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"If I have chanced to mention certain possible meanings, the purpose has not been to discuss the probability of those meanings but rather to show how the structure "disseminates" contents -- which each reading can make its own."
-- Barthes ("Struggle" 136)
Additionally, this individual text will be employed to make generalizations about textuality itself, even though this particular text has its own obvious unique qualities. To borrow from Deleuze and Guattari's commentary on the rhizome (discussed in Lecture 7): an entity based on of the structureless model of the rhizome can nonetheless possess a provisionally immanent structure restricted to its specifically "local" manifestation. In other words, a specific instance of something models itself both as itself as well as an example of its genre as a whole. A given sonnet, for instance, stands as an illustration of its own individually and as the overall category of "the sonnet."
The reading offered here of James Thurber's short story, "The Catbird Seat," will merely piece together a haphazard skein of semiosic oscillations, "movements" derived from more or less randomly selected sites of readings. It will sketch out some metaphorical overlappings that such readings can further generate, drawing upon work by figures such as Gilles Fauconnier on the concept of blended mental spaces and Lakoff on metaphorical mappings. This focus will lead, presumably, to the identification (if not the generation) of what Fauconnier refers to as "indefinite descriptions" which "set up new elements" in a given space (Mental 20).
This reading will, additionally, pursue what was discussed in Lecture 7 as play with a weak goal orientation, infinite play with no desired outcome other than to open new decoding possibilities to inspire future readings. It will offer only transformative "realizations" of readings, detailed ponderings of virtually arbitrary nodes on the textual rhizome that provisionally, tentatively, and wholly idiosyncratically constitutes Thurber' s "The Catbird Seat."
Regarding the epigraph above: Barthes might in another context of his work (one geared toward "structuration" as opposed to "structure") stress the impositional agency of the decoder, ultimately, as the catalytic force behind this reading. As discussed in Lecture 5, structure belongs to the realm of the Work; structuration, however, is aligned with the economy of the Text. Still, Barthes (especially in his work on structural analyses) would also allow for a close assessment of these different structurations in relation to the decoder's particular engagement with a designated text (to subsequently become Text).
This analysis will follow no particular order (remaining rhizomorphous), choosing merely a diachronic "tour" meandering through the story with numerous tangents running forward, backward and even "outside" it.
Also, consider the phenomenon of "carnivalization" popularized subsequently from work by Mikhail Bakhtin (for example, in Rabelais and His World ), which additionally suggests a joyous subversion of normality that offers substantial revelations about the contours of that normality. While during his lifetime Thurber was often compared with another carnivalizer, the American writer Mark Twain, his works now are deemed far less substantial. Indeed, Thurber is remembered primarily for a handful of short stories, humorous semi-autobiographical "pieces", and quirky, minimalistic drawings.
But, Derrida's play with Nietzsche's ostensibly unremarkable sentence (discussed in Lecture 7) certainly demonstrates that the choice of the text itself for a "semiotic" analysis (this activity is always under erasure here -- see Lecture 1) is less important than the way it is approached. Play theory suggests that the specific endeavor constituting "play" has no intrinsic bearing on the amount of pleasure and transformation it can generate. Anybody who has watched a child having more fun with the box a toy came in than the toy itself is well aware of this. This also explains how some games can be absolutely engrossing for some participants while others find them entirely without value. (Thurber's "The Private Life of Mr. Bidwell" is a good example: it describes a man who amuses himself by multiplying numbers in his head and seeing how long he can hold his breath, much to his wife's annoyance.)
The main secondary character is the boisterous, metonymy-using Mrs. Ulgine Barrows, evidently once married but now single, who enters the story abruptly as an assertive, even meddlesome, "special adviser" to Mr. Fitweiler. Mr. Martin's response to Mrs. Barrows is immediately negative, an impression that only grows with experience. "For the hundredth time," Mr. Martin "resented the element of imprecision, the margin of guesswork that entered into the business" (9) with the arrival of Mrs. Barrows, we' re told.
The main tertiary character is Mr. Fitweiler.
Early in the story, revealing components of Mr. Martin' s character are established through the accumulation of detail. For instance, "The term 'rub out' pleased him because it suggested nothing more than the correction of an error -- in this case an error of Mr. Fitweiler" (9). This is typical of someone who finds a modest thrill from engaging elements alien to his usual environment. Another element to bring to bear on this discussion is the author-code. Thurber himself found personal delight in using this type of discourse and exercised a career-long delight in what Ralph Waldo Emerson called "the language of the street." This inclination clearly manifests itself here in Mr. Martin's expression of his plan to "rub out" Mrs. Barrows. (All biographical observations are derived from the following inter-corroborating studies: Kinney, Bernstein, and Holmes.) Also, consider The New Yorker readership's response to the employment of this discourse in a relatively urbane bibliographical arena. Note, however, that Mr. Martin savors this language not for its metonymical richness, its impossibly figurative irreducibility. Instead, he appreciates it for its clean, neat exercise of an accounting that brings a balance back to zero. This can be schematized as:
initial order --> vertiginous catalyst --> catalyst removed --> return to order
This open-ended potential of metonymy provides a wide array of significative reverberations in the case of "The Catbird Seat." In fact, the story also provides examples of non-linguistic (or, in Barthes's term, "trans-linguistic" [Elements 11]) metonymies. Like the logic of the Zen parable in which a moment of illumination can be signified by a single, upraised finger, metonymy appears in numerous manifestations modeled after linguistic forms. (See, for example, "Trading Dialogue for Lodging.")
Linguistic metonymy is worth investigating further insofar as it operates according to these trans-linguistic relations. Perhaps the best-known commentary on metonymy is associated with Jakobson's "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances." Jakobson distinguishes between figurative language based on either metaphor or metonymy. Metaphor, he argues, consists of an operation of selection and substitution based on similarity (109). "Similarity in meaning connects the symbols of a metalanguage with the symbols of the language referred to," he says. "Similarity connects a metaphorical term with the term for which it is substituted" (113). Metonymy derives from combination and contexture based on contiguous associations. This entails "projections from the line of a habitual context into the line of substitution and selection" (105).
(Another way to look at these differences is provided by Barbara Johnson's paraphrase of Jakobson. She identifies either operation as "the substitution of a figurative expression for a literal or proper one" . This substitution in metaphor is "based on resemblance or analogy." In metonymy, it hinges on "relation or association other than that of similarity [cause and effect, container and contained, proper name and qualities or works associated with it, place and event or institution, instrument and user, etc.]." See also Lakoff and Johnson, Ruegg, and Lakoff and Turner.)
These distinctions create immediate problems, however, through semantic ambiguity that results in distinctions that are far from concrete. As Jakobson himself acknowledges, "when constructing a metalanguage to interpret tropes, the research possesses more homogeneous means to handle metaphor, whereas metonymy, based on a different principle, easily defies interpretation" ("Two" 113). In her analysis of the many blindspots that attend these two distinctions, Maria Ruegg asserts that "it is only on the most superficial level...that such a distinction can function, and even then, the grossly oversimplified caricatures to which it gives rise are so general as to be virtually meaningless" (143-144). It may be more profitable, consequently, to simply use "metaphor" as a super category for figurative speech (or "figurative signs"), and place metonymy (along with other common forms such as synecdoche and simile) as sub-categories within metaphor.
Fauconnier and Mark Turner offer a useful approach to metaphor in this alternative way by conceiving it as "the projection of conceptual structure" ("Conceptual" 4). (Or, what Fauconnier calls "a mental representation of a mental representation" [Mental 15], or, what Lakoff identifies as something that "function[s] to map one conventional mental image onto another" ["Contemporary Theory" 229].) Metonymy, in this sense, graphically dramatizes the semiotic principle of ceaseless referentiality through the inherent deferral of presence (to use the discourse of deconstruction). It actually renders the expression "in other words" by re-conceptualizing a concept, so that its literal signification is the one thing alone it does not refer to. In this sense, as Donald Schön remarks, metaphor is "a kind of anomaly of language" ("Generative Metaphor" 137).
For instance, "sitting in the catbird seat" is a metonymy constituting what Lakoff calls an "event structure" ("Contemporary Theory" 220). For instance, that concept of "states are locations" can be "characterized cognitively via metaphor in terms of space, motion, and force." ("A state is an attribute conceptualized as a location" in this sense, he argues .) It's also what J. L. Austin refers to, from a linguistic speech-act standpoint, as a potentially illocutionary act if it felicitously meets performance criteria (98-132).
Again, Fauconnier's commentary on blended spaces may provide a useful alternative model to conceptions of metonymy conventionally deployed (and linguistically modelled) in the discussion of semiotics. For, as Lakoff and Johnson observe, metonymy is potentially trans-linguistic in actual sign use. "Metonymic concepts structure not just our language," they observe, "but our thoughts, attitudes, and actions" (39). To Fauconnier, metophor in general is constructed through a "trigger" (in semiotics, a signified) that, through an appropriate "connected" (or a signifier), elicits a "target" (a sign) (Mental 4). Connectors can "link mental spaces" (10) in the course of serving "a pragmatic reference function" (12). (These spaces, he says, are "constructs distinct from linguistic structures but built up in any discourse acording to guidelines provided by the linguistic expressions" .)
In "a connected situation," Fauconnier notes, "a description of the trigger may be used to identify the target" (Mental 5). This relates directly to Thurber's story: the person employing the trigger (either Mrs. Barrows or Mr. Martin) reveals substantial character information about her- or himself in the process. In the case of Mrs. Barrows, her metonymies indicate a character inclined toward radical, dissociated linkages. Mr. Martin, however, uses metonymies only to dismantle the power acquired by metonymy users (such as Mrs. Barrows) so that he can return to his previous non-metonymical mindset.
But, this is not an entirely accurate portrayal of Mr. Martin, either. His increased use of metonymies reveals a growing appreciation, one could argue, for the "productive", systemic potential of this figure of speech (and its other trans-linguistic manifestations). Even though he disdains his contact with Mrs. Barrows, it is clear that Mr. Martin has grown as a language user (as well as a sign user in general) in this sense as a result of his exposure. As Fauconnier suggests, "speakers are typically able to learn new connectors (by setting up new ICMs [idealized cognitive models]), and the more familiar, general, and useful a connector becomes, the more open it tends to be" (Mental 10). This is evidently what dawns upon Mr. Martin -- in terms of his strategic employment of metonymy.
problem --> solution --> implementation of solutionThurber's emplotment initiates what Barthes (in S/Z -- see Lecture 3) calls a hermeneutic code both through the title and through the introductory strategy of beginning in medias res . Significantly, Mrs. Barrows enters the story in a manner that is consistent with the Thurber author-system. She functions, in this respect, as what is usually referred to as the "Thurber Woman," someone who is strong, self-assured, and domineering. Typically, Thurber' s men find themselves symbolically overwhelmed, if not emasculated, by these women. This is exactly what happened, in Mr. Martin's view at least, when Mr. Fitweiler met Mrs. Barrows "at a party, where she had rescued him from the embraces of a powerfully built drunken man who had mistaken the president of F & S for a famous retired Middle Western football coach" (10). In this case, though, Mr. Fitweiler has had his common sense dulled by interaction with Mrs. Barrows -- or, so Mr. Martin believes.
order--> disruption--> solution --> return to order
She had led him to a sofa and somehow worked upon him a monstrous magic. The aging gentleman had jumped to the conclusion there and then that this was a woman of singular attainments, equipped to bring out the best in him and in the firm. A week later he had introduced her into F & S as his special adviser. On that day confusion got its foot in the door. (10-11)Note that it takes a week for Mr. Fitweiler to decide -- apparently a rash move, given its flippant description here. (Her metonymies are alreading infecting him: e.g., Mr. Fitweiler "had jumped to the conclusion.") This signals a logical myopia on Mr. Martin' s part. Mr. Martin ponders the "rub out" for this same amount of time. In his case, though, it's mentioned as an indication of his thoroughness.
The creation of humor in this story hinges in part on what could be called the Thurber Code (based on common literary codification like the famous "Hemingway code"). Thurber originally planned to have Mr. Martin actually kill Mrs. Barrows -- something at least one of his characters pulls off in another story, and thus not beyond plausibility within his author-system. But, like Mr. Martin, Thurber came upon an alternative to this scenario that would be consistent with his primarily "humorous" register of his work. A good example of this would be his "Touché" cartoon in which a fencer cleanly beheads his opponent. Numerous commentators have noted that even though the head has clearly been severed, in keeping with Thurber's oeuvre, it's seen as comic. One would expect the opponent to somehow rejoin his head and carry on, as is common in the cartoon/comics genre.
To conceal his initial dislike of Mrs. Barrows and her metonymies, Mr. Martin engages in extensive image management (Goffman, Presentation ). Mrs. Barrows "appalled" Mr. Martin "instantly" when he met her, "but he hadn't shown it" (9). "He had given her his dry hand, a look of studious concentration, and a faint smile." Ironically, this sounds more like a stereotypical response of a cautious, experienced woman introduced to a predatory male. (In terms of the hermeneutical code, this could stand as foreshadowing related to the later apartment scene in which, through a reversal of this dynamic, Mrs. Barrows may be flirting with Mr. Martin.)
