The Catbird Seat by James Thurber
In The Catbird Seat by James Thurber we have the theme of resentment, change, dependency and gender roles. Narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator the reader realises from the beginning of the story that Martin has a resentment towards Mrs Barrows. Something which some critics might feel is justified considering that Mrs Barrows is intent on making as many changes as possible to F&S. It is also possible that Thurber is exploring the role of the female at the time the story was written. It would have been unusual for a woman to have had so much professional power and this may be another cause of resentment for Martin. He may not appreciate the value of a woman’s input into his department. Though it is also possible that Martin is being set up by Mrs Barrows and is going to be fired like some of Martin’s other colleagues who saw changes to their department. It is also possible that the narrator is unreliable as throughout the story he is in support of Martin and the actions he intends to take. At no stage does the narrator have a good word to say about Mrs Barrows. Just as Martin doesn’t.
There is also an element of farce in the story. Some of which is effective and some of which is ridiculous. Martin’s smoking and drinking prove to be positive attributes on the night that he is in Mrs Barrows’ home as Mr Fitweiler knows that Martin is not a smoking or drinking man. So this works in his favour when Mrs Barrows recalls the details of what has happened in her apartment. The ridiculous element is plain to see. It is Martin’s intention to kill Mrs Barrows yet he does not come with a weapon to use in order to kill her. He is reliant on objects from Mrs Barrows’ apartment. None of which is he successful in securing. If anything the reader may be left suspecting that Martin though dedicated in his goal of killing Mrs Barrows is unprofessional in his manner. Which may mirror how Martin feels about Mrs Barrows input in F&S. She is the type of woman that has gotten underneath a usually quiet man’s skin as though Martin is being driven to kill her. However he does have options even if some of them may be detrimental to Martin (loss of job).
There may also be some symbolism in the story which might be important. The setting for example is in the middle of the night when it is dark. Often in literature a writer will use an evening (or dark) setting as foreshadowing to something unpleasant happening. The milk that Martin drinks is pure and wholesome yet his actions and thinking are the opposite. This could be important as Thurber may be suggesting that in life there are two sides to every man. Something which is very much the case when it comes to the normally hard-working and easy-going Martin. Though he does not succeed in killing Mrs Barrows he still has intent in doing so. Only his nervousness and his behaviour lets him down and as such he is unable to kill Mrs Barrows. Other symbolism in the story which might be important are the cigarettes (Camels) that Martin buys. They are not even Mrs Barrows’ brand (Luckies). However as Martin does not smoke he would immediately be removed from a list of suspects that the police may be looking for. If anything the cigarettes act as a decoy and further ensure Martin is not seen to be associated with the murder.
The end of the story is also interesting as Martin lies to Mr Fitweiler about his activities the night before. This may be significant as throughout the story Martin does not come across as the type of person who would lie. He is after all a hard-working employee in F&S. However it is clear to the reader that Martin is lying to save his job. Which suggests just how dependent Martin is on working in F&S. He needs his job more than F&S needs him. The reader is also left wondering as to what Martin should do if he were to encounter another stumbling block like Mrs Barrows. Would he actually go all the way and kill the person. The reader never knows for sure as Thurber ends the story with Martin returning to his desk and continuing working as though nothing has happened. That by a twist of faith he has ended up getting rid of Mrs Barrows. Which was his intention from the beginning. Martin may not have succeed in killing Mrs Barrows but he has successfully ensured that Mr Fitweiler has gotten rid of her.