What is the main theme of James Thurber's "The Catbird Seat"?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The main theme of this beguiling (for Mrs. Barrows ...) short story is a variation on a general "men and women" theme. We'll find the theme by briefly examining the facts of the story of Mr. Martin.

  • Mr. Martin is orderly, predictable, effective, respectful and mild in deportment.
  • Mrs. Barrows is loud, unruly, disruptive, disrespectful and aggressive in deportment.
  • Mrs. Barrows annoys Mr. Martin personally.
  • Mrs. Barrows enrages Mr. Martin for her wanton destruction of the orderly operation of F & S.
  • Many employees have walked out and abandoned F & S because of Mrs. Barrows: "After Miss Tyson, Mr. Brundage, and Mr. Bartlett had been fired and Mr. Munson had taken his hat and stalked out,..."
  • Mr. Martin sees that his own department is the next to suffer under her misguided hand of mismanagement: "Mr. Martin could no longer doubt that the finger was on his beloved department. Her pickaxe was on the upswing,..."
  • Mr. Martin is in conflict with Mrs. Barrows and, according to the material disintegration in the effective operation of F & S, Mr. Martin is all in the right, with Mrs. Barrows all in the wrong.

The theme that unfolds under this examination of the facts may be expressed as Bold Woman against Mild Man or in this sentence, which contains a Biblical allusion: Meek and mild man shall inherit the earth to the exclusion of loud and aggressive woman.

Somewhere in the back of his mind a vague idea stirred, sprouted. "For heaven's sake, take off those gloves," said Mrs. Barrows. "I always wear them in the house," said Mr. Martin. The idea began to bloom, strange and wonderful.

If we analyze the facts of the story, we can see that this theme is represented throughout as Mr. Martin silently clashes with Mrs. Barrows while using his quiet inner strength to plot and plan to withstand her. In the end, his first plan doesn't succeed, but the plan that comes to him on the inspiration of an instant does succeed in "the rubbing-out of Ulgine Barrows" though in an altogether different manner from what he first imagined. He, meek and mild yet powerfully intelligent and inspired, is triumphant, while she, loud and domineering yet inferior and inadequate, is vanquished.

"So, Martin, I am afraid Mrs. Barrows' usefulness here is at an end." "I am dreadfully sorry, sir," said Mr. Martin.

Read the study guide:
The Catbird Seat

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