More importantly, however, this semiotic "occasion" (Hodge and Kress 73) of a first meeting introduces the metonymical disorder that Mrs. Barrows represents to Mr. Martin. While glancing at the work on Mr. Martin's desk (itself a metonymy for his mindset), the first thing Mrs. Barrows says to him is: "'Well,...are you lifting the oxcart out of the ditch?'" (9). The narrator notes: "As Mr. Martin recalled that moment, over his milk, he squirmed slightly" (9-10).
Joey Hart, an assistant to Mr. Martin, "explained what the gibberish meant": "'She must be a Dodger fan...Red Barber announces the Dodger games over the radio and he uses those expressions -- picked 'em up down South'" (10). Moreover, Joey offers to "explain one or two" of the metonymies as Barber uses them. "'Tearing up the pea patch' meant going on a rampage," he explained. "'Sitting in the catbird seat' meant sitting pretty, like a [baseball] batter with three balls and no strikes on him."
(The Library of America edition of Thurber's Writings and Drawings identifies Walter Lanier "Red" Barber [1908-92] as a radio and television baseball commentator .)
Joey Hart's assessment of Mrs. Barrows's speech situation is a process of abduction. "She must be..." constitutes an associative leap on his part similar to the one the decoder employs when accepting Mr. Martin's/the narrator's assertion that Mrs. Barrows is a threat to F & S. Thus, when she is presented as such, the decoder assumes that this assumption "must be" correct. This is obviously a potentially fruitful passage as it provides an ostensive "key" to the story. (Not unlike the emphasis on logical grids as seen in some manifestations of code theory -- discussed in Lecture 3.)
This explanation hardly inhabits a privileged position, however. In order to accept the "must be," one also "must" exclude alternatives that would run contrary to the evident connection between Mrs. Barrows and male speech. While these alternatives could provide equally interesting readings, I am going to loosely develop just one as an illustration of where one might take a decoding inclination of this nature. (To see how it "goes off," as Barthes says.)
In response to Joey Hart's revelation, Mr. Martin refuses to engage metonymy on Mrs. Barrows's terms. Following his later recollection of Joey Hart's "explanation", "Mr. Martin dismissed all this with an effort," we're told by the narrator (10). "It had been annoying, it had driven him near to distraction, but he was too solid a man to be moved to murder by anything so childish." The annoyance Mr. Martin experiences here with Mrs. Barrows's metaphors seems plausibly related to what Roman Jakobson explores as a "contiguity disorder" ("Two" 106). This appears as a cognitive form of aphasia in which the words employed in metonymy are understood themselves as individual units, but not together as "the combination of words into higher units" (107).
The first association of Mrs. Barrows with metonymy takes place here, although this is already (at least) the third instance of metonymic presence (following the title and the "rub out"). Nevertheless, working through the "catbird seat" offers a convenient, even privileged, metonymy to associate with her (also through metonymy). A catbird is a songbird that, among other things, uses its perch as a safe place to sound an alarm of warning, or whose safety is assured by the perch's remove from a source of danger. Significantly, its song can mimic presumably one of its greatest threats -- cats. Thus, it rearticulates the language of the threat to its existence, much in the same way that Mr. Martin co-opts Mrs. Barrows's discourse at a strategic moment later in the story by telling her: "I'm sitting in the catbird seat" (14). (Actually, the typography here should read: "I'm '"sitting in the catbird seat"'" to indicate his use, of her use, of Red Barber's use of metonymy. A good illustration of an extended dramatization of intertextuality along these lines can be seen in John Barth's hyper-citational short story, "Menelaiad".)
Mrs. Barrows's use of metonymy is gendered as well: she's employing "male" sports discourse (a form of cross-dressing), but for "female" ends, at least from Mr. Martin's perspective; but he's appropriating her appropriation in turn for "male" ends. (On this issue, see Simpkins, "Narrative Cross-Dressing," and Susan Glaspell's play, Trifles ).
Mr. Martin's self-elevation during the exposition early in the story is revealing in relation to this. "It was competent, material, and relevant to review [Mrs. Barrows's] advent and rise to power," Mr. Martin tells himself as he begins the trial (10):
After Miss Tyson, Mr. Brundage, and Mr. Bartlett had been fired and Mr. Munson had taken his hat and stalked out, mailing in his resignation later, old Roberts had been emboldened to speak to Mr. Fitweiler. He mentioned that Mr. Munson's department had been "a little disrupted" and hadn't they perhaps better resume the old system there? Mr. Fitweiler had said certainly not. He had the greatest faith in Mrs. Barrow's [sic] ideas. "They require a little seasoning, a little seasoning, is all," he had added. Mr. Roberts had given it up. (11)Typically in Thurber's rendition of the war between the sexes, the women triumph, although also usually in a way that spoils or at least mediates that triumph. This is what Mr. Martin suspects is going to happen to his own department (a reverse synecdoche for his Self), especially after he has seen how Mrs. Barrows has affected Mr. Fitweiler. The confirmation of this fear appeared a week before his plan was fully formed, the result of a visit one day (Mr. Martin knew the exact date) when Mrs. Barrows "had bounced into his office." "'Boo!' she had yelled. 'Are you scraping around the bottom of the pickle barrel?'" (11). Mr. Martin's response is revealing:
Mr. Martin had looked at her from under his green eyeshade, saying nothing. She had begun to wander about the office, taking it in with her great, popping eyes. "Do you really need all these filing cabinets?" she had demanded suddenly. Mr. Martin's heart had jumped. "Each of these files," he had said, keeping his voice even, "plays an indispensable part in the system of F & S." She had brayed at him, "Well, don't tear up the pea patch!" and gone to the door. From there she had bawled, "But you sure have got a lot of fine scrap in here!"It was at this point that Mr. Martin "could no longer doubt that the finger was on his beloved department." Based on experience, "there was no doubt" that a "blue memo from the enchanted Mr. Fitweiler bearing nonsensical instructions deriving from the obscene woman" would be coming shortly.
At the conclusion of this summation of Mrs. Barrows's crimes, Mr. Martin formally closes the case in a manner that reiterates the irony of his own stance. "Mr. Martin stood up in his living room, still holding his milk glass," we're told. "'Gentlemen of the jury,' he said to himself, 'I demand the death penalty for this horrible person'" (11).
It may be useful to pause here and consider possible readings of Thurber's reiterative, further yoking of milk with specifically a woman who troubles Mr. Martin. Mr. Martin's milk drinking is introduced here as adult consumption of a substance that elicits numerous metonymic connotations. To employ a symbolic code, as Barthes suggests, would draw upon an obvious (albeit obviously reductive) indication of Mr. Martin's extended reliance upon a form of mammilary nursing that is usually aligned with infancy. Indeed, adult lactose intolerance can even make this consumption prohibitive.
The narrator relates that Mr. Martin "had never drunk anything stronger in his life -- unless you could count ginger ale" (12). Moreover, Mr. Martin recalls the past event in which he was praised in front of the other employees for this sobriety:
The late Sam Schlosser, the S of F & S, had praised Mr. Martin at a staff meeting several years before for his temperate habits. "Our most efficient worker neither drinks nor smokes," he had said. "The results speak for themselves." Mr. Fitweiler had sat by, nodding in approval.Mr. Martin "was still thinking about that red-letter day" as he walked toward his goal the evening that he put his plan into effect. (This also is an engagement of the hermeneutic code through foreshadowing as it contributes to the likelihood that Mrs. Barrows's later claim will sound implausible.) Moreover, it says a great deal about what Mr. Martin esteems in his own character, and how his own regard derives from pleasing others through self-restraint (or, restraint of Self). (Additionally, it reinforces his tendency toward reductive abduction: while Mr. Fitweiler is "nodding" during this scene, it is Mr. Martin who accords it the register of a sign of "approval". Considering Mr. Fitweiler's rather doddering behavior in the story, his "nodding" could indicate he's battling fatigue during a potentially boring staff meeting. Or, he could be merely nodding as a social nicety even though he has been only remotely paying attention to the events transpiring. To Mr. Martin, though, this decidedly indicates coherent approval.)
In the 1940s in the United States, and especially in the social setting of New York City life, an adult male who drinks milk to unwind at the end of a workday would be considered boring and immature. (This is reinforced by The New Yorker at the time: it was loaded with advertisements for cigarettes, beer, and alcohol, all touted approvingly as tokens of appropriate, even "normal", adult behavior.)
From the standpoint of vertigo, moreover, milk drinking would hardly suffice as an impetus for vertiginous effects. Like the Romantic poet William Wordsworth, who attributed the purity of his imagination in part to his practice of drinking solely water, Thurber establishes Mr. Martin as someone who is unlikely to voluntarily induce tumultuous effects. This would be especially pertinent in terms of effects that have no "useful" outcome.
One reading of this scene could cast Mr. Martin's recollection as simply a flashback that is taking place at this part of the story. In other words, the reader is reminded of what is occurring here, and the milk is a catalyst for that recollection. Yet, as part of a symbolic code, this yoking of milk and male anxiety clearly has connotative potential. (From the author-function standpoint, this development was seen before in Thurber's subsequently best-known short story, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." Each time that Mitty lapses into a fantasy, certain markers are associated with his daydreams and his own real-world frustrations, especially those related to women and accompanying male anxiety.)
For this reading, then, it is worth entertaining the connection between milk and woman as threatening source of this infant nurishment. (From a biographical code standpoint, Thurber's resentful dependence upon others -- especially women and primarily his second wife -- following his increasing blindness is certainly plausibly connected with this anxiety. As also is his lifelong strife generated by what he perceived as gendered incompatibilities, or even "The War Between Men and Women" -- the title of one of his works, in fact.)
A good illustration of Mr. Martin's reluctance to acknowledge, and even work through, his ostensive anxieties regarding women is the "squirming" that occurs upon his recollection of meeting Mrs. Barrows. The physiological recoil of the "squirm" dramatizes, it could be argued, Mr. Martin's deep-seated anxieties about at least this one woman in particular and his refusal to acknowledge and accept this response. "He must keep his mind on her crimes as a special adviser, not on her peccadillos as a personality," Mr. Martin thinks to himself during the trial. "This he found difficult to do, in spite of entering an objection and sustaining it" (10). Note here that Mr. Martin turns to the arguable male juridical model of ordering experience in order to render his response "intellectual" (in Nietzsche's sense -- see Lecture 7). Indeed, we're told in the next sentence: "The faults of the woman as a woman kept chattering on in his mind like an unruly witness."
Martin's evident narcissism arises in this early development in the story. His self-aggrandizement as someone whose practices are well-known by others, despite his clear relatively insignificance as a human being. (This would be ironically epitomized by Mr. Fitweiler's observation, one that has been cathected into a theological fetish by Mr. Martin, that Mr. Martin is an infallible uebermensch.) While it appears that Mrs. Barrows assaults everybody in her day-to-day contact with them in the office, Mr. Martin revealingly casts this behavior as directed toward himself in particular:
She had, for almost two years now, baited him. In the halls, in the elevator, even in his own office, into which she romped now and then like a circus horse, she was constantly shouting these silly questions at him. "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?" (10)Numerous connections are signalled in this early passage. In terms of the hermeneutical code, this summation appears to announce a liminal "decision" (another "occasion"). Moreover, this is a juridical litany of "evidence", both synthetic and undigested (i.e., an apparently paratactic "list"). Is this parataxis, though? Look at the last example (which, by the way, is the last sentence of a paragraph, and thereby receives the greatest emphasis granted presumably by typographical partitioning). The special status of the last item in a list (like that of the first item, and even those striking elements "buried" within it) could be considered here. Does this suggest that the final entry is merely the result of a careless parataxis, or rather, is it a calculated final inclusion based on something like sprezzatura ? In other words, it is possible that this seemingly "loose" list builds up a final entry of greater significance than the preceding items on that list.
Why is the first reference in the story to the title placed here and in this fashion? It appears that, if no figurative or literal occurrence of this expression appears again, this is accorded special weight by virtue of its appearance. (Like the single mention of "the heart of darkness" in Joseph Conrad's novella by the same title. This can be contrasted, too, with works in which the title is never referred to within the work itself, like Samuel Beckett's Endgame.) Certainly, the last entry in this list confirms Mrs. Barrows's consistent reliance on metonymic discourse. Yet it suggests more. The reader possessing literary competence would be alerted to the hermeneutical code suggestivity (as Eco declares in his depiction of the controlled practice of the Model Reader).
Additionally, as a hermeneutical code, this is foreshadowing. Is Mr. Martin in the catbird seat? Or, if not yet, will he be in it at some point? This suggests a literary decoding of irony: the character who will be most strikingly affected by Mr. Martin's ascension into that position is the one who asks him about it. Like the use of dramatic irony in a text such as Sophocles's Oedipus the King, Thurber has specifically Mrs. Barrows ask Mr. Martin this question. Moreover, Mrs. Barrows evidently realizes this irony when she understood Mr. Martin's scheme at the end. But, as with Oedipus, it comes too late to do her any good and thus her anagnorisis only increases her suffering. Like Edgar Allan Poe's treatise on successful revenge outlined in the opening paragraphs of his short story, "The Cask of Amontillado," Mr. Martin's joy at his removal of Mrs. Barrows is potentially heightened by his accomplishment of something she had said offhandedly earlier on. (On this issue, again see Trifles and Simpkins, "Narrative Deception.") Of course, Mrs. Barrows is too disrupted to make this connection initially. But the "competent" reader would certainly note that Mrs. Barrows had asked this of Mr. Martin earlier on. (Regarding competence, see Eco, Role, and Jonathan Culler, "Literary Competence.")
