The Catbird Seat Summary

James Thurber

The Catbird Seat

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The Catbird Seat Summary

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The Catbird Seat is a short story written by James Thurber in the year of 1942. It is divided into five sections, or small chapters. It focuses on a boring little man trying to first kill the woman who is disrupting his job, and then deciding to make it seem like she has lost her mind. Despite this, the author presents the female inarguably as the better sex, and significant themes are gender roles, relationships in the work place, and mental illness.

Mr. Martin is a small, officious man who works for F & S in the filing department. He is out on the streets in New York, and is beginning to carry out his plan to kill Ulgine Barrows, a woman who also works in his office. This is an unusual thing for Mr. Martin to do, because he is otherwise an unremarkable man, and is usually perfectly content to work and live as an unremarkable employee, although he is also remarkably efficient in at his job. He is not the type to do anything like this. Mr. Martin does not smoke, and has never drunk anything stronger than a glass of milk, although one time he did have a ginger ale. He suspiciously buys a pack of cigarettes, which will become part of his plan.

Mr. Martin thinks over all of the reasons he has for wanting to get rid of Mrs. Barrows. He refers to his plan as a “rub out,” which he likes because the term suggests fixing a mistake. He remembers her initial arrival in the office. She was introduced as a new special advisor to the president of the firm, Mr. Fitweiler. Since this time, she has fired multiple employees and caused the resignation of several others. She moved from department to department, changing all of the systems. Mr. Martin believes she is threatening the existence of the firm. Mr. Fitweiler seems to love Mrs. Barrows’ actions. Mr. Martin doesn’t like her Southern expressions, including when she asked the silly question, “Are you sitting in the catbird seat?” This is meant to mean sitting pretty, or in a good position, and comes from a baseball announcer for the Dodgers. Mr. Martin decided she deserved to die after she appeared in the filing department, which he heads. When she suggested that the filing cabinets were not necessary, Mr. Martin made up his mind.

Mr. Martin is confident that he won’t be caught because he has planned casualness into his scheme and is well known for his precision. He believes his actions are just, and focuses more on her wrong actions than her personality. He is staying true to his regular schedule but he begins to walk over to her house.

Mr. Martin arrives at Mrs. Barrows’ residence. She lets him in, although he is flustered. His heart is pounding heavily in his throat. Mrs. Barrow is polite enough, and asks if Mr. Martin would like a drink. He says he would like a scotch and soda, even though he does not drink. While Mrs. Barrows steps away to make his drink, Mr. Martin wildly looks around for a weapon to use. He sees a letter opener and thinks at first that it will suffice, but it is too blunt.

Mr. Martin is hit with a stroke of inspiration. The reader is not yet told what it is. Mrs. Barrows returns from making the drink, and Mr. Martin puffs on a cigarette, but does not grimace at it. Mr. Martin tells Mrs. Barrows that he is planning to kill Mr. Fitweiler, and that he will be “coked up” on heroine when he does it. Mrs. Barrows is shocked, and tells Mr. Martin to leave. He tells her to keep this all to herself, and then sticks his tongue out at her.

When Mr. Martin arrives at work the next day, everything is as usual. Mrs. Barrows has arrived early to work, and she comes into the room to tell Mr. Martin she is going to tell on him. Mr. Martin replies that he has no idea what she is going on about. Soon after, Mr. Martin is called into Mr. Fitweiler’s office. His boss asks Mr. Martin what he did the night before. Mr. Martin replies that he ate and then he went home. Mr. Fitweiler knows Mr. Martin well enough to know how habitual and unremarkable he is. He therefore believes Mr. Martin’s story and thinks that Mrs. Barrows has had a psychotic episode. Mrs. Barrows suddenly bursts through the door. She tells Mr. Fitweiler that Mr. Martin is lying. She is then escorted out of the building. Mr. Fitweiler tells Mr. Martin it is not his fault at all, because Mrs. Barrows was planning to redo the format of Mr. Martin’s department. It makes sense that Mr. Martin was on her mind when she experienced the psychotic episode, and so she focused her attentions on him.