The Catbird Seat by James Thurber

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Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Catbird Seat” is the story of Erwin Martin’s calculated destruction of the vulgar, ruthless Ulgine Barrows, who has made life at F & S miserable since her appearance two years before the story begins. The tale might almost be called a revenge comedy, and it is even more amusing because Mr. Martin’s very dullness enables him to succeed. The story begins with an uncharacteristic action by Mr. Martin. He does not smoke; yet he is surreptitiously buying a pack of cigarettes. The purchase is part of his plan to kill Mrs. Ulgine Barrows, a plan that he has worked out during the preceding week.

Mr. Martin has no qualms about his action. Since charming the elderly Mr. Fitweiler at a party and persuading him to make her his all-powerful adviser, Mrs. Barrows has fired some employees and caused the resignations of others. As she has moved from department to department, she has changed systems and, Mr. Martin believes, is threatening the very existence of the firm, while Mr. Fitweiler, besotted, applauds. Although he is consistently annoyed by her southern expressions, evidently picked up from a baseball announcer, such as “sitting in the catbird seat,” that is, in a perfect situation, Mr. Martin has not thought that she deserved death until her appearance in the filing department, which he heads. When she suggests that his filing cabinets were not necessary, Ulgine Barrows signs her own death warrant. Mr. Martin’s purchase of a brand of cigarettes that she does not smoke is only one element in a thoughtful plan.

At a time of day when the streets are relatively deserted, Mr. Martin goes to the apartment of Mrs. Barrows. She is surprised to see him, puzzled when he refuses to remove his gloves, and amused when Mr. Martin, who is known never to drink, accepts a scotch. As he looks about for a weapon, Mr. Martin realizes that the murder he had planned is simply too difficult. Another idea comes to him, however: He can eliminate Mrs. Barrows by destroying her credibility.

When Mrs. Barrows returns with his drink, Mr. Martin smokes, drinks, announces that he takes heroin regularly, and suggests that he intends to kill Mr. Fitweiler. Commenting that he is in the “catbird seat,” he leaves, goes home unseen, and goes to sleep.

At the office the next morning, Mrs. Barrows reports the incident to Mr. Fitweiler. Faced with Mr. Martin’s usual propriety, Mr. Fitweiler can only assume that Mrs. Barrows has developed delusions. After consultation with his psychiatrist, Mr. Fitweiler has concluded that she must be fired. Furious, Mrs. Barrows screams at Mr. Martin, voicing her suspicions that he may have planned the whole situation. Still screaming, she is removed from the office. Accepting Mr. Fitweiler’s apology, Mr. Martin permits himself a faster pace in the hall, but back in his department, he resumes his usual propriety and returns to his files.

Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“The Catbird Seat” combines Thurber’s interests in baseball and in the Walter Mitty character. The mild-mannered protagonist of this story, Mr. Martin, is afflicted in his workplace by a loud, aggressive woman named Ulgine Barrows. Although she has been hired to reduce company expenditures and thus constitutes a threat to his security, he hates most her habit of taunting him with colorful expressions drawn from the lexicon of Red Barber, the real-life play-by-play announcer of the Brooklyn Dodgers. “Are you scraping the bottom of the pickle barrel?” “Are you sitting in the catbird seat?” Pleasant enough coming from Barber, these utterances, incessantly reiterated by his nemesis, convince Martin that he must kill her.

After going home from work one evening and drinking a glass of milk, Martin walks to the woman’s apartment and barges in. She, of course unafraid of him, notices his extreme nervousness and offers him a drink. While she is in the kitchen, he cannot find the weapon he had hoped to locate in her living room. He accepts the drink and a cigarette, neither of...

(The entire section is 1,514 words.)