Mr. Martin's hyperbolic anxiety as he puts his plan into action reiterates the pathetically small scale of his day-to-day existence. Earlier at work, Mr. Martin had "polished his glasses more often and once sharpened an already sharp pencil," although nobody took notice (11). During his customary walk later in the evening Mr. Martin heads circuitously toward Mrs. Barrows's apartment "at a casual pace" and notes his "gloved hands felt moist and warm, his forehead cold" (12). The presence of his prop cigarettes stresses him unduly as well. And, the Camels themselves serve as a false signifier that would allow Mr. Martin to "drag a small red herring across the trail" (another metonymy) after he kills Mrs. Barrows in accordance with his initial plan (12). After Mr. Martin "transferred the Camels from his overcoat to a jacket pocket," the narrator notes, "he wondered, as he did so, if they did not represent an unnecessary note of strain." Mr. Martin's overreaction to such pedestrian details clearly dramatizes the similar exaggeration of importance he is compelled to infuse into his life in order to justify its otherwise mundane character. Or, another way to view this is that possessing an item usually asociated wtih adulthood makes him nervous. And, of course, it is worth noting that the only way he engages such a token of maturity is wholly instrumental (i.e., wholly semiotic) in nature.
The narrator's remark that "Mrs. Barrows smoked only Luckies" arguably implies that this information is well-known among her co-workers. The Luckies comment bears more weight than might appear, because later the communal store of knowledge regarding Mrs. Barrows has significant impact on Mr. Martin's fabricated performance. Furthermore, in the advertisements in The New Yorker at the time, Luckie Strike cigarettes were evidently pitched toward a male target audience (men are cited as the authority figures who endorse the product ) -- unlike, say, Marlboro cigarettes, which at the time were marketed as a woman's cigarette. Thus, it appears that Mrs. Barrows's cigarette preference is similar to her vocabulary in that both derive from a male-oriented perspective which is publicly aligned with her self-image.
In addition to the presumption of the Luckies knowledge, Mr. Martin knew a great deal about Mrs. Barrows's domicile. Although "Mr. Martin had never seen" Mrs. Barrows's apartment, "he had a clear enough picture of it": "fortunately, she had bragged to everybody about her ducky first-floor apartment in the perfectly darling three-story redbrick" (12). Of course, this provides an informational cue regarding a body of shared information that would, on the one hand, explain how Mr. Martin would know where Mrs. Barrows lives (and thus support the plausibility of her claim of his visit later on). On the other hand, it would explain how the body of common knowledge could be counted on by Mr. Martin to create a unified impression of the "real" (including his likely or unlikely behavior within it).
Mr. Martin panics as myriad uncontrollable factors impinge on the meticulous scenario he had planned, revealing how much his mindset varies from a chaotic mindset (one linked to metonymy) that is nevertheless actually much more reflective of the "real". As Mr. Martin walks to Mrs. Barrows's apartment in a manner that is to signify purposeless "nonchalance", the narrator reveals that Mr. Martin's encounters so far with Mrs. Barrows have increased his exposure to the realm of anarchy that is arguably consonant with the "everyday". While he had initially calculated the best time for entering Mrs. Barrows's apartment house, Mr. Martin comes to recognize that no amount of planning can rule out the impact of other "players" on the field. He "abandoned" this tight adherence to a time frame, acknowledging that "it was impossible to figure when people would be entering or leaving the house" (12).
This reveals that Mr. Martin is capable of adopting an arguably "positive" attitude toward non-structured thought. (Or rather, thought structured in a less systematic way, and perhaps structured instead in an organically systemic way.) This adaptability is suggested, too, by his importation of metonymy ("her ducky first-floor apartment") which initially seems mockingly parodic, but may well be neutral or even positive. It is apparent, however, that Mr. Martin is still thinking in terms of finite play restrictions on his "moves".
There was great risk at any hour. If he ran into anybody, he would simply have to place the rubbing-out of Ulgine Barrows in the inactive file forever. The same thing would hold true if there were someone in her apartment. In that case he would just say that he had been passing by, recognized her charming house and thought to drop in. (12)This observation dramatizes the limited array of moves afforded by Mr. Martin's play stance. This is reinforced by the contrast between Mr. Martin's meticulousness and the increasing force of uncertainty that he encounters. Evidently, Mr. Martin's catalogs of the exact time to the minute, the exact number and gender of people he passes on the sidewalk, and the exact number of feet constituting his circle of safety prior to entering Mrs. Barrows's building, are his last vestige of control as long as Mrs. Barrows is in the picture. As soon as he is inside her building, time becomes elastic (no longer accountable to the precise minute) and everything is potentially rekeyable.
He was up the steps and in the vestibule in no time, pressing the bell under the card that said "Mrs. Ulgine Barrows." When the clicking in the lock started, he jumped forward against the door. He got inside fast, closing the door behind him. A bulb in a lantern hung from the hall ceiling on a chain seemed to give a monstrously bright light. There was nobody on the stair, which went up ahead of him along the left wall. A door opened down the hall in the wall on the right. He went toward it swiftly, on tiptoe.Two operations take place here simultaneously, both based on the inside/outside displacement this entry effects. Remember that at F & S, Mr. Martin inhabited an "inside" position prior to Mrs. Barrows's appearance. Rather than climbing the corporate ladder in the traditional, "finite" fashion, Mrs. Barrows had ascended figuratively through the back door, thereby leapfrogging over the other insiders on their way up according to the constraints of convention. Her ability to find "entry" into Mr. Fitweiler's "closed" office (an entry symbolized by the closed door that confirms her insider status) dramatizes the accomplishment of this ascension. Furthermore, the discourse between Mr. Fitweiler and Mrs. Barrows also is of an "insider" nature. (Until the end of the story, there is no apparent dialogue between Mr. Fitweiler and Mr Martin except through the one-way, monologic agency of the "blue memo.") The same displacement is enacted yet again when Mrs. Barrows enters Mr. Martin's office area and cryptically surveys his domain. This is when, it will be recalled, that Mr. Martin decides he has to act before he loses the minor insider position he had acquired (along with the self-identity it carries). Note, too, that the authority of the door-opener is challenged here -- which already heralds Mrs. Barrows's eventual disempowerment.
What happens, then, when Mr. Martin enters Mrs. Barrows's building? Again, two operations: temporal hyperactivity and intense physical display of self. It's as though Mrs. Barrows's domain exudes the same disruptive (metonymical?) force that her presence conveys at work. Mr. Martin, a clockwatcher, suddenly finds himself in an environment where time runs amuck. This seems disempowering, initially, although it also creates the kind of thrill that -- even a dangerously vertiginous thrill -- Mr. Martin never experiences in his usually humdrum, lifeless life. While this is a threatening development, it nevertheless contains an energizing force -- again, from a play standpoint.
The same is true for the increased visibility Mr. Martin experiences. As someone who likes to make his self-presentation unobtrusive (something he is counting on, in fact, as is suggested in the opening paragraph when nobody notices that he has purchased cigarettes), Mr. Martin's hyper-visibility is a foreign experience. It also seems to be alienating. Rather than aligning itself with the symbolic-code connotation of "illumination", the "monstrously bright" hallway light accentuates Mr. Martin's uneasiness. It draws heightened attention, in other words, to his activities that, out of necessity, have to remain unobtrusive if he's to succeed. (This occurs again inside Mrs. Barrows's apartment living room, "which seemed to Mr. Martin to be lighted by a hundred lamps" .) Importantly, this light's "monstrous" connotation is aligned metonymically with the "monstrous magic" Mrs. Barrows had worked on Mr. Fitweiler and may, in fact, draw attention to the transformative capacity that Mrs. Barrows holds for Mr. Martin through their interaction. If he were open to it, that is.
Mr. Martin's highlighted activities serve as a catalyzing force, as his confident, brisk movement suggests. He is suddenly quick on his feet, tiptoeing not like a stereotypical husband trying to sneak into his home late at night without waking his wife, but instead, like a jungle predator confidently stalking a sizable, challenging prey that will give it a good fight before inevitably losing the battle. This temporary confidence is reinforced by Mr. Martin' s brash entry into Mrs. Barrows's apartment. When Mrs. Barrows opened her door (inside/outside again), she appears as a formidable barrier as the agent capable of controlling entry. "'Well, for God's sake, look who's here!', bawled Mrs. Barrows, and her braying laugh rang out like the report of a shotgun" (13). Between her shouting and annoying laugh, Mrs. Barrows would normally stand as a considerable annoyance for Mr. Martin, who would have to, in keeping with his work persona, pretend that it didn't bother him at all. But, newly invigorated, Mr. Martin "rushed past her like a football tackle, bumping her."
Mrs. Barrows's status as the entryway controller is challenged at this point as Mr. Martin changes the register of play from politeness to impoliteness. If someone known for this type of behavior had been outside the door, for instance, Mrs. Barrows would certainly have guarded it differently. With this move, however, Mr. Martin signals a shift in the "game" between them. This is indicated by Mrs. Barrows's response to his entrance: "'Hey, quit shoving!' she said, closing the door behind them." Notice that Thurber identifies the nature of this imperative utterance merely as "said". Considering that virtually everything else she utters up to this point is given a colorfully negative description, this change is worth noting. (Her utterances receive only one "said" before this, and are otherwise reported as "yelled", "demanded", "brayed", and "bawled".) "'What's after you?' she said" after he entered. "'You're as jumpy as a goat.'" (Again, she is granted another "said" and, perhaps significantly, she shifts from the use of anarchic metonymy to the more readily decoded, at least "translucently" motivated simile [Hodge and Kress 22]. Admittedly, Paul de Man challenges the logic of figurative motivation in a manner that further problematizes my claim here [Allegories 14-15].)
Unbeknownst to Mrs. Barrows, Mr. Martin's visit is what Goffman calls a "guided doing" (Frame 22) which will assume a broad speech/act function. ("Speech/act" is used to designate the usual linguistic concept of the "speech act" but in the wider, trans-linguistic sense.) While it appears to belong to the social practice of the unannounced drop-in, it assumes additional significance in light of his lack of previous social interaction with Mrs. Barrows and the consideration that he has never visited her apartment previously. Mr. Martin's collective initial responses to Mrs. Barrows's fussing about his unexpected appearance are revealing. At first, "he found he was unable to speak. His heart was wheezing in his throat" (13). Here, not only is Mr. Martin rendered speechless when faced with Mrs. Barrows, the narrator employs an especially "opaque" metaphor, as if to suggest that Mr. Martin is choking on Mrs. Barrows's metaphors. Mr. Martin "finally brought out": "I -- yes." While Mrs. Barrows was "jabbering and laughing as she started to help him off with his coat," he managed to say the following in response to her inquiries:
"No, no," he said. "I'll put it here."Mrs. Barrows's response to Mr. Martin's relatively broken discourse is to "[laugh] louder than ever."
"I was passing by," he said. "I recognized -- is there anyone here?"
Note here that Mr. Martin, in addition to revealing his uneasiness at executing his plan, is also tentatively exploring a new discourse. His stuttered speech is figuratively metonymical in that its significance has to be parsed out by filling in missing logical connections. In this fashion, it functions not unlike Barthes's identification of the "prattle" of an as-of-yet unformed speech (Pleasure 5).
While Mrs. Barrows "seemed larger than he had thought," Mr. Martin manages to retain a semblance of calm (13). He doesn't surrender his gloves and, after he had "pulled himself together," he can even respond to her query in a complete sentence. This response carries significant weight, in that her remarks constitute an interrogation scenario that presumably would draw attention to his lesser status as an adult. In response to his query about the presence of anybody else in the apartment, Mrs. Barrows "laughed louder than ever" and said:
"No,...we're all alone. You're as white as a sheet, you funny man. Whatever has come over you? I'll mix you a toddy...Scotch-and-soda be all right? But say, you don't drink, do you?"As if to accentuate the deprecation underlying this last observation, Mrs. Barrows "turned and gave him her amused look," thereby tyrannizing him with a stock gaze. The tag evaluation of Mr. Martin as a "funny man," along with the accentuation on "has" in the sentence that follows and the "But say,..." reflection on her query, combine to form a series of sallies against Mr. Martin's masculine status (ca. early-1940s cultural standards in the United States). Additionally, "you don't drink, do you?" isn't a question as much as it is an imprecation. A rhetorical question -- like: "How many times have I told you to clean up your room?" -- serves more to chastise than to solicit input from an equal. Under such circumstances, it would be reasonable to expect Mr. Martin, as is often the case with the majority of male characters in Thurber's fiction and art, to be intimidated by this female character.
It is important, then, that Mr. Martin "pulled himself together" and stated in response: "'Scotch-and-soda will be all right.'" Is he becoming more self-confident in this "confrontation" with a frightening woman? Possibly, but the narrator notes that Mr. Martin "heard himself say" this, as if to suggest that he is still far from comfortable with the new persona he is adopting within Mrs. Barrows's domestic realm and he still feels distanced from the role he's performing. (She, on the other hand, appears quite at ease with her persona, as is suggested by the powerful assumption of "her amused look" here.) This self-hearing could suggest a type of falseness on Mr. Martin's part, as though he isn't behaving in a genuine fashion but rather is reciting a part of a scripted "role" (Goffman, Presentation 141-166). But, it could alternatively indicate that he is dissembling in the same way that he had at work in front of the others. If so, then this ability to conceal emotions (he is no doubt irked by Mrs. Barrows's amusement, one could assume) is not a weakness; it' s a sign of self-command.
