The Catbird Seat

by James Thurber

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What are some character traits of Mr. Martin and Mrs. Barrows in James Thurber's "The Catbird Seat"?

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In the story, Mr. Martin is cunning, methodical, and diligent. He is also a loyal and reliable employee. Because of these traits, Mr. Martin is regarded with great respect by his boss, Mr. Fitweiler, who is also the president of the firm. In fact, Mr. Fitweiler once said of his star employee: "Man is fallible but Martin isn't." Due to Mr. Martin's exemplary character, few suspect his part in ousting Mrs. Ulgine Barrows from her position as special advisor to Mr. Fitweiler.

For her part, Mrs. Barrows is the complete opposite of Mr. Martin. She is domineering, boorish, and egotistical. As Mr. Fitweiler's special counsel, Mrs. Barrows becomes a terror to her colleagues. She appropriates power for herself and determines that she will remake the company to match her vision. Mrs. Barrows is heavy-handed in her approach and displays little patience for anyone who disagrees with her. In the meantime, Mr. Martin quietly plots to "rub out" Mrs. Barrows. He realizes that, given the opportunity, Mrs. Barrows will eventually deprive him of gainful employment.

Mr. Martin visits Mrs. Barrows in order to carry out a strategic assault against his colleague's plans. Mr. Martin initially plots to kill Mrs. Barrows but soon hits upon a better idea. During the visit, we can see Mr. Martin's methodical and cunning nature at work. He accepts a scotch-and-soda from Mrs. Barrows and puffs nonchalantly on a cigarette. Mr. Martin also reinforces the image of himself as an unstable man by asserting that he smokes and drinks regularly. At the right moment, he also proclaims that he will be high on heroin as he kills off Mr. Fitweiler. Mr. Martin carefully sets the stage to manipulate Mrs. Barrows's perspective, and he succeeds.

Incensed by everything she's heard, Mrs. Barrows reports Mr. Martin's disturbing words to Mr. Fitweiler the next day. Mr. Fitweiler finds it difficult to believe his advisor's fantastic story about the usually stoic Mr. Martin. In the end, Mr. Fitweiler concludes that Mrs. Barrows has overworked herself and is suffering from a persecution complex of sorts.

So, ironically, it is Mrs. Barrows who is ousted rather than Mr. Barrows. While Mrs. Barrows's crude and coarse nature becomes her undoing, it is Mr. Martin's cunning and methodical nature that allows him to frame his actions to his advantage.

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The two main characters of James Thurber's "The Catbird Seat" are nearly polar opposites, a difference that eventually plays an important part in the climactic ending of the story. Erwin Martin is small and quiet, a "drab, ordinary little man," while Ulgine Barrows is large and loud, with a commanding presence. Martin doesn't smoke or drink; he prefers milk. Mrs. Barrows smokes Luckies and drinks scotch-and-soda. Martin has few friends and has worked with the company for 22 years. Mrs. Barrows quickly made friends with the president of the firm, Mr. Fitweiler, and became his "special advisor"; she has forced many changes during her eighteen months on the job--change being something that Martin detests. Mrs. Barrows is a big sports fan--Martin is not--and she delights in repeating various sports terms made popular by the Brooklyn Dodgers announcer, Red Barber. Most importantly, Martin is a man who lives by an orderly lifestyle of routine--something that is so unchanging that it becomes the defining characteristic of the individual, and the trait that leads to Mrs. Barrows' undoing.

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