The Catbird Seat A Short Story by James Thurber

The Review by Nazirullah INTRINSIC ELEMENTS Plot In the “Catbird Seat,” for instance, between the time Mr. Martin enters his office and the time Mr. Fitweiler summons him, that detail would have occupied Mr. Martin— answering a phone, filing papers, addressing his assistants. But Thurber wisely passes these over; he is only interested in Mrs. Barrows’s eagerness to report Mr. Martin’s behavior and in Mr. Martin’s carefully prepared reaction (p. 12 paragraph 1). In paragraph 16-19, there is just such a carefully selected series. There is a richly drawn scene, the suggestion of a story, but not plot. A plot must deal with the straightening out of the question mark: someone conflict must be dramatized that is in some way resolved; some problem: must be set up that is in some way solved, at least for the moment. In it, the problem is that Mr. Martin must get rid of Mrs. Borrows before she gets rid of him. In the four paragraph just cited we have the resolution—the account of his success (paragraph 3). Character Stories show characters in action (p. 27 paragraph 3). Therefore, the most obvious method for revealing character is through what a person does. For instance, Mr. Martin takes a drink of milk when he gets home from work and before he going out to dinner. He is also shown drinking milk as he sits at home reviewing his case against Mrs. Barrows. When he returns from his successful evening at her apartment, he drinks two glasses of milk—in celebration. Now, all kinds of people drink milk; there should be nothing particularly revealing about it one way or another, taken as an isolated fact in the real world. But in the setting of this story, Mr. Martin’s milk-drinking habits establish his temperance (fortified by the fact that he doesn’t smoke) and also suggest that he is a timid, unaggressive little man—a Milquetoast. What a character says as another way of revealing what people are like is to show what they say (p. 28 paragraph 3). For instance, Mr. Martin’s speech is definitely that of a precise and proper, even prissy, man—“Scotch-and-Soda will be all right.” “I beg your pardon?” “I trust so, sir” “That is correct sir.” “I will dismiss it.” What one thinks is the next way revealing the character of people (p.28 paragraph 5). In the “Catbird Seat” we see only Mr. Martin this way, since the story is told almost completely through his consciousness. We learn about his passions for order,

precision, caution, and self-control primarily through his own reflections on what is going on. There are other ways revealing characters on a story such as how others react to a character, the character reacts to his surroundings and a direct description or explanation by the author. Point of View The story-maker (the writer, the author) is in complete control of all of the details of his story. He has control over who the characters are, what they do, and why they do it. He also has control over how the story is to be told, and who is going to tell it. He can adopt one of a number of points of view, each of which will give a quite different total story. In the “Catbird Seat,” (p. 33 paragraph 3) the humor of the whole story lies primarily in the fact that the narrator is not standing wholly apart from Mr. Martin commenting on his foolish behavior, laughing at him; rather, Thurber in his choice of point of view lets Mr. Martin reveal himself as a Milquetoast driven to desperate thoughts and potentially as the timid desperate action, all the while behaving outwardly as the timid little man he essentially is. Mr. Martin takes him himself seriously—he is afraid he will “choke, too loudly”—and our amusement comes because we are aware of the discrepancy between what he feels he has to do and what he can by nature do. Tone Most of the language and details reflect Mr. Martin’s opinion of himself as a solid, judicious man (p. 53 paragraph 1). But at the same time other phrases and details remind us of the jarring presence of Mr. Barrows (“quacking,” “braying,” “chattering”) and of the timidity of Mr. Martin, so that our awareness of his vague determination to do something drastic about his dilemma is qualified by our realization that such a man cannot possibly do what he thinks he has to do. It is one thing to plan to “rub out” someone and another thing to commit murder. The term “rub out” is perfectly chosen. Used by hoodlum it would suggest a callous indifference to killing. Used by Mr. Martin it suggests, in his own words, “nothing more than the correction of an error.” The reality of murder is something he cannot possibly imagine even when he is supposedly planning one. This fact is underscored by his complete rejection of all the suitable weapons in Mrs. Barrows’s apartment. He has “counted on finding one there,” and she has a room full of the best, but he rapidly rejects them all for no good reason (a blunt knife is just as good a murder weapon as a sharp one). Setting “The Catbird Seat” offers a good example of the importance of setting, because at the first glance it does not seem to be the kind of story that depends very much on where and when it takes place (p. 58 paragraph 2). Any large city in the United States would have served just as well as New York, and any time recent enough to include the business office like F & S and someone like Red Barber. The important consideration,

however, is that the place and time are used specially, not vaguely. For instance, Mr. Martin buys the Camels on Broadway near the theatre district (the Times Square area), several long blocks from fifth Avenue and Forty-Sixth Street, where he “always” eats dinner. And he buys them at “theatre time,” exactly the time (most plays open at 8:40, and the crowds start to gather a little after 8:00) when he “always” eats dinner at Schrafft’s (getting there “at eight o’clock” and leaving “at a quarter to nine”). The details tell us thoroughly Mr. Martin has planned not to be seen buying cigarettes. Theme “The most unlikely person may be found ‘sitting on the catbird seat’ simply because, being what he is, he is the person most unlikely to be found there” (p. 62 paragraph 1). This last is a reasonable statement of the theme of Thurber’s story for several reasons: first, it is a fair generalization about Mr. Martin’s problem and the solution of it; second, it suggests, in the very way it is put, the reversal of the expected, which parallel the ironic way the story develops; and third, it has a playfully serious tone, which is the general tone of the story. Even this last statement of theme, however, does not wholly define the humorous yet the sympathetic quality of “The Catbird Seat,” which, in the final analysis, can be defined only in the repeated experiencing of the story through the repeated readings.

Research Questions 1. How is the author revealing the main character or characters in the Short Story “The Catbird Seat”?

2. How many points of view are used by the narrator to serve the story? State one and explain it! 3. Mention some particular places, particular times and details which are used by the author as the manner of setting the story? Why are they very special? 4. Why does the writer use human experiences as the theme embodied in the story? 5. What are the tones set for “The Catbird Seat”?

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