Then panic sets in. Once Mrs. Barrows left the room to make the drinks, "Mr. Martin looked quickly around the living room for the weapon," the narrator notes (13). "He had counted on finding one there." This notion of "counting on" some outcome bears special significance for Mr. Martin. Counting on something means that an orderly, "literalistic" world can be anticipated, planned for, relied upon. Significantly, Mr. Martin is praised at work for being a person one can count on. One could say that countability is emblematic of Mr. Martin's life. Thus, the discovery that what he counted on as a crucial part of his plan is not available leaves Mr. Martin in a considerable dilemma. Finding no convenient murder instrument that would be suitable, "he began to pace around" (13). (This is the same character, remember, who just moments before was moving "swiftly, on tiptoe.")
Pacing is similar to the "blunder", and in fact is metonymically linked to it. (Not unlike the famous pacing scene in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground when the Underground Man's plan for revenge against his "enemies" goes awry and he is at a loss for what to do next. He ends up pacing impotently for three hours.) Pacing is walking without a goal. Or rather, it is walking as a means for prompting thought while working off the psychological tumult produced by the distress rising from irresolution of some problem. (Of course, the extreme version of this is the pacing of zoo animals who evidently have reached the outer limits of this distress.) Pacing is the locomotion of despair. It introduces a different form of walking, one which is both necessary and unnecessary at the same time (or, instrumental and non-instrumental). One can't help but pace under certain circumstances. It is illogical walking. Pacing suggests one cannot simply work out distress without walking back and forth in the process. (In an unbelievable coincidence, there's someone pacing in front of my apartment as I write this. I could ask her why she's pacing, but I bet she would stop doing it if she realized someone was watching her. She would probably also offer a halting explanation, one that perhaps doesn't actually address why she's evidently distressed and may even reveal an unawareness of her pacing. For example, she's probably waiting for her ride home from the church also across the street and her pacing reveals her irritation over the ride's tardiness, a development she evident had not "counted on.")
Pacing often manifests itself unconsciously, like a large-scale nervous tic that one is not initially aware of (like daydreaming, too, where the moment one realizes one is daydreaming it immediately evaporates). Mr. Martin is not usually a pacer, so this sudden development certainly suggests he is experiencing a significant alteration in his usual behavior. (In fact, his version of pacing is the trial he holds earlier.) It could be said that Mr. Martin is undergoing a change in his makeup through his interaction with Mrs. Barrows, in that this pacing takes place in a domain that she has complete control over. Obviously, this would serve as even more of a threat to Mr. Martin because he fears that the same thing is happening in his work environment, as was intimated by Mrs. Barrows's visit to his office.
But this pacing produces a yield, of sorts. As he was pacing, Mr. Martin "came to a desk" (13). Note here that he comes upon this desk, an action that connotes spontaneity and chance, in the positive sense. In other words, his appearance at the desk is ironically the outcome of his aimless, nervous movement, a locomotive form of chattering. It appears as though Mr. Martin may well be moving progressively into a different experiential realm of "play" with this development.
This is suggested further by Mr. Martin' s discovery of "a metal paper knife with an ornate handle on the desk" (13). Mr. Martin thinks to himself: "Would it be sharp enough?" But, as he reached for it, he "knocked over a small brass jar." Moreover, "stamps spilled out of it and it fell to the floor with a clatter." This is yet another blunder, one that is tangible and audible to the detection of another person, unlike his minor signs of nervousness displayed earlier at work. And, think of this jar's metonymic potential here. An object given the symbolic function of keeping stamps in relative order, this jar's informal containment of order is disrupted as Mr. Martin searches about for a weapon. (He's visiting disorder upon a token of order, in other words.) Like the apparent unraveling of his plan, this unanticipated mishap could well betoken the failure of his overly complex and rigid plan (along with the overall lifestyle it signifies). Think, too, of the symbolic action taking place here, to draw upon Barthes's proairetic and symbolic codes:
desire --> reach --> grasp --> non-fulfillment of desireMr. Martin's action functions in two ways. Obviously, it signifies the meaning of reaching for something he wants to grasp. Yet it also suggests the figurative metonymy of desire and fulfillment of desire. Mr. Martin wants to succeed in removing Mrs. Barrows's influence from the work environment in which he has invested his entire sense of self. His grasp (in several senses) is an attempt to recover the safe status quo he had maintained prior to her appearance at F & S. From a game-play standpoint, Mr. Martin yearns to return to the arena of play he had safely worked within before (Derrida' s notion of "sure play"). Mrs. Barrows has introduced the equivalent of a destruction of that arena, creating bizarre, discordant new fields of play that differ markedly from the homogeneous security Mr. Martin prefers.
The blundered reach frustrates this desire, however. Mr. Martin has made what could be called a mistake, which in itself signifies metonymically the intrusion of disorder into his world. In this respect, he has symbolically reenacted Mr. Fitweiler's mistake -- at least in Mr. Martin's view -- in hiring Mrs. Barrows. This could well signify the contagious disorder that can result from infinite play model of action (or an unlimited semiosis model of signification). All that would be needed to reinforce this threat would be the shouted articulation of a metonymy from Mrs. Barrows at precisely this moment.
Hearing the ruckus Mr. Martin is creating while she is making drinks in the kitchen, Mrs. Barrows "yelled": "'Hey,...are you tearing up the pea patch?'" (13). Evidence of Mr. Martin's likely failure is suggested here through Mrs. Barrows's return to metonymy, a development that elicited "a strange laugh" from Mr. Martin as he was about to test the letter opener on his wrist. "Picking up the knife, he tried its point against his left wrist. It was blunt. It wouldn't do." One has to wonder about this laugh. (Oddly, it is the only laugh Mr. Martin emits in the story.) It serves as a ligature between Mr. Martin's reach and the consequence of his impotent grasp. Still, Mrs. Barrows's "yelled" metonymy frames what would otherwise be a mere failed search for a weapon. Is this metonymy a marker of a discourse field that is superior to his own? Is it the speech of infinite play dismantling the sad rigidities of finite play? And, does the emptiness of its speech (it literally means nothing literally) all the more flaunting its superiority, dramatizing that it is so powerful it doesn't have to rely on lexical meaning to express itself?
This laugh may be an incipient marker of liminality for Mr. Martin. Like the chuckle that might come with realizing that one has forgotten one's umbrella once again when it was needed, Mr. Martin's laugh could easily serve as the connective link that allows him to move from finite to infinite play. In this sense, the disruption of his finite plan forces him into an economy informed by infinitude. The transformative agency of this play, accordingly, has begun (at least in one provisional reading of this scene, anyway). In effect, Mr. Martin's laugh could be seen as a precursor to the "laugh of the medusa" that Hélène Cixous identifies as the powerful reappropriation of a negative image of women. (The gender reversal is wholly ironic here, of course.) This would dovetail with the apparent phallic suggestivity of the letter opener. Will it allow Mr. Martin to reassert his status within a phallocentric culture? Or, will it merely stand as a comic caricature of his rapidly diminishing, nearly detumescent phallic power?
Mr. Martin is poised for a grand failure at this juncture. "When Mrs. Barrows reappeared, carrying two highballs, Mr. Martin, standing there with his gloves on, became acutely conscious of the fantasy he had wrought," the narrator remarks. "Cigarettes in his pocket, a drink prepared for him -- it was all too grossly improbable" (14). In fact, Mr. Martin concludes, "It was more than that; it was impossible." This is undeniably the most substantial transitional moment Mr. Martin experiences in the story. Here, he has been reduced to going along with Mrs. Barrows's prompts, rather than initiating his own, at virtually every point of their exchanges. (Except for keeping his gloves on. Mrs. Barrows had requested, as he relinquished his coat, "'your hat and gloves, too....You're in a lady's house'" . But Mr. Martin retained his gloves.) And now he has allowed a "fantasy" to displace his carefully controlled reality. He has entered the realm of the improbable -- no, the impossible. It's almost as though Mrs. Barrows has succeeded in completely tainting Mr. Martin's meticulously wrought self, abruptly dislodging his figuratively literal world into one that is figuratively metonymic.
This moment is relevant from the standpoint of a subgroup of the hermeneutical code: the literary code. When a character experiences an epiphany like this, such a moment has a deciding influence on future behavior. For Mr. Martin to experience this recognition and then to continue on as he was before would be essentially inconsistent with this norm. As will be seen, this normative violation is exactly what Thurber engenders. For, Mr. Martin appears to undergo a substantive change at this point by fabricating something that will be decoded as "impossible" by anybody who "knows" both Mr. Martin and Mrs. Barrows. It is a perfect ruse in this sense: as far as Mrs. Barrows knows, she has seen a wholly plausible side of Mr. Martin that he has successfully hidden from the others at work. What Mr. Martin is counting on, however, is that Mrs. Barrows has not "known" Mr. Martin nearly as long as the others at work have. Although she has heard that he is of a certain nature, she hasn't seen the extensive demonstration of his work persona firsthand that he has performed consistently year after year at F & S. And, since Mrs. Barrows has directed Mr. Martin's behavior according to her own behavioral and proprietary dictates, it would sound far more plausible that her description of his behavior would have stemmed from her own point of view than from the "real".
This is what Mr. Martin suddenly realizes.
As a result, Mr. Martin's liminal experience is not one of personal growth (again: the literary code, as manifested in the epiphany as employed in James Joyce's work). Rather, it is the flash of insight that allows Mr. Martin to see something that had eluded him before. (On the semiotics of this process, see Simpkins, "Aeolian Composition.") Mr. Martin had attempted to evoke a logical plan out of forced, directed thought. It is only when he reaches a point of post-pacing resignation, when he can no longer find any constructive input in his customary fashion, that an idea comes to him. (In the same way that he "came upon" the table, as discussed earlier. In fact, the table scene establishes itself as a narratological prelude to this second coming upon, a type of foreshadowing. The first instance foregrounds the latter, in which Mr. Martin learns how to cultivate unsought-after imagination. Recall his frustration over the labored search for a weapon at the table that results in the "strange laugh" -- again, an articulation of new-found power that has yet to be channeled effectively.)
This channeling that Mr. Martin now learns to cultivate is articulated in "organic" terms (as the Romantics, once more, repeatedly employed themselves). "Somewhere in the back of his mind a vague idea stirred, sprouted" (14), the narrator tells us. This "stirring", usually a directed activity, is portrayed here as self-directed (like Brownian motion), an agency unto one's self -- or rather, activity beyond one's directive agency (like Merrell' s conception of "living" semiosis discussed in Lecture 7). The same would be true for the phenomenon of "sprouting". Not only does Thurber cast this as a non-directed undertaking, he situates it in terms of a front-back dynamic of thought. Consider the implications of this proxemic designation. Typically, these terms differentiate between conscious and sub-conscious activity. (In terms of the stream metaphor of "mind", this would be equivalent to surface thought and deep thought.) "Back" thought is similar to activity one is not fully or consciously aware one is doing (like pacing). Because it is not at one's disposal, it is of no "use", at least from the standpoint of the usual logic that directs Mr. Martin's usual realm. It is hardly insignificant, then, that Mr. Martin suddenly finds himself influenced by a new source of imaginative power under the circumstances.
Mrs. Barrows's initial response upon returning to the room is focused on the anomaly of wearing gloves indoors. "'For heaven's sake, take off those gloves,' said Mrs. Barrows" (14). Note here that while she is employing an imperative prefaced by an imprecation, its tone is that of "saying", as opposed to the stronger descriptors mentioned previously (brayed, yelled, shouted, etc.). Tellingly, the gloves are -- along with the cigarettes -- all that remain of Mr. Martin's original plan. They remain something he was able to think through in his usual fashion, something he could "count on," it turns out. But, their function goes through a spontaneous rekeying. (Mr. Martin, remember, initially wore the gloves so that he wouldn't leave fingerprints behind after killing Mrs. Barrows.)
In response to Mrs. Barrows's glove-removal order, Mr. Martin replies: "'I always wear them in the house.'" His statement initiates a host of significations in this scene. While it indicates membership in the speech genre (Bakhtin) of "the reply", its function shifts here because it's a "comic" reply, something that bathetically changes the register of the exchange from purely informational to the humorous. This is not a mutually participatory comedic exchange, either, in that Mrs. Barrows is not knowingly functioning as a partner (i.e., the straightman) in a scripted pairing.
But, there is a partner here -- the reader. The reader has already been signaled that Mr. Martin realizes how "impossible" this scenario is and that he has been visited by a "vague idea." In other words, the reader knows that something is up. And, of course, the reader knows all along that the generic nature of Mr. Martin's "visit" has a purpose that Mrs. Barrows is unaware of (i.e., to "rub her out" through an elaborate speech/act). Since the reader knows, then, that Mr. Martin does not always wear his gloves in the house, the reader anticipates the subsequent configurations of this new plan in its first inkling. "Always" also suggests a type of behavior that is exclusive (and potentially aberrant) in some way, but nonetheless is favored idiosyncratically by the speaker. It is a way of announcing a willed exertion of autonomy, a sign of power that challenges the status quo. Typically in Thurber's fiction, this exertion manifests itself in negative ways: a husband who insists on using terms or singing songs his wife abhors, for example, or a husband who constantly devises annoying "tests" for himself that make him look foolish. This is the type of humor that usually is cited to support claims of Thurber's misogyny, and it could apply here as Mr. Martin tries to outwit specifically a woman who threatens his terrritory at work.
