Study Guide

The Catbird Seat

by James Thurber

The Catbird Seat Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Catbird Seat” is the story of Erwin Martin’s calculated destruction of the vulgar, ruthless Ulgine Barrows, who has made life at F & S miserable since her appearance two years before the story begins. The tale might almost be called a revenge comedy, and it is even more amusing because Mr. Martin’s very dullness enables him to succeed. The story begins with an uncharacteristic action by Mr. Martin. He does not smoke; yet he is surreptitiously buying a pack of cigarettes. The purchase is part of his plan to kill Mrs. Ulgine Barrows, a plan that he has worked out during the preceding week.

Mr. Martin has no qualms about his action. Since charming the elderly Mr. Fitweiler at a party and persuading him to make her his all-powerful adviser, Mrs. Barrows has fired some employees and caused the resignations of others. As she has moved from department to department, she has changed systems and, Mr. Martin believes, is threatening the very existence of the firm, while Mr. Fitweiler, besotted, applauds. Although he is consistently annoyed by her southern expressions, evidently picked up from a baseball announcer, such as “sitting in the catbird seat,” that is, in a perfect situation, Mr. Martin has not thought that she deserved death until her appearance in the filing department, which he heads. When she suggests that his filing cabinets were not necessary, Ulgine Barrows signs her own death warrant. Mr. Martin’s purchase of a brand of...

(The entire section is 489 words.)

The Catbird Seat Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

“The Catbird Seat” combines Thurber’s interests in baseball and in the Walter Mitty character. The mild-mannered protagonist of this story, Mr. Martin, is afflicted in his workplace by a loud, aggressive woman named Ulgine Barrows. Although she has been hired to reduce company expenditures and thus constitutes a threat to his security, he hates most her habit of taunting him with colorful expressions drawn from the lexicon of Red Barber, the real-life play-by-play announcer of the Brooklyn Dodgers. “Are you scraping the bottom of the pickle barrel?” “Are you sitting in the catbird seat?” Pleasant enough coming from Barber, these utterances, incessantly reiterated by his nemesis, convince Martin that he must kill her.

After going home from work one evening and drinking a glass of milk, Martin walks to the woman’s apartment and barges in. She, of course unafraid of him, notices his extreme nervousness and offers him a drink. While she is in the kitchen, he cannot find the weapon he had hoped to locate in her living room. He accepts the drink and a cigarette, neither of which he has ever indulged in before. Beginning to boast that he intends to murder their mutual employer, he boldly “confirms” her suspicion that he is on dope. He then leaves, uttering, “Not a word about this.” When promptly the next morning Barrows complains to their boss about her visitor’s behavior, Martin denies the allegations. Growing hysterical and finally violent, Barrows must be forcibly evicted from the premises, and Martin returns quietly to his work.

That Martin will fail in his attempt to kill his tormenter there is never any doubt, but he cannily turns his failure into a triumph. In Thurber’s version of the eternal war of the sexes, “The Catbird Seat” marks the signal example of a masculine victory—one that, given the bullying nature of his antagonist, the reader is inclined to celebrate.

The Catbird Seat Summary

‘‘The Catbird Seat’’ opens in a crowded cigar store in New York City, where Mr. Erwin Martin is buying a pack of Camel cigarettes. As...

(The entire section is 706 words.)