take steps to live in the real world.

I’ve missed stuff, and I’m sure there are other interpretations. Let’s take this apart, and look at how a master handles subtle and not so subtle conflicts!

3 thoughts on “Michaeline: Structure and Conflict in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”

  1. I haven’t read the Secret Life of Walter Mitty, so I’m feeling unqualified to comment. (But I’ll go ahead and comment anyway….) How does the story end? Maybe if Mitty remains unchanged at the end, Thurber was commenting about something else—the inevitability of mundaneness, or something. I can’t recall any other stories by Thurber that I’ve read, but I’m familiar with his cartoons. Many of the cartoons look a lot like what this storyline is—they feature a small, unassertive man in conflict with his wife, a large, bossy woman. Maybe this was just Thurber’s life as he saw it. Also, I read somewhere that he might have had a neurological/vision impairment that caused him to hallucinate, so maybe the Mitty story is all about that!

    One thing that’s interesting, though, is that we’ve all been taught that conflict is central to the story, and conflict is certainly evident in this story. But here, the conflict seems to be utterly unresolved. And yet people love this story—it’s in anthologies; and two movies, a radio play, and I think at least one Broadway play based on it got produced. I think that kind of appreciation must demonstrate that if the author’s voice is strong and readers identify with the character, people will like the story, even if it breaks conventional rules of narrative structure.

  2. Maybe Mitty doesn’t need to change, because he’s found an escape mechanism that works for him? This kind of story doesn’t do it for me, but I can imagine people who feel trapped by their responsibilities might find it fun to read about a man who seems to be similarly trapped but has found a creative way to free himself?

  3. Well, I think there might be two things going on here as far as the resolution of the conflict(s). First, I read somewhere that in a story, you either have the characters reach their goals, or you give the reader a deeper understanding of the human condition — and a lot of writers in the literary genre are aiming for the latter. I think Thurber is brilliant at the latter. The other thing is that this is a short story, and you can get away with things in a short story that would be tedious in a longer form.

    So, while this isn’t a great example for the Goals and Motivation parts of the GMC triangle, it’s really great at the Conflict part.

    During my research for this post, I found a fascinating tidbit about how young people really identify with Mitty, and resent the teacher and Mrs. Mitty for trying to point out Mitty’s flaws. But for older adults, they can sympathize with Mitty — but they can also sympathize with the wife! Like Kay inferred, this is another slice of life in Thurber’s battle of the sexes — not just man against woman, but differing values of masculinity.

    What I’m really interested in today is how the piece is able to use conflict to move the story forward, and how Thurber is able to pack so much conflict into so few words. I haven’t counted them, but one blogger said the story was 2100 words long. And yet, in that small space, there are dozens of conflicts with many people, things and ideas. It all boils down to an entitled-feeling Mitty vs. a society that doesn’t recognize his specialness. And it doesn’t really judge — a reader can come away with the feeling that society is unfair, or with the feeling of “What does Mitty expect? He doesn’t DO anything that merits specialness.”

    If the New Yorker link doesn’t work, here’s a link to a PDF: http://teachersites.schoolworld.com/webpages/JStafford1/files/the%20secret%20life%20of%20walter%20mitty.pdf (But it is prettier on the New Yorker site (-:.)

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