The "always" in this case, however, is different. It is not a pathetic assertion of himself in a derivatively defensive way against a woman who has power over him (or, at least not as much as in Thurber's frequent domestic "abuse" scenarios). Instead, it anticipates the presentation of a personal life that those who think they know Mr. Martin would find absurdly "impossible". In effect, the qualification of "at home" makes this assertion remotely plausible. Because the domestic environment allows for total control of one's self-expression, it certainly is not "impossible" that Mr. Martin could always wear them in the house. "In the house" implies that one is under no constraint to adhere to the communal "logic" imposed outside one's house (i.e., in "public", or in the workplace). (On this issue, see Goffman's Relations in Public.) While it might make no "sense" to wear gloves indoors -- they are typically considered "outdoor" apparel -- making sense is irrelevant to the "indoor" economy. At home, one is free to act illogically, and privately, so that Mrs. Barrows's censure (e.g., "For heaven's sake, take off those gloves.") is overruled.
But, as Mrs. Barrows intimated out earlier, she is attempting to effect the economic "rules" characteristic of her own domestic autonomy by making this demand on Mr. Martin. (She had asked him to remove his gloves because "You're in a lady's house." To have done so would have acknowledged the validity of her claim, and her right to make it. Removing the gloves would have confirmed that she controls the social semiotic order in her domain and, additionally, that Mr. Martin has recognized her status as a "lady".)
It appears that Mr. Martin initially refuses this request out of mere nervousness. Recall the conjunction between his impression of her after this request and his plan to keep his gloves on: "Mrs. Barrows seemed larger than he had thought. He kept his gloves on." Intriguingly, Thurber provides no transitional logic here. It seems reasonable to infer that Mr. Martin retains his gloves out of fear: the preceding sentence suggests that she is looming large as a threat to him. Still, this could just as easily demonstrate the firmness of his resolve. He has planned to keep his gloves on, and even though Mrs. Barrows is more imposing -- i.e., metonymically "larger" than he had imagined -- he is sticking with his plan. (There is even the extrapolative possibility that the gloves stand as a figurative prophylactic barrier to protect Mr. Martin from the threat of sexual contact with Mrs. Barrows. Clearly, the motivational aporia between these two congruent sentences allows for considerable play for such extrapolations.)
This interpretive "play" -- in the play theory sense of allowance for movement, like the play in the movement range of an automobile stickshift -- is reiterated by Mrs. Barrows's response to Mr. Martin's assertion. "She put the glasses on a coffee table in front of a sofa and sat on the sofa" (14). It appears that Mrs. Barrows's initial response to this strange remark about the gloves is a "non-response" associating with "disattention" (Goffman, Stigma 41). While Thurber provides the reader with only Mr. Martin's thoughts on the various developments in the story, one has to conjecture about what is occurring during this brief hiatus in their conversation. For example, Mrs. Barrows might be thinking to herself that Mr. Martin has a personal life radically different from what he conveys at work. Or, she may be thinking that his second refusal to remove his gloves, along with his explanation for why he's wearing them, are signs of a strength that he also doesn't reveal at work. Or, that the strength he does reveal at work manifests itself as quiet diligence. (This is relevant regarding the author-system: the concealment of one's imaginative strength occurs repeatedly in Thurber's fiction as his men typically use this concealment as a sub rosa form of empowerment.) In any event, in the few seconds of silence while Mrs. Barrows places the drinks on the table and sits down, Thurber again allows for considerable speculation regarding her thoughts. The reader, too, is watching to see how she responds, and this non-response may seem puzzling at first. It also has the literary markings of foreshadowing. Is this the first in a series of successful blows against Mrs. Barrows? (A character, remember, who seems impervious to such sallies according to the usual logic of business politeness codes.)
Mrs. Barrows's eventual response (in the few long seconds that I imagine passing here) is the reverse of her second glove removal request, consisting of an imperative followed by an imprecation: "'Come over here, you odd little man,' she said" (14). (Previously, she had "said": "For heaven's sake, take off those gloves.") What does this syntagmatic reversal signify? Consider the difference between
 imprecation --> imperativeand
("For heaven's sake, take off those gloves.")
 imperative --> imprecation
("Come over here, you odd little man.")
While obviously one could speculate any number of ways about the differences here, consideration of some play options may prove illuminating. For instance,  might suggest a confident stance, as though the speaker possessed enough status to utter an oath prior to making a demand (she's in her own domain, after all, and has superior status over Mr. Martin at work as well). In , however, she is making a second request. The discourse positioning of the "second request" speech genre is similar to being obliged to repeat oneself. (Or perhaps even better, issuing an ultimatum with a three-count deadline for compliance and reaching a count of two with no indication of willingness to comply.) Under these circumstances, a feeling of potential power loss may arise, suggesting the need (or advisability) of placing the request first. Then, perhaps, Mrs. Barrows is unable to refrain from adding a milder imprecation afterward -- or does so as a reminder of her superiority. In terms of her imprecation, "odd little man" is arguably in more of an adult register than "for heaven's sake." Or, conversely, the imprecation of  could be seen as a more vitriolic, and gendered, attack. (No "man" wants to be called "little" by a frequent user of metonymy, and the same holds true for the uncomfortably polysemous "odd".)
The shift from non-gendered to gendered attack may hold significance. At the beginning of the story, Mr. Martin tried to justify the fairness and objectivity of his condemnation of Mrs. Barrows (after all, she had a "fair" trial). The reader is told that Mr. Martin reproved himself for allowing his personal feelings to taint the trial's "impartiality". "He must keep his mind on her crimes as a special adviser, not on her peccadillos as a personality," Mr. Martin reminds himself (10). This is no small undertaking, however: "the faults of the woman as a woman keep chattering on in his mind like an unruly witness." Near the end of his summation, Mr. Martin cannot refrain from referring to her (via the narrator's mediation) as "the obscene woman" (11). But, revealingly, the final line of his summation is gender neutral (after the opening salutation, anyway): "'Gentlemen of the jury,...I demand the death penalty for this horrible person.'"
Just the opposite takes place between sentence  and . Mrs. Barrows had framed her first imprecation neutrally, but following his continued recalcitrance, she turns to a gendered attack. One has to ask why. Is she mirroring Mr. Martin's sense of inadequacy by projecting onto someone of the "opposite" sex? This may well be the case, insofar as his refused compliance indicates that he does not countenance her self-description ("this is a lady's house") offered earlier. And, this could simply be seen as a counterplay: he won't positively acknowledge her gender, so neither will she.
The tone of Mrs. Barrows's utterance ("Come over here, you odd little man.") is not indicated. (Mrs. Barrows merely "said" this.) Consequently, the reader has to speculate about tonal inflection to determine whether this is confrontational, or something else. That this could be plausibly "something else" is suggested by the proxemics, coupled with the conjecture that she is making a playful admission of détente, and possibly even initiating flirtation.
Instead of handing Mr. Martin his drink, Mrs. Barrows couples it with hers on the table, and then invites him to join her on the sofa. Consider the alternatives. Being handed one's drink signals separation, division. Here's your drink; I'll keep mine in my personal space. Proxemically, keeping them together symbolically invitates Mr. Martin to join Mrs. Barrows in a similar pairing. (I.e., If you want your drink, you have to accompany me in a shared bodily space that isn't quite as close as your personal one, but is the first step toward paired closeness.)
This could also be said for sharing a sofa. Separate chairs establish spatial division (my chair/your chair -- here/there), whereas Mrs. Barrows specifically commands: "Come over here..." The sofa offers relatively unbounded perimeters. Obviously, though, sitting too close to someone under these circumstances would violate this spatial division and propriety, although gradual movement in that direction may be invited through subtle cues -- "casual" touching, or even direct invitation. The sofa is a relatively "open" seating arena, offering considerable variety of seating possibilities. After all, while sofas typically consist of formal divisions (often indicated by sections or cushions), there is no rigid prescription for seating on them (except for the aforementioned social codes of intimacy/formality).
At Mrs. Barrows's invitation:
Mr. Martin went over and sat beside her. It was difficult getting a cigarette out of the pack of Camels, but he managed it. She held a match for him, laughing. "Well," she said, handing him his drink, "this is perfectly marvelous. You with a drink and a cigarette." (14)If this summons/compliance scenario were reversed in terms of gender orientations, it would hardly seem remarkable. Many stereotypical pursuit-narratives follow this pattern, with one variation: the male is typically in the role occupied here by Mrs. Barrows. In such narratives, a timid, quiet, but wary woman may be lured back to a man's apartment, offered an unaccustomed alcoholic drink, and invited to the sofa where the man, in a gesture of gentleman-like behavior, lights her cigarette for her with anticipation of further variance from her usually composed, formal behavior. Mr. Martin's compliance, his awkwardness at producing a cigarette, his need of a light, and his silence in the face of a framing utterance by Mrs. Barrows, all conform to a reversed version of this scenario dynamic. (One wonders, though: is this over-compliance, or feigned compliance by Mr. Martin?)
Other potential readings of this dynamic offer themselves at the same time. The reader knows that Mr. Martin has formulated a plan. Thus, his compliance to Mrs. Barrows's request is viewed, indeed, not as subservience on his part, but as feigned behavior, a lure into a trap invisible to Mrs. Barrows. In this scenario frame, Mr. Martin's awkwardness at producing the cigarettes is not that of a timid prey in the presence of a masterful predator. It is genuine difficulty at producing an unfamiliar object out of his pocket while wearing gloves (coupled, to a far lesser extent, with Mr. Martin's presumed unfamiliarity with the process of lighting a cigarette and his understandable anxiety). Moreover, Mr. Martin would not have matches or a lighter on his person -- Mrs. Barrows was a known smoker, he was counting on (again) finding a means of lighting a cigarette in her apartment.
Mrs. Barrows's remark is framed by another "said", a discourse register that has been identified here repeatedly as a token of a neutral (if not a lesser) power position when it is associated with Mrs. Barrows's speech. Additionally, Mrs. Barrows uses an expression which is relatively literal: "perfectly marvelous." No metonymy, nor even a simile, here. Furthermore, this is one of those expressions that stereotypically is aligned with a disempowered "female" speech position. After all, what masculine man would say "perfectly marvelous"? (See, for example, Robin Lakoff, Language and Women's Place and Graddol and Swann, Gender Voices.)
Mrs. Barrows's utterance has a literary encoding of foreshadowing. Her response to his relatively mild behavior is a litotic rendering of the response that others will have later on when she reports what took place the night before. Thus, she is not merely describing a situation, she is providing a literary cue that a "competent" reader will pick up on as a hint of Mr. Martin's as-yet unarticulated plan. From a speech-genre standpoint, this exclamation is a "reaction". It shows the result of a stimulus that illuminates its potential range of connotative significance. Additionally, the typographical location of Mrs. Barrows's remark -- the last two sentences of the paragraph -- emphasizes the importance of this observation, like the use of enjambment in poetry. (The same occurred, it will be recalled, when Mr. Martin paused at the point when he realized that the letter opener wasn't sharp enough and he was devoid of a weapon to effect his plan.)
And, finally, this development is consistent with the revenge component that Poe outlines (as mentioned earlier). For, Mrs. Barrows will later understand that she has been set up by Mr. Martin, and could have protected herself if she had only extrapolated that far ahead. This creates a mild form of tragic irony, in which a character's previous blindness to the significance of something serves to further heighten later suffering through painful recollection during a moment of anagnorisis.
Mr. Martin's performance demonstrates the apparent veracity of this side of his self. "Mr. Martin puffed, not too awkwardly, and took a gulp of the highball" (14). Like the orchestra director who taps her baton on the music stand and assumes an air of readiness, Mr. Martin signals a preludial action -- a reaction, actually, to the assessment of unusual behavior that Mrs. Barrows has just offered. The performance itself consists of several assertions that increase in outrageousness:
"I drink and smoke all the time," he said. He clinked his glass against hers. "Here's nuts to that old windbag, Fitweiler," he said, and gulped again. The stuff tasted awful, but he made no grimace. "Really, Mr. Martin," she said, her voice and posture changing, "you are insulting our employer." Mrs. Barrows was now all special adviser to the president.This "opening" of Mr. Martin's performance (in the sense of an initial "move" in chess, for instance) reveals several potential reading developments. (Additionally, the containment of this action into a single paragraph typographically creates the impression of seamlessness and continuity.) Mr. Martin's remark -- "all the time" -- reiterates his earlier "always" assertion, creating a consistent narrative triad among his glove-wearing, drinking and smoking habits. Surprisingly, all of these components are antithetical to his "known" work persona. Mrs. Barrows is aware of this, but being the newest member of the firm, the impact of tradition has not habituated her as extensively as it has the other employees. In effect, Mrs. Barrows's comparatively brief exposure to Mr. Martin enables her to be more open to accepting alternative self-presentations. She can accept the seemingly "impossible" rendition of self that Mr. Martin performs despite the considerable disparity between it and the work-self she is familiar with.
