Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The comic irony that is so important an element in Thurber’s stories is effected in “The Catbird Seat” by the technique of limited omniscience. From the beginning to the end of the story, Thurber reveals the thoughts only of his Mr. Martin. However, the impression that Mr. Martin makes on others is clearly revealed through objective comments, such as the fact that the cigarette clerk did not look at him, and by comments recalled by Mr. Martin, such as those of Mr. Fitweiler and of the late Sam Schlosser. With the judgment of the outside world thus established, Thurber can produce his comic effect by letting the reader in on the secret. Only the reader shares Mr. Martin’s carefully dissembled anger; only the reader follows the formulation of his plot; and only the reader anticipates and then experiences the final scene, in which no one will believe Mrs. Barrows, even though she is telling the truth.

Because the character of Mr. Martin is so important, both in the plot line and in the total comic effect, Thurber establishes his spinsterish fussiness, his bureaucratic orderliness, by the use of numerous details. He plans to eliminate Mrs. Barrows as if she were an error. He tries and convicts her in a mental courtroom, while he is drinking his milk. He shines his glasses and sharpens pencils while he waits to murder her.

The other characters are seen through Mr. Martin’s eyes. Mrs. Barrows “romped . . . like a circus horse,” “was...

(The entire section is 401 words.)

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

Humor in the Modern Period
Although Thurber has often been compared with the nineteenth-century humorist Mark Twain, this has...

(The entire section is 656 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

The term ‘‘irony’’ refers to a difference between appearance and reality, between what might be expected and what...

(The entire section is 782 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Known as a humorist, Thurber often uses irony to make a serious point in his fiction. The term "irony" refers to a difference between...

(The entire section is 749 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

1. Interview someone who works in a business office. How has the office environment changed since Mr. Martin worked for F&S? How has it...

(The entire section is 171 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

First published in the November 14, 1942, issue of the New Yorker, "The Catbird Seat" also appeared in Thurber's 1945 collection,...

(The entire section is 775 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

December 8, 1941: After a Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States declares war on Japan and enters World War II....

(The entire section is 211 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

If ‘‘The Catbird Seat’’ were set today instead of in 1942, who might play the Red Barber role? Name a few famous entertainment or...

(The entire section is 172 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

As noted above, Thurber's work is often compared to that of Mark Twain. While there are not many stylistic similarities between the work of...

(The entire section is 38 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Thurber explores the relationship between men and women in several other works of fiction. One of his best known works related to this theme...

(The entire section is 85 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Read by Wolfram Kandinsky, "The Catbird Seat" was recorded on audiocassette in 1984. It is available as part of an unabridged reading of...

(The entire section is 62 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

Read by Wolfram Kandinsky, ‘‘The Catbird Seat’’ was recorded on audiocassette in 1984. It is available as part of an unabridged...

(The entire section is 62 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

‘‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’’ (1939) is Thurber’s best-known short story. Mitty is a mild-mannered man who shuts out his...

(The entire section is 133 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Fensch, Thomas, ed. Conversations with James Thurber. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989.

Grauer, Neil A. Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.

Holmes, Charles S. The Clocks of Columbus: The Literary Career of James Thurber. New York: Atheneum, 1972.

Kinney, Harrison. James Thurber: His Life and Times. New York: Henry Holt, 1995.

Kinney, Harrison, and Rosemary A. Thurber, eds. The Thurber Letters: The Wit, Wisdom, and Surprising Life of James Thurber. New York: Simon &...

(The entire section is 111 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Benét, William Rose, ‘‘Carnival with Spectres,’’ in the Saturday Review of Literature, February 3, 1945,...

(The entire section is 383 words.)