Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Our culture, over thousands of years, has constructed many stereotypes surrounding the way men and women are expected to behave and think. In James Thurber’s story “The Catbird Seat,” he explores and exploits the myth of the submissive man at the mercy of the dominating woman, to devastating effect.
“The Catbird Seat” derives much of its humor from its ability to turn particular stereotypes on their heads while using this inversion to reinforce others. For example, one common stereotype concerning men is that, “naturally” athletic, they have a “natural” interest in sports. Women, on the other hand, have traditionally been expected to prefer more submissive, less competitive pursuits, such as cooking or decorating or shopping. In “The Catbird Seat,” however, this is inverted in the personas of the aggressive Mrs. Barrows and her meek male foil, enmeshed in a hard-fought war of office politics.
As Thurber writes, “She was constantly shouting these silly questions at [Mr. Martin]. ‘Are you lifting the oxcart out of the ditch? Are you tearing up the pea patch? Are you hollering down the rain barrel? Are you scraping around the bottom of the pickle barrel? Are you sitting in the catbird seat?’ It was Joey Hart, one of Mr. Martin’s two assistants, who had explained what the gibberish meant. ‘She must be a Dodger fan,’ he had said. ‘Red Barber announces the Dodger games over the radio and he uses those expressions -- picked ‘em up down South’.” Throughout the story, Thurber contrasts Mrs. Barrows’ colorful, metaphor-laden speech with Mr. Martin’s careful, precise diction. Even though Mrs. Barrows’ expressions are not always used appropriately, they assist her large physical presence in grabbing attention—much the attributes of a pro athlete. Mr. Martin’s speech, on the other hand, is small and crabbed, and tends to make him recede into the background.
Mrs. Barrows unquestionably considers Mr. Martin silly and superfluous; when she asks him whether he “really needs all these file cabinets,” she is cutting to the heart of not only what he does at F & S, but what he is. And when he stoutly defends himself in terms of his relationship to the company—“Each of these files…plays an indispensable part of F & S,” she “brays,” “‘Well, don’t tear up the pea patch!’” With this remark, which says in effect that he’s making a big deal out of nothing, she has moved from ridiculing his obsession with frugality and efficiency to ridiculing his self-perception as integral to the operation of the company. She has, in short, cut him down on every front. He has no choice but to try to avenge his honor.
Originally, Mr. Martin toys with the impulse to actually kill Mrs. Barrows. He notes that she has, in her apartment, a “metal paper knife with an ornate handle” and he wonders if it would be “sharp enough.” He buys a pack of cigarettes so that after he has “rubbed her out,” he can “stub it out in the ashtray holding her lipstick-stained Luckies, and thus drag a small red herring across the trail.” He even wears gloves throughout his entire visit so that he will not leave fingerprints. But his ultimate goal, which is to get Mrs. Barrows out of his precious filing department, does not require her death, and Mr. Martin is far too meticulous to undertake a measure that is pointedly excessive. Thus a secondary plan develops while he is actually in the apartment. This plan—and the way he comes up with it on the fly—underscores the reason the human species has survived so long: when intellect and brute force are pitted against one another, intellect will always win.
Mr. Martin’s mode of attack is particularly brilliant, because it is based on his own reputation and that of his victim. Everyone at F & S knows that he is a non-drinker, a non-smoker—almost a non-participant in life as dictated by office standards in the mid-twentieth century. Everyone at F & S also knows Mrs. Barrows for her excess—her loud voice, her overpowering sexuality, her physical energy, and her hyperbolic mode of expression. He has appeared at her house to kill her; she concludes he wants to seduce her, and offers him a drink and a cigarette. She recalls his reputation as a teetotaler and non-smoker, but still cannot fathom what the actual ramifications of such a stance would be; she cannot alter her behavior to accommodate a person of more restrained tastes. Consequently, she acts, throughout the beginning of the visit, as if she were entertaining a date—someone operating on the same agenda as she.
Mr. Martin, on the other hand, has to change tactics midstream. Coming as he did to murder her, he sees immediately that this would be impractical. But he also recognizes the type of behavior Mrs. Barrows is extending to him for what it is—a seduction attempt—and this starts the new idea germinating in his mind. The only thing more impossible than trying to seduce such a man as Mr. Martin would be Mr. Martin acting like the type of man who would fall for Mrs. Barrows —clearly a drinker, a smoker, and an entirely offensive sort of lounge lizard. It is at this point that the idea of how to get rid of Mrs. Barrows “stirred, sprouted…[and] began to bloom, strange and wonderful.”
Mr. Martin decides to let out all the stops. He proposes a toast, noisily clanking his glass against hers— “Nuts to that old windbag, Fitweiler!” Mrs. Barrows is shocked; but she is absolutely floored when Mr. Martin confesses that he is “preparing a bomb which will blow the old goat higher than hell,” and assures Mrs. Barrows that he will be “coked to the gills [on drugs] when [he] bump[s] that old buzzard off.” In an ironic about-face, she self-righteously throws him out—but not before he has an opportunity to stick out his tongue at her and tell her that he’s “sitting in the catbird seat.”
And he is. On that one page, which takes Mr. Martin from his realization that he has no way to physically murder Mrs. Barrows, through his realization that he doesn’t need to, through the smoking-and-drinking scene in Mrs. Barrows’ apartment, Mr. Martin seizes control of the action. All he has to do at the end of the story is appear in front of Mr. Fitweiler in his traditional persona of the mild and meek office worker. Mr. Martin smoking, drinking, and using drugs? Mr. Martin threatening to “bump the old buzzard off”? Ludicrous! When Mrs. Barrows comes in, “tearing up the pea patch,” her hysteria is in such marked contrast to the self-effacing control of Mr. Martin that there is no question which one of them is crazy. Mrs. Barrows is removed by a trio of employees, one of whom ironically “had played a little football in high school.” She is escorted out of the building by a looming physical figure very much like herself; but she has been undermined by a very different figure, who has brought her down using a strategy she would never be able to comprehend. Few of James Thurber’s meek and mild heroes gain the ascendency quite so dramatically as does Mr. Martin in “The Catbird Seat.”
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