Note that Mr. Martin says "Fitweiler", not his customary "Mr. Fitweiler," which further indicates his apparent insolence. This is the opposite of Mr. Fitweiler's usual address of Mr. Martin as "Martin" which displays, not insolence, but his greater power over Mr. Martin. "Here's nuts to that old windbag..." similarly is a mode of discourse entirely alien to that associated with Mr. Martin. In a single sentence, Mr. Martin not only employs two metonymies, but he also constructs them out of slang terms far removed from his usual vocabulary (and, not coincidentally, very close to those Mrs. Barrows utilizes). Like "rub out," these expressions signify the "strong" figurative, illogical language usage that Mr. Martin normally abhors precisely because of its illogic.
"Here's nuts," moreover, is a metonymy that operates on a low level of logical motivation (unlike, say, the metonymy of "nuts" for objects shaped like nuts, such as testes). The use of "nuts" here is more like the metonymy for mental illness ("He's nuts!") or excessive interest in something ("She's nuts about soccer."). "Nuts", in the sense used by Mr. Martin, may well be an expression of negative reaction (e.g., "Nuts! I have forgotten my umbrella."). But the combination of "Here's..." with "nuts" is a bi-metonym: a metaphorical substitution on top of, or in league with, the first substitution. This construction is like Lakoff's notion of "simultaneous mappings" in which "two different parts of a sentence...make use of two distinct metaphorical mappings at once" (219). (He uses the example: "within the coming weeks.") Like substituting "Geez!" for "Jesus!" as an exclamation, it lacks the semantic weight of the original metonym while nonetheless retaining its expressive/rhetorical force (like the operation behind onomatopoeia, but without the motivational conduit).
"Here's nuts..." also bathetically reverses the speech genre of the "toast", which is typically employed as a public articulation of praise or acknowledgement. The anticipation after the "Here's..." is that it will be followed by a positive descriptor of the subject of the toast. Everybody from F & S would believe Mrs. Barrows if she reported that Mr. Martin offered a positive toast to Mr. Fitweiler. A bi-metonymical toast insulting the president of F & S, on the other hand, would once again be "impossible" for them to accept.
The clinking of glasses effected by Mr. Martin heralds a symbolic shift in the predator-prey dynamic of this scene. If placing the drinks together on the table and inviting Mr. Martin to the sofa is accepted as an active "move" by Mrs. Barrows, then the clinking by Mr. Martin dismantles the active agent status she had initiated for herself. Suddenly, Mr. Martin is in the upperhand position (the catbird seat?) and this explains, in part, why Mrs. Barrows responds so strongly and negatively. If she had not, she would have effectively countenanced Mr. Martin's comments about Mr. Fitweiler, thereby joining his "team" and abandoning the one she had formed with Mr. Fitweiler.
And, the clinking is another metonymical action. The joining of glasses for a toast is usually a mutual undertaking. This activity can be forced on an unsuspecting agent who is within reach, however, and this is what Mr. Martin does -- in a manner similar to that of a player who initiates play with an unwilling player who is unable to resist being brought "into play." (This is not unlike Mr. Martin bursting through Mrs. Barrows's door at the beginning of this scene.) This gesture is metonymic as a figurative linking of sentiment, a form of symbolic body linkage that can, in turn, lead to further excursions out of the realm of formality and into the realm of intimacy. (A married friend of mine was propositioned in a bar by a woman who, as a form of a toast, clinked her glass against his wedding ring instead of the glass in his hand. This bi-metonym initiated her query about his assumed pledge of marital fidelity, as signified by the presence of his ring.)
Mr. Martin is able to maintain an outward appearance of self-control while drinking the alcohol he finds so distasteful which, like his resolve regarding his gloves, indicates that he can perform a role convincingly. (He also did this when he "puffed, not too awkwardly" on a cigarette.) When presented with a person he also finds distasteful (Mrs. Barrows), it will be recalled, he refuses to allow his revulsion to show through in his workplace persona. When he assumes this other persona in Mrs. Barrows's apartment, he does the same thing.
Mrs. Barrows's response to Mr. Martin's toast shifts her demeanor and accompanying discourse. She suddenly performs a different, professional role, as opposed to her convivial hostess role during Mr. Martin's visit so far. Her physical positioning and her vocal tones both change: she is no longer potentially flirtatious or even merely "social". Now, she is "all special adviser to the president," assuming the formal distantiation that, ironically, Mr. Martin always displays at work. The further irony of this role is that it, too, would be "impossible" for those at F & S to believe, given Mrs. Barrows's typically high-volume rambunctiousness there. Mr. Martin's refusal to countenance her formal, serious role suggests a literary encoding here, for it foreshadows Mr. Fitweiler's similar refusal later to believe her story about Mr. Martin's visit. Like ignoring the request to remove his gloves, Mr. Martin's continuation of this outrageous dialogue reaffirms his assertion of empowerment and Mrs. Barrows's own concomitant disempowerment:
"I am preparing a bomb," said Mr. Martin, "which will blow the old goat higher than hell." He had only had a little of the drink, which was not strong. It couldn' t be that. "Do you take dope or something?" Mrs. Barrows asked coldly. "Heroin," said Mr. Martin. "I'll be coked to the gills when I bump that old buzzard off."In addition to Mr. Martin's continued mix of metonyms and bi-metonyms, the narrator reveals that Mr. Martin himself is assessing the transformative action that is running its course here. Recall from Lecture 7 Roger Caillois's commentary on the production of vertigo through artificial stimulation (as opposed to spinning in place, for instance, or experiencing a terrifying brush with death). While Mr. Martin has probably induced minor intoxication by gulping his drink, he repeatedly suggests that the alcohol wasn't causing this behavior. (He thinks to himself: "It couldn't be that.") Of course, it could be that. After all, what does a teetotaler like Mr. Martin know about intoxication? Just because this statement about his condition originates (more or less directly) from himself, it doesn't mean that it is of greater validity as a consequence. (To return to earlier discussions in these lectures, the encoder certainly does not necessarily inhabit a privileged position in the process of signification.) In fact, one could argue that it is precisely the person consuming the alcohol who is least likely to be able to assess the degree of its influence on him by virtue of its impact on his assessment organs.
The play-theory view of vertigo provides another way to read this observation. Considering the substantial variation from his normal way of life, along with the energizing danger of performing "play" of this nature, Mr. Martin is evidently experiencing the uncalculatable transformation and exhilaration of a semiotic undertaking based on vertigo. Unlike the carefully planned elements of his action that are vulnerable to dissolution if any uncontrollable variation intrudes (such as the absence of a suitable murder instrument), this presentation is inspired, spontaneous, and seemingly self-generating. That Mr. Martin refers to this sensation as the vaguely polysemic "it" ("It couldn' t be that." ) suggests that he even lacks a satisfactory term in his vocabulary to describe what is taking place.
Another assessment of Mr. Martin's self-evaluation is that it suggests his behavior is potentially intentional. Not in the sense that he has pre-planned this presentation, because it is noted that the idea suddenly sprang up during his interaction with Mrs. Barrows. Nevertheless, this is part of a controlled engagement with vertigo: he has not abandoned himself to the dangerous, unsustainable vertigo that Caillois aligns with eventual self-dissolution. From this perspective, if Mr. Martin is, accordingly, having an "intoxicating" experience, it is driven by the forces of a "natural" (or "intentional", or "contained") vertigo.
This type of experience is remarkably similar to the control of an array of readings by an author of an open work, in Eco's view. In effect, Mr. Martin has not abandoned himself to the chaotic throes of intoxication (or, for Eco, an anarchic "unlimited semiosis"). He is, instead, engaging in the imaginative flow of a transformative, exhilarating vertigo while still retaining a vestige of self-control. Again, from a play standpoint, this is more like participating in a demolition derby, or even an actual automobile race, as opposed to the tightly controlled thrill of the bumper car. Mr. Martin could, after all, lose his job for doing this. And, considering the extent to which his life is inextricably connected with his work identity, he is running a serious risk indeed. But, then again, he considers Mrs. Barrows's recent interest in his department as a prelude to something like that happening anyway, so what he is actually undertaking (it could be argued, at least) is a dangerous counterplay to the play move that Mrs. Barrows appears to be on the cusp of executing.
Finally, the "value" of Mr. Martin's fairly spontaneous plan is grounded by this reflection on his part. Like poetry that is somehow aligned with inspiration but nevertheless shows all the earmarks of careful, subsequent revision, Mr. Martin's plan is not a wholly arbitrary, accidental, chance-oriented affair. Rather, there is again a form of intention behind it -- an element of craft, in other words. This frames not only the preceding outrageous utterances he makes, but the increasingly outrageous ones that follow as well (the heroin references, etc.). To return to Eco's commentary on the control of the open work, recall that he uses this regimentation to distinguish a Work from a non-Work. (Mr. Martin's handling of unanticipated alcoholic consumption by appearing skilled and nonchalant about doing so is a good illustration of this. It's not as though this performance is wholly accidental, without an element of control within it. But, at the same time, he couldn't have anticipated this development ahead of time either, so there is a distinct element of spontaneity involved.)
This contention of self-possession is brought up again upon his return to his own apartment. "He felt elated," the narrator notes. "It wasn't tipsiness, because he hadn't been tipsy. Anyway, the walk had worn off all effects of the whisky" (15). One has to wonder, however, why Thurber includes this second assessment about Mr. Martin's elation. Is this to prompt the reader to speculate, as I suggest above, that maybe Mr. Martin was somewhat inebriated and it was, in fact, this artificial stimulation, and not spontaneous acumen on Mr. Martin's part, that was responsible for the bizarre outbursts regarding his purported plan?
Or, does it serve, through reiteration, to corroborate his earlier contention that "It couldn't be that"? In this latter rendition, his subsequent, "sober" evaluation of his behavior would seem to more "objectively" reinforce the assessment he made in Mrs. Barrows's apartment.
Or, it could be the result of a later evaluation of guilt arising from outrageous behavior he engaged in while slightly drunk. (From a biographical-code standpoint, this would certainly coincide with Thurber's own personal behavior, as his biographies agree. He was famous for inexcusably inappropriate behavior while drinking and then apologizing engagingly the next day. At least one of his short stories (in The Thurber Carnival ) reinforces this. "Something to Say" focuses on a character, Elliot Vereker, who specializes in social violation. After misbehaving at one of his own parties, he sent the offended individual a note that read: "'I shall never ask you to my house again...after the way I acted last Saturday night'" . The narrator notes that Vereker's "repentances, while whimsical, were always as complete as the erratic charades which called them forth.")
Mrs. Barrows's response to Mr. Martin's crazy behavior is to signal the end of the visit, which in part is an attempt to regain some of the authority she has lost (in her own apartment, moreover!) by the unanticipated visit. While she did not initiate the visit, she had displayed the modicum of power still available to her by inviting him in and initially directing the blocking of his visit. Her decision to end the visit, then, signifies an effort to return to that initial power position in relation to Mr. Martin. Immediately after the heroin-and-bomb remark:
"Mr. Martin!" she shouted, getting to her feet. "That will be all of that. You must go at once." Mr. Martin took another swallow of his drink. He tapped his cigarette out in the ashtray and put the pack of Camels on the coffee table. Then he got up. She stood glaring at him. He walked over and put on his hat and coat. "Not a word about this," he said, and laid an index finger against his lips. All Mrs. Barrows could bring out was "Really!" Mr. Martin put his hand on the doorknob. "I'm sitting in the catbird seat," he said. He stuck his tongue at her and left. Nobody saw him go. (14-15)This conclusion to Mr. Martin's performance is a display of masterful calm with an accompanying anticipation of the impact of his actions suggested by Mrs. Barrows's response. While Mrs. Barrows is no longer employing metonymy in her initial command, she has asserted herself through the use of an ejaculation, several imperatives, and a "shout" delivery. In the face of this set of strong commands by a superior from work, however, Mr. Martin repeatedly shows self-possession. Given an order for immediate dispersal, he takes a "swallow" of his drink, as opposed to a hurried gulp or a needlessly insolent, leisurely sip. That he "tapped" out his cigarettes and "put" the package on the table are likewise indications, it could be said, that he is not intimidated, especially considering alternative means for doing this in ways that signify other connotations. (E.g., grinding out the cigarette angrily in an ashtray or flicking it forcefully at Mrs. Barrows; crushing up and throwing the package on the table; or, betraying his intention of leaving behind an artifact that no one would believe he would haved possessed.)
Mr. Martin's act of "getting up" in a seemingly leisurely, self-directed fashion implies additionally that he is not granting any significant power to Mrs. Barrows in relation to her demand that he leave. Mr. Martin has any number of arising actions at his disposal to demonstrate a wide array of significative valences, but "getting up" connotes a type of unstudied non-direction, like "getting up" from bed in the morning. But, her stance clearly signifies anger and firmness as she remains "glaring at him" after her command. His response to the attempted scopic enforcement of her power is not only non-reactive, it is an active indication of new agency. In other words, it's almost as though Mr. Martin decided on his own to leave regardless of what Mrs. Barrows has been doing or demanding. This is indicated, possibly, by the description of his having "walked over and put on his hat and coat." His locomotion could be described in many explicitly connotative ways (he stamped, he shuffled meekly in contrition, etc.), but "walked" implies a neutrality that, again, (like getting up) only reinforces his retention of the upperhand he has apparently gained from this exchange.
