The Catbird Seat

by James Thurber

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How does James Thurber uses humor in "The Catbird Seat"?

The Catbird Seat is a humorous story told in third person omniscient point of view. The setting is an office building in New York, where there are three male employees and one female employee. The male employees hate the female employee because she is so demanding and bossy, but they must put up with her because of their boss, who has a crush on her. The men scheme to get rid of her and eventually succeed by tricking her into saying something that can be interpreted as sexual harassment. They then tell the boss that she has been fired because of this accusation. The catbird seat refers to a bird's perch and Mrs. Barrows' position as head secretary at the office.

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In the story, Thurber uses humor to highlight the war between the sexes. He also uses humor to make another point: human beings are more complex than conventions allow. By using humor, Thurber gently demolishes stereotypes about "strong" males and "weak" females.

Certainly, Mrs. Ulgine Barrows is far from a...

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In the story, Thurber uses humor to highlight the war between the sexes. He also uses humor to make another point: human beings are more complex than conventions allow. By using humor, Thurber gently demolishes stereotypes about "strong" males and "weak" females.

Certainly, Mrs. Ulgine Barrows is far from a weak female. In fact, she is the epitome of the old "battle-ax." She is domineering, fierce, and utterly intimidating. Even her words drive fear into the hearts of her male peers. Thurber portrays Mrs. Barrows as a bully who delights in firing off a litany of obscure idiomatic expressions at anyone she deems incompetent. The effect makes us smile, and Thurber cleverly manages to drive home his point: women may be known as the weaker sex, but they're hardly passive creatures.

On the other hand, Mr. Martin is mild, phlegmatic, and overwhelmingly passive. He despises Mrs. Barrows but takes special pains to hide his true feelings from everyone.

Mr. Martin may be physically inconspicuous, but he's certainly not simple-minded. Underneath the submissive exterior lies a quick mind accompanied by an over-active imagination. It is this over-active imagination that provides much of the humor in the story.

Already a precious week had gone by. Mr. Martin stood up in his living room, still holding his milk glass. "Gentlemen of the jury," he said to himself, "I demand the death penalty for this horrible person."

"Here's nuts to that old windbag, Fitweiler," he said, and gulped again... "I am preparing a bomb," said Mr. Martin, "which will blow the old goat higher than hell...I'll be coked to the gills when I bump that old buzzard off."

Certainly, Mr. Martin's little act has disconcerted Mrs. Barrows. She really believes that he's going to kill off their employer. But, we readers are in on Mr. Martin's secret, and we know that Mrs. Barrows will soon have a taste of her own medicine. Here, it's important to note that experts have often accused Thurber of misogyny. Yet, if we read the story closely, we discover that men aren't portrayed any more positively than women. In fact, men like Mr. Martin, Mr. Brundage, Mr. Bartlett, and Mr. Munson demonstrate not power, but impotence.

None of the men who are fired contest their arbitrary dismissals. Later, Mrs. Barrows herself loses her job at Mr. Fitweiler's firm. Like the men, she becomes an impotent character, suddenly unable to defend herself against unfounded allegations about a "persecution complex." Thurber uses humor to point out that helplessness often encompasses the human experience and neither gender is immune from its touch. The humorous story also turns on its head the very definition of strength.

Despite his outward impotence, Mr. Martin manages to outsmart Mrs. Barrows. And, despite her overpowering nature, Mrs. Barrows fails to secure her future at Mr. Fitweiler's firm.

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Hopefully, you, too, will find James Thurber's "The Catbird Seat" as hilarious as I have always found it. Perhaps the comic irony that Thurber utilizes is the story's strongest point. In the end, the weakest character wins out over his formidable nemesis in a battle of wits between the sexes. Erwin Martin is a typical milquetoast Thurber character: meek, mild and set in his ways. Ulgine Barrows is a woman with strong, masculine traits: She is "profane," drinks and loves baseball, unlike Martin, who is a milk drinker with little or no interest in sports. Their role reversal adds to the comic element. The fact that Martin suddenly changes his plans--from killing her to merely setting her up--is an unexpected twist that even Martin didn't expect. His transformation before Mrs. Barrow's eyes into a smoking, drinking, bomb-making doper is hilarious, as is the finale, when their boss assumes that the woman must be crazy to make such incredible assertions about the forever-bland Martin. 

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