Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Teaching "The Catbird Seat"

For the first class of ENG 102 we always read "The Catbird Seat" together aloud. None of the students has ever heard of the story, which is too bad--it was a high school staple forty years ago. But it's exciting to see a group of young and mature adults encounter it for the first time.

The discussion afterwards is always animated and engaged: it seems such a simple story--there are no critical essays written about it, presumably because it seems too straightforward to contain any subtleties or secrets--but in fact there are a great number of not-evident features that we tease out. Since the students don't know who Thurber was and don't know his reputation for misogyny, they don't "know" that "The Catbird Seat" is a misogynist story, so are open to the possibility that it is in fact essentially feminist (a very tenable interpretation). They wonder where Mrs. Ulgine Barrows's husband is, and though I usually have to point out that internal evidence shows that the story is set during World War II, they immediately take off from there. One student observed that the supposedly horrid Mrs. Barrows is in fact a white-collar Rosie the Riveter, venturing into a profession where women had rarely been seen and are perhaps not welcome.  This allowed someone to notice that there seem to be no youthful men in this company--it is all office boys and older guys. This opens up the possibility (not evident upon a first reading) that Mrs. Barrows is in fact doing the company a lot of good--that it is staffed and run by a bunch of inefficient fuddy-duddy old poops, who need the shaking-up that the protagonist finds so threatening.  The story’s doesn’t consider the possibility, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.

By the end of the discussion, we are noticing tiny details, such as the fact that Mr. Martin, called onto the carpet because his nervous boss cannot believe what he has been told about him, "allow[s] less than a second for his bewildered pause" when asked what he did after work the evening before. Mr. Martin seems to have returned to his former mousy self, but in fact he has not: he is pretending to be the mousy little man he in fact was until the night before, but he remains the "evil genius" (I suggest to the students that the term is not too strong) that he unexpected turned into, and will remain an evil genius pretending to be a mousy little man through the rest of his story--and, presumably, for the rest of his life.