His closing three gestures further strengthen this stance through markers of leisurely self-possession, if not nakedly aggressive displays of his power. The bi-metonym of the finger against his lips suggests at least the silencing gesture of an authority figure (e.g., a librarian gesturing toward a noisy patron). Or, it could be viewed as the figurative suture of open lips through a form of phallic binding that silences, in this case, a female speaker. The hand on the doorknob dramatizes his success as being able to control the dynamics in her home environment (after all, he's opening her door), a co-option he had initiated by the unannounced drop-in visit by a relative stranger. And the tongue protrusion articulates a victory in which he shows Mrs. Barrows something he still has after symbolically disabling hers.
Sticking out his tongue also can be viewed as a demonstration of a return of the supremacy of the phallic order. Or, as in the case of Dostoevsky's Underground Man, it could signify an insolent unwillingness to be part of a larger hegemonic order. Or, it could reveal that his immaturity remains at the end of this encounter, perhaps even stronger than ever. Or, it could simply be a return to childlike exuberance in which such practices are acceptable. Or, finally, it could stand as something that Mr. Martin is known to be utterly incapable of doing (it would be "impossible"), and therefore no one would believe her when Mrs. Barrows reports it.
Little comment should be necessary at this point on Mr. Martin's accompanying exclamation. "'I'm sitting in the catbird seat'" functions as a form of stichomythia in which he rearticulates Mrs. Barrows's utterance with an entirely different metonymical valence than it had when she employed it. To trope on a boxing metonymy (i.e., rope-a-dope), one could say that, by using of the same expression with a different semiotic register, Mr. Martin "tropes-a-dope," as Kimberly Benston describes such an action (cited in Gates, 52). Through this operation, his expression actually functions as a trope of a trope, or even as Harold Bloom suggests, "trope-as-defense" (Poetry 10). From Bloom's perspective, within a competitive semiotic arena, "a trope's revenge is against an earlier trope." And, finally, as Lakoff and Johnson note, there is a potential systemic coherence of metaphors based on "front-back organization" (Metaphors 41-2). The same is true in the metonymies in "The Catbird Seat" with in-out arrangements and the illocutionary speech-act (and speech/act) force that places Mr. Martin, in this particular instance, "in" the catbird seat.
That Mrs. Barrows can only "bring out" a lexically nonsensical ejaculation ("Really!") additionally implies further diminution of her linguistic powers. Far below "shouting" or "braying", and even below the neutral "said", this agency is itself a metonymy of her own disempowerment. Bringing out an utterance is characteristic of the least accomplished forms of language use, a low-level utterance which is reinforced by its linguistic vacuity as merely an articulation of amazed and impotent befuddlement.
The exchange that takes place between Mr. Martin and Mrs. Barrows after Mr. Martin has begun to formulate his impromptu plan differs for each participant. Mrs. Barrows presumably believes she is engaging in a genuine -- albeit encoded as "social" -- dialogue between them. Mr. Martin, to the contrary, knows that he is putting on a "false" performance (as opposed to sincerely acting in a socially genial manner) -- the trans-linguistic speech/act mentioned earlier. What Mrs. Barrows doesn't realize is that the side of Mr. Martin she thinks she is seeing is, in fact, one that nobody who thinks they know Mr. Martin (based on his workplace behavior) would believe. Mr. Martin's behavior in the workplace following his visit serves to corroborate their belief along these lines, and correspondingly discredits Mrs. Barrows's report as a bizarre pyschological aberration on her part.
Mr. Martin gave her a look of shocked surprise. "I beg your pardon?" he said. Mrs. Barrows snorted and bounced out of the room, leaving Miss Paird and Joey Hart staring after her. "What's the matter with that old devil now?" asked Miss Paird. "I have no idea," said Mr. Martin, resuming his work. The other two looked at him and then at each other.The contrast between the speech connotations of Mr. Martin and Mrs. Barrows is revealing in this exchange: it is the reverse of the closing dynamic in Mrs. Barrows's apartment the previous evening. Both of Mr. Martin's utterances show relatively high formality and restraint (the first is a question containing two markers of high politeness). Both are merely "said". Moreover, Mr. Martin's "I beg..." is linguistically empty in the same way that Mrs. Barrows's "Really!" was the night before. Mrs. Barrows's utterances, on the other hand, are framed in animal-like connotations of sweeping, bouncing, and snorting. Moreover, this speech genre of "the confrontation" reinforces the selves that Mr. Martin and Mrs. Barrows are known as at work (e.g., "What's the matter with that old devil now?"). This is reiterated by Miss Paird's remark about Mrs. Barrows's previous behavior as well as their relative lack of astonishment at Mr. Martin's display of reserve in the face of her outrageousness. She has, after all, accused him of doing something illegal (something he actually has done) and has threatened to "turn him in" to the reigning authority figure on hand who could, in turn, call upon an even higher level of authority: the police.
Mr. Martin's assistants, furthermore, serve as reactors to this scene; witnesses who, on a second order, reveal the type of response uninformed decoders are likely to have under the circumstances. ("Uninformed" in the sense that they know nothing about Mr. Martin's actions the night before. They are, however, "informed" by considerable information about Mr. Martin's and Mrs. Barrows's characters through extended exposure at work. In this capacity, then, they generate a sense of a given "context". In light of their ignorance of what took place between Mr. Martin and Mrs. Barrows, this is a reasonable dramatization of how they might respond to Mrs. Barrows's outburst. They are, in this sense, like Eco's Model Readers who, knowledgeable about a given semiotic circumstance, react in a fairly predictable manner.)
In fact, one could argue that their reaction -- along with Mr. Fitweiler's just a few minutes later -- is exactly what Mr. Martin was counting on as he formulated his spontaneous plan variation in Mrs. Barrows's apartment. Since it is "impossible" that Mr. Martin would act the way he did ("impossible" at least to these three people), nobody would believe Mrs. Barrows's account, even though it is truthful. This demonstrates a crucial component of semiotics, one embodied in Eco's famous declaration that semiotics is the study of how to lie. For, after all, signification by no means is limited to conveying the truth. In effect, one could say, abstractly, that it can never convey the truth: the sign is always something that stands for something to someone, rather than standing for itself. Consider the pack of cigarettes Mr. Martin left behind. They are a true token of his visit, but this truth is not immanent within them -- Mrs. Barrows cannot produce it convincingly. At the same time, Mr. Martin's use of this token to signify falsehood is a crucial part of his plan ("a small red herring").
The final scene in the story marks another shift. It takes place in the president' s office where Mrs. Barrows is having a "closed door" discussion with Mr. Fitweiler about her experience with Mr. Martin the night before. This domain (as was seen with the workplace proper, Mr. Martin's apartment, and Mrs. Barrows's apartment) has a significative effect related to the actions that take place within it. As with the scene-act ratio (to borrow a concept from Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives ) related to Mr. Martin's appearance in Mrs. Barrows's apartment, a similarly symbolic register is established by Mr. Fitweiler's office as a semiotic arena. It is the highest locus of authority in the company. Furthermore, it signifies Mrs. Barrows's prominent alignment with this authority as long as she is allied with Mr. Fitweiler. Additionally, Mr. Martin's long-standing alliance with Mr. Fitweiler (as demonstrated by his earlier approval of Mr. Schlosser's encomium regarding Mr. Martin's virtues) has been potentially displaced by the newer alliance between Mrs. Barrows and Mr. Fitweiler. His office, accordingly, could be cathected into a site of possible, and even probable, threat to Mr. Martin's entire world -- at least as it relates to the significance of his job to it, which seems substantial to Mr. Martin.
Given that Mrs. Barrows has begun to displace Mr. Martin, and that Mr. Martin has schemed to "rub out" Mrs. Barrows and regain his previous stature, Mr. Fitweiler's office holds the potential for a reintegrative display. Symoblically, however, one could view this development as establishing Mr. Martin in the "father" role of the familial paradigm of the workplace by situating Mr. Fitweiler as the prodigal "son". According to this dynamic, Mr. Fitweiler "erred" by allowing Mrs. Barrows to engage in activities evidently inferior to the previous tradition, as is suggested by the reaction of several employees to her decisions as an efficiency expert. Furthermore, Mrs. Barrows's gender is significant as this development reinforces the war between the sexes that appears throughout Thurber's work and life. Thurber' s life was full of intense "homosocial" relations (Sedgwick, Between Men ) with other men that were, in Thurber' s view, disrupted by the intrusion of a woman. This, in part, seems to account for his well-known beratings of women, especially wives of his friends. (This, of course, is based solely on biographical "fictions" of Thurber's life which have no absolute authority, admittedly.)
E. B. White's commentary on Thurber may be more informed than that of biographers who did not have extensive contact with him. In the course of his almost career-long friendship with Thurber, White knew him especially well. Significantly, in their co-authored sex manual farce Is Sex Necessary?, White notes that "a strong undercurrent of grief runs through" Thurber's drawings (189). "In almost every instance the man in the picture is badly frightened, or even hurt." White identifies the "distinct type" of what he calls "Thurber men":
they are frustrated, fugitive beings; at times they seem vaguely striving to get out of something without being seen (a room, a situation, a state of mind), at other times they are merely perplexed and too humble, or weak, to move. The women ...are quite different: tempermentally they are much better adjusted to their surroundings than are the men, and mentally they are much less capable of making themselves uncomfortable.Note that this characterization of Thurber appeared in a work he co-wrote, so presumably Thurber had relative agreement with, if not actual endorsement of, this assessment.
The parallels between Thurber's concerns with sexual politics and the closing scenario between Mr. Martin and Mr. Fitweiler should be entertainable at this point. What Mr. Fitweiler has to symbolically enact is an apostasy of his belief in the personal adviser he had entrusted in order to return to the "fold" of the previously existing order in which Mr. Martin's value was recognized. While this earlier order was not explicitly gendered male (women work in the F & S office), the place of women was subservient, not powerful. In other words, they were allowed to work at F & S, evidently, as long as they didn' t attempt to disrupt the comfortable (and arguably "male") system that had been established over the years.
Mr. Fitweiler, though, saw Mrs. Barrows's presence as enlivening. Recall that she rescued him from a boring man at a party and worked magic upon him. Clearly, Mr. Fitweiler sensed a transformative potential that could be cultivated through Mrs. Barrows and that was what he was trying to encourage by allowing her to effect radical changes in the established system of F & S. At the end of the story, then, he has to acknowledge the superiority of the (male-dominated) status quo in order to reclaim the symbolic position he had inhabited (somewhat stagnantly) before. This is what can take place, arguably, only in Mr. Fitweiler's office (which itself is a synecdoche for the larger, overall office space of F & S and a metonymy for the company's System).
That Mr. Fitweiler's office constitutes a divisive barrier is demonstrated when Miss Paird investigates Mrs. Barrows's discussion with Mr. Fitweiler after she sweeps indignantly through the office:
Miss Paird got up and went out. She walked slowly past the closed door of Mr. Fitweiler' s office. Mrs. Barrows was yelling inside, but she was not braying. Miss Paird could not hear what the woman was saying. She went back to her desk. (15)This rather unremarkable passage is freighted with considerable suggestion. Once more, Mr. Fitweiler's office stands as a token of power consolidated and constituted through controlled accessibility. Note the contiguity between the sole means of entry to Mr. Fitweiler's office and the fact that it's "closed". Moreover, look at the dysfunctional behavior it inculcates. Rather than allowing Mr. Martin to participate in planning the anticipated reorganization of his department, "the enchanted Mr. Fitweiler" is likely instead to simply issue a "blue memo...bearing nonsensical instructions deriving from the obscene woman" (11). Likewise, Miss Paird has to resort to subterfuge and eavesdropping: in order to find out what's going on, she has to eavesdrop. (Mr. Martin earlier notes, via the narrator, that "Mr. Martin got the story [of how Mr. Fitweiler met Mrs. Barrows] from Miss Paird, who seemed always able to find things out" .)
By extension, think how this contrasts with management expressions such as an "open-door policy" or "my door is always open" which connote free employer-employee interaction. "Door" thus metonymizes exclusion. (The narrator remarks earlier that, from Mr. Martin's perspective, immediately upon Mrs. Barrows's arrival "confusion got its foot in the door " .) The door to Mr. Martin's office is one such entryway vulnerable to destructive intrusion. The day that Mrs. Barrows visits Mr. Martin to survey his office, for instance, his door cannot protect him. She dramatizes this as she stood in his doorway before her departure and "bawled" a remark at him. But, only the tonal register of loud speech escapes the walls of Mr. Fitweiler's office during Mrs. Barrows's later, irate visit.
Additionally, consider Miss Paird's dramatizations of (what could be gendered as) female subservience. Shut out from the discussion between two powerful members of F & S (one, a woman who has leapfrogged over her under unclear circumstances), Miss Paird can discern only that Mrs. Barrows "was yelling inside, but she was not braying." Already, one can sense a return to feminine diminution that will reactively accompany Mrs. Barrows's disempowerment. By eavesdropping, Miss Paird is effectively making the most powerful sally available to her in terms of approaching the inner circle of power. When she returns to her desk after this move, it appears that she has made no gain in her power-acquisition endeavor.
