In "The Catbird Seat," how is suspense aroused and maintained? What is the story's principal surprise?
In the story, Thurber arouses and maintains suspense admirably. First, he makes the protagonist an underdog figure. Mr. Martin is unassuming, mild, and obsessively passive. Thurber pits him against the domineering and overpowering figure of Mrs. Barrows.
As the story unfolds, we find our sympathies firmly on Mr. Martin's side. But we worry about such a vulnerable character. In fact, we question whether he will ever prevail against his more formidable opponent. It is these emotions that make the story suspenseful for us readers.
Thurber also gives Mr. Martin a worthy goal: he must "rub" out Mrs. Barrows before she costs him his job. In other words, he needs to fight to preserve his livelihood. But how will he do it? He certainly cannot challenge her to a duel. At this point, many of us can relate to Mr. Martin's experience: he is cornered and powerless. Mrs. Barrows, having the ear of Mr. Fitweiler, seems to hold all the cards. Thurber skillfully draws on our natural sympathies; after all, it is human nature to fight for our own survival.
Thurber prolongs the suspense by having Mr. Martin carry out a daring plan. As he acts out a part he is unfamiliar with, we question whether he can truly outwit Mrs. Barrows.
The suspense is maintained until the moment Mrs. Barrows is escorted out of the building. Until then, her formidable fighting spirit is on full display. Thus, the story's principal surprise occurs when Mr. Martin gets the better of his nemesis. Best of all, no one suspects Mr. Martin for his part in Mrs. Barrow's downfall.
In this story, irony plays a huge part in understanding the suspense of the story. For one, the traditional roles of men and women are reversed. Mrs. Barrows is more masculine than Martin because she smokes, drinks, and likes baseball. She exhibits a loud, commanding presence. Martin is the opposite of Mrs. Barrows, and he resents her for her masculine behavior.
The main irony of the story is in its title. It seems at first that Mrs. Barrows is in the catbird seat, but in the end, it is Martin who sits there. Martin even uses the title phrase against Mrs. Barrows because Mr. Fitweiler knows that Martin would never say such a thing.
I think the biggest surprise is that it's Mrs. Barrows' own masculine-like strength that brings her down. She's unable to stop Martin's plan even though she knows what he's doing. Also, Martin's reputation for being timid and quiet is what lets him win out in the end. His boss and his coworkers would never believe he would be capable of what Mrs. Barrows accuses him of.