The Catbird Seat

by James Thurber

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Last Updated May 17, 2024.

Introduction

"The Catbird Seat," a short story by James Thurber, was first published in The New Yorker on November 14, 1942. 

Set against the backdrop of a conservative 1940s office environment, the story juxtaposes the meticulous and mild-mannered Mr. Erwin Martin with the loud and overbearing Mrs. Ulgine Barrows. 

Superficially, the tale is about revenge, with Mr. Martin leveraging his reputation for temperance and responsibility to undermine Mrs. Barrows. On a deeper level, "The Catbird Seat" delves into the themes of power and control, highlighting the different ways individuals navigate and manipulate social hierarchies. In that sense, Mr. Martin's victory is not just over Mrs. Barrows but also over the chaos she represents to his orderly existence.

Deeper still, Thurber's story also explores gender dynamics, with Mrs. Barrows representing a threat to the male-dominated office environment and Mr. Martin's ultimate triumph underscoring the period's conservative gender norms.

Plot Summary

Mr. Erwin Martin, head of the filing department at F & S, is a man of routine and order. His colleagues see him as a quiet, unassuming figure, leading a life devoid of excitement or scandal. Mr. Martin prides himself on his meticulous nature, carefully planning his every move and avoiding anything that might disrupt his orderly world.

The arrival of Mrs. Ulgine Barrows, an assertive and intrusive woman who ingratiated herself with the firm's president, Mr. Fitweiler, threatens this peaceful world. With her boisterous personality and slang-filled speech, Mrs. Barrows disrupts the office's tranquility and threatens the stability Mr. Martin cherishes. 

Soon, Mrs. Barrows begins making changes in the office, suggesting reorganizations Mr. Martin finds intolerable. Over the next year and a half, Mr. Martin watches as several of his colleagues are fired or quit due to Mrs. Barrows’s meddling. Despite attempted interventions from other employees, Mr. Fitweiler continues to defend Mrs. Barrows, declaring that he has: “the greatest faith in Mrs. Barrows’ ideas.” 

When Mrs. Barrows turns her attention toward Mr. Martin’s department, he decides to take drastic action and hatches a plan to “rub out”—or kill—Mrs. Barrows:

The term "rub out" pleased him because it suggested nothing more than the correction of an error.

On a Monday evening, he visits Mrs. Barrows at her home under the pretense of having been “passing by.” Once inside, he attempts to find a suitable weapon with which to kill Mrs. Barrows. However, his resolve to commit murder falters, and he embarks on an alternative plan. 

Mr. Martin begins to behave in a wildly uncharacteristic manner: smoking cigarettes, drinking scotch, implying he uses heroin, and boldly declaring that he is plotting to "rub out" Mr. Fitweiler. The bizarre behavior shocks Mrs. Barrows. Appalled by Mr. Martin’s out-of-character antics, she tells him to leave her home at once.

The next day, Mrs. Barrows, convinced Mr. Martin is plotting something nefarious, rushes to Mr. Fitweiler to report his strange behavior. However, Mr. Martin's reputation as a model employee works to his advantage. Mr. Fitweiler cannot believe that the quiet, dependable Mr. Martin would behave in such a way, and he dismisses Mrs. Barrows' claims as little more than a nervous breakdown. Her efforts to defend her claims only make her look even more unstable, and she is forcefully escorted out of Mr. Fitweiler’s office by other F & S employees.

Mr. Martin's calculated risk paid off. He returns to his orderly life, having successfully navigated the threat posed by Mrs. Barrows through psychological manipulation rather than physical confrontation. The story ends with Mr. Martin in the metaphorical "catbird seat," a position of advantage and control. 

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