But, there is an informational "gain" in the noted change of register in Mrs. Barrows's intonation. Yelling, not braying -- consider the shift between human orientations (do animals yell?) and animal ones. If this suggests a continued slide in Mrs. Barrows's power, then indeed Miss Paird has learned something useful, especially because Mrs. Barrows and Mr. Fitweiler are unaware that the employees know about this shift. (Goffman refers to this as "unknown-about knowing" [Stigma 67]. This will be significant later when Mr. Martin first enters the office after Mrs. Barrows's yelling incident, as well as when the other office members are called in to help subdue Mrs. Barrows.) In other words, when Mrs. Barrows launches into her revelation of Mr. Martin's plan to Mr. Fitweiler, she does not know that her audience already possesses information about the recent plummet in her power at F & S. Mr. Martin, on the other hand, is evidently well aware of this sudden shift, and arguably takes further advantage of it in the closing scenes.
The subtle nuances that signify this shift appear again in the description of Mrs. Barrows's next action: "Forty-five minutes later" after Miss Paird's surveillance, "Mrs. Barrows left the president's office and went into her own, shutting the door" (15). That she "leaves" hardly suggests the confident bravado of her earlier actions that were explosive, to say the least ("she swept into his office," etc.). The same is true for "shutting" her door. While not "slamming", it's not quite as neutral as "closing", either. It certainly thus suggests a transitional phase of door-signification as indicated by the accent of character/door interaction.
What follows is the enactment of an interrogation scenario in which a subaltern is summoned into the office of the most powerful figure in the company:
It wasn't until half an hour later that Mr. Fitweiler sent for Mr. Martin. The head of the filing department, neat, quiet, attentive, stood in front of the old man's desk. Mr. Fitweiler was pale and nervous. He took his glasses off and twiddled them. He made a small, bruffing sound in his throat. (15)Here, it appears that Mr. Fitweiler is apprehensive about something, even though, technically speaking, he should always be occupying the catbird seat at work because he's the president. (He still has the power, after all, to summon someone [he "sent for" for Mr. Martin], so apparently he retains the substantial agency of authority commensurate with his position.) Somewhat mysteriously, Mr. Fitweiler's summons and Mr. Martin's appearance hinge on an actantial elision: no mention is made of Mr. Martin's locomotive accent. While Thurber may have done this for economy or simply as an inadvertent omission, its absence nevertheless suggests a reinforcement of the power behind Mr. Fitweiler's summons, insofar as he makes a command and suddenly Mr. Martin appears without a locomotive trace.
Strangely enough, the presence of a meek, mild filing clerk seems to have disconcerted Mr. Fitweiler somehow. What has taken place up to this point, however, has been radically challenged by Mr. Martin's current appearance and his extensive reputation established over 22 years of interaction with Mr. Fitweiler. Even though Mrs. Barrows was an eye-witness to Mr. Martin's outrageous behavior, her testimony is obviously challenged by his calm demeanor and his reputation. If anything, one would expect Mr. Martin to be the one twiddling with his glasses and making bruffing sounds under these circumstances (especially since he's guilty and could lose his job at the least as a consequence). This power dynamic reversal signifies Mr. Martin's return of membership within Mr. Fitweiler's circle. At the same time, it again establishes Mr. Fitweiler, paradoxically, as the prodigal son engaging in a return: Mr. Martin had been present in the company during the entire span of Mrs. Barrows's employ. (In fact, Mr. Fitweiler's prodigality may be aligned with a debilitating senescence as well, in light of the repeated references to his increasingly feeble condition.)
What Mr. Fitweiler is facing, though, is a clash of fiercely competing sign complexes. He has repeatedly shown a willingness to uncritically accept Mrs. Barrows's opinion after she worked her "monstrous magic" on him. Even when a senior employee challenged her politely, Mr. Fitweiler intractably supported her vision for reshaping the firm. In other words, Mr. Fitweiler has demonstrated complete faith in Mrs. Barrows's re-encoding of the System of F & S (a system, evidently, that he coauthored with Mr. Schlosser), and this is what he has to symbolically repent.
Presumably, Mrs. Barrows gave an accurate -- albeit metonymical -- account of Mr. Martin's visit to her apartment when she had just reported to Mr. Fitweiler. Once more, considering these precedents, it is Mr. Martin who should be nervous. For Mr. Martin to show anxiety at this moment, however, would betoken the slimmest shred of plausibility to Mrs. Barrows's narrative. Moreover, the narrator metonymizes Mr. Martin's presentation of self here: "The head of the filing department, neat, quiet, attentive, stood in front of the old man's desk." A body synecdoche (head) is thus mapped onto a personification of a physical, inanimate entity through this expression. Given that Mr. Martin's self is wholly aligned with his professional identity, it is appropriate that the narrator characterizes him in this fashion. It is almost as though Mr. Martin lacks any of the human characteristics that would make Mrs. Barrows's report even remotely believable if it were about anybody else in the firm. Mr. Martin is not a person to Mr. Fitweiler, in other words; he is a metaphor. (It could be added that Mr. Fitweiler is beginning to suspect the logically figurative field Mr. Martin represents is preferable to Mrs. Barrows's metonymical field, although this very difference had been what purchased her entrance into his domain of power to begin with.)
This shows, too, that Mr. Fitweiler -- a decidedly human, faulty figure -- lacks the ability to conceal his distress, unlike the self-containment that Mr. Martin demonstrates in a superior fashion earlier. Remember that the few details revealing Mr. Martin's uneasiness at work the day of the "rub out" were so pedestrian that nobody noticed them, except the narrator who remarks on how they went unnoticed. (One sign of Mr. Martin's nervousness during the day of the plan execution while he was at work was needless eyeglass polishing -- but, in his case, it went unnoticed.) In this sense, however, Mr. Fitweiler's nervousness is noticed by the narrator. It is an observational notice -- what the reader sees through the narrator's eyes is also presumably what Mr. Martin sees. But, the only person besides the narrator who "saw" Mr. Martin's nervousness earlier was Mr. Martin himself.
Mr. Fitweiler initiates the scene:
"Martin," he said, "you have been with us more than twenty years." "Twenty-two, sir," said Mr. Martin. "In that time," pursued the president, "your work and your -- uh -- manner have been exemplary." "I trust so, sir," said Mr. Martin. "I have understood, Martin," said Mr. Fitweiler, "that you have never taken a drink or smoked." "That is correct, sir," said Mr. Martin. "Ah, yes." Mr. Fitweiler polished his glasses. (15)Here, Mr. Fitweiler is revealing anxiety through his vocalized hesitation and nervous behavior of polishing glasses that probably didn't need polishing. Mr. Martin, on the other hand, responds concisely, ending each statement with a marker of high politeness. Additionally, his vocabulary consists of tokens of refinement and coalition building. (He provides a precise, reinforcing "22" in response to Mr. Fitweiler's approximate "more than twenty" that doesn't challenge the accuracy of the latter's approximation; a metonymy of "trust" is employed; and an affirmation of Mr. Fitweiler's correctness is offered.)
A further indication of the inverted power dynamics between the two appears when Mr. Fitweiler invites Mr. Martin to recount his actions of the previous evening. After polishing his glasses, he says: "'You may describe what you did after leaving the office yesterday, Martin'" (15). (A repeated articulation of power differential appears in the means of address between the two men. Mr. Martin refers to Mr. Fitweiler as "sir", while Mr. Fitweiler refers to him only as "Martin", clearing indicating who is in the position of greater authority insofar as, in the United States in the early 1940s, calling someone by his last name alone would suggest not only intimacy, but also greater prominence for the speaker over the addressee. The reverse would be true for Mr. Martin's addresses to Mr. Fitweiler. This is one of the few points in the story where a last name is used without a preceding indication of status, too. "Joey Hart" indicates his lesser position at F & S in that he is referred to by his full name but with the diminutive variant for his first name.)
The request -- "May I..." -- is inverted here in Mr. Fitweiler's invitation. Rather than a marker of his own deference, this inversion initiates action to be undertaken by someone who has to ask permission from the other speaker. Thus, "May I describe..." (spoken by the lesser figure) is co-opted and rearticulated as "You may describe..." (spoken by the greater figure). This presumes that the lesser figure's willingness to comply is implicit, based on his subaltern status and the control of the speech scenario by the figure possessing greater power.
Many readers of this story have mentioned that this invitation is insulting, and if it had been made to them under similar circumstances it may well have elicited at least a hesitation, if not an actual protest of invasion of privacy. This invitation takes place at a time, however, when such invasions may not have seemed quite as unacceptable as they are now in the hyper-sensitive workplace in the United States of the 1990s. Almost surprisingly, then, Mr. Martin in fact hesitates at this invitation. But, he only "allowed less than a second for his bewildered pause" (15). "Allowed" reveals a great deal about Mr. Martin's pause. Clearly, he has such self-control at this moment that he doesn't permit himself to show understandable anger over this obtrusion, genuine bewilderment (since presumably this outcome has been what he expected), or genuine anxiety (because, again, what he has done could get him fired if Mr. Fitweiler believed Mrs. Barrows). Accordingly, the register of bewilderment in his pause is wholly fabricated. Thus, what Mr. Fitweiler perceives is not real, but feigned bewilderment.
Moreover, when Mr. Martin completes this display, he acquiesces politely and strategically ("Certainly, sir.") and then pauses again before giving a dispassionate, true account of his usual evening routine. Although this account varies somewhat from his actual activities of the previous evening, it does sound plausibly enough like his regular behavior to elicit from Fitweiler only: "'Ah, yes'" (16). Mr. Martin's substantial capacity to feign emotional detachment and denial of self-hood is brought up once more when, as Mr. Fitweiler decides who is telling the truth here, the narrator notes: Mr. Fitweiler "was silent for a moment, searching for the proper words to say to the head of the filing department." Mr. Fitweiler's silence in this scene prefigures his previously mentioned voluntary return to the System of F & S which Mr. Martin represents synecdochically, as the "head" metaphor suggests again. Symbolically, Mr. Fitweiler has to adopt a mantle of (admittedly self-directed) contrition in order to make this return, as is suggested not only by his silence here, but also by his subsequently apologetic description of Mrs. Barrows's instability:
"Mrs. Barrows," he said finally, "Mrs. Barrows has worked hard, Martin, very hard. It grieves me to report that she has suffered a severe breakdown. It has taken the form of a persecution complex accompanied by distressing hallucinations." "I am very sorry, sir," said Mr. Martin. "Mrs. Barrows is under the delusion," continued Mr. Fitweiler, "that you visited her last evening and behaved yourself in an -- uh -- unseemly manner." He raised his hand to silence Mr. Martin's little pained outcry. (16)Mr. Fitweiler's speech is riddled with indications of hesitation and vulnerability which could be readily configured as markers of his self-diminution associated with gradual reentry into the System. The repetitions, along with the articulated "uh" that indicates Mr. Fitweiler is selecting an appropriately inoffensive term, suggest that Mr. Martin, who has consistently maintained his position within the System, still has a form of symbolic superiority over the temporarily lapsed Mr. Fitweiler. Mr. Fitweiler's literal superiority over Mr. Martin remains, of course, as is indicated by Mr. Martin's use once again of "sir". And, that Mr. Fitweiler can literally silence Mr. Martin by a mere raising of his hand reinforces this. (On this phenomenon, see Barthes, "Power and 'Cool'," and Simpkins, "The Economy of the Gesture.") Yet, it appears that Martin is continuing his fabricated display, so that the "little pained outcry" could be seen as merely another feigned articulation that works in league with Mr. Fitweiler's incipient resumption of power within the System. While Mr. Martin's silencing is of his own volition, this action reinforces Mr. Fitweiler's confidence in his ability to regain his former position of respect at F & S. In other words, Mr. Martin is engaging in strategically empowering self-silencing, not unlike female characters in late-eighteenth-century and early-nineteenth-century British novels who use silence as a powerful means of manipulating others. In effect, then, this dramatization of Mr. Martin's vocal disempowerment can be viewed as a display of his real -- but unknown to Mr. Fitweiler -- power.
(This uneasiness contrasts with the uneasiness Mr. Martin shows when he first enters Mrs. Barrows's apartment, although with opposite consequences. Mr. Fitweiler curiously assumes a weak posture in front of Mr. Martin, a subordinate; Mr. Martin shows genuine nervousness in anticipation of having to kill the person he is exchanging pleasantries with.)
Of greater significance is Mr. Fitweiler's subsequent revelation that, in the time that elapsed between Mrs. Barrows's departure from his office and Mr. Martin's summons, Mr. Fitweiler had a phone converation with his male psychiatrist, Dr. Fitch. As Mr. Fitweiler notes, following Mrs. Barrows's outburst, "'I suspected a condition at once'" (16). Through this consultation with a male representative of the medical field, Mr. Fitweiler has further buttressed his alliance with the System through a theoretical rationalization for disbelieving Mrs. Barrows. "'It is the nature of these psychological diseases,'" Mr. Fitweiler tells Mr. Martin, "'to fix upon the least likely and most innocent party as the -- uh -- source of persecution.'" While mouthing Dr. Fitch's diagnosis -- one made by phone secondhand, remember, in which one male recounts to another male a female's speech about yet another male -- Mr. Fitweiler has not yet fully ascended to his previous power position within the System. But, through the dual cooperation of Mr. Martin and Dr. Fitch, he is on his way.
Mr. Fitweiler's reliance upon Mr. Martin to accomplish this is revealed in his sliding logic which assesses Mr. Martin as the "most innocent" because he is "the least likely." Additionally, Mrs. Barrows's emphasis on Mr. Martin is cast as the result of a fixation, a form of concentration that extends beyond reasonable duration and is typically employed in constructing