Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The well-known James Thurber drawings of women in the act of seducing, menacing, attacking, or intimidating men are matched in his short stories by accounts of the ongoing war between the sexes. Armed with sex appeal, defiant illogic, physical strength, and their institution of marriage, Thurber’s women seem to have the odds on their side. When a man as meek as Walter Mitty or Erwin Martin must deal with a female antagonist, only his imagination can bring him the victory.

In the battle recounted in “The Catbird Seat,” each side uses characteristic weapons. Mrs. Ulgine Barrows has gained her job initially by strength and sex appeal. At a party, she rescued the elderly Mr. Fitweiler from a large drunk and then charmed him into offering her the job. Once committed to her, he gives her complete control; he is completely at her mercy, playing Samson to her Delilah.

Initially, Mr. Martin intended to destroy Mrs. Barrows by brute force, hoping to avoid suspicion by such detective-story devices as the use of gloves, the choice of a weapon from the victim’s own apartment, and the deceptive clue of the partially smoked cigarette. He realizes, however, that violence is not his best weapon; indeed, that he cannot win in a game where the hefty Mrs. Barrows is at her best. It is his imagination, a talent that fortunately has remained hidden, which can defeat her. Therefore, like Walter Mitty, he becomes another person, but he reveals that personality only to Mrs. Barrows, who is therefore trapped into a seeming lie that can only be interpreted as madness. The silent self-control that makes Mr. Martin a good file clerk ensures his victory, for he is too disciplined ever to tell anyone what he has done, ever to reveal his secret self.

Although Thurber, like George Bernard Shaw, suggests that women are the stronger sex, it is clear that men can sometimes triumph if only they use the weapons that have always been available to the oppressed: craftiness, imagination, and the ability to keep a secret. Armed only with these, Mr. Martin has attained his victory.


(Short Stories for Students)

Men and Women
One of the more important themes of ‘‘The Catbird Seat’’ is the struggle for men and women to understand...

(The entire section is 578 words.)