The Catbird Seat

by James Thurber
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What is Mr. Martin's job in "The Catbird Seat"?

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Erwin Martin is head of the filing department at F & S, a firm located in Manhattan. This fact is of prime importance to the story because Ulgine Barrows, who has recently been hired as a special assistant to the owner, Mr. Fitweiler, apparently intends to reorganize Martin's department and probably create havoc. Martin realizes her intention when she visits his department and starts snoopiing around.

"Do you really need all these filing cabinets?" she had demanded suddenly. Mr. Martin's heart had jumped. "each of these files," he had said, keeping his voice even, "plays an indispensable part in the system of F & S."

His department is precious to him. It is his whole life. He has been with the firm for twenty-two years. It is because of Ulgine Barrows' threat to the filing department that Martin decides to murder her, then changes his mind and devises a different plan for getting rid of her.

According to the e-Notes Introduction to the story in the Study Guide (see reference link below), "The Catbird Seat" was first published in 1942. This was a time when the business world was almost entirely a man's world, but some women were moving into executive positions partly because of the labor shortage occasioned by America's entrance into World War II. Actually the American defense preparations had been draining men into the military and war industries since at least 1939 when the war began in Europe.

"The Catbird Seat" is significant because it illustrates the animosity that was beginning to be felt by male executives towards female competitors, who had previously been restricted to clerical and secretarial jobs in the business world. Miss Ulgine Barrows is a caricature of female executives of the period. She is intrusive, destructive, and incompetent. She doesn't understand how the system works. She tries too hard to be "one of the boys" by using slang expressions she has picked up from listening to a baseball announcer on the radio (television was not yet available to the Ameridan public).She may have been trying to cultivate an interest in baseball just because she had ambitions to upper echelons in the male-dominated world of big business.

"The catbird seat" is one of her expressions. Martin's assistant explained:

"Tearing up the pea patch" meant going on a rampage; "sitting in the catbird seat" meant sitting pretty, like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him.

One of Thurber's pet subjects in both his stories and his cartoons was what he called "The War Between Men and Women." Another story in which he presents an unflattering portrait of an overbearing woman is "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," which was also republished in his best anthology of stories, essays, memoirs, and cartoons, The Thurber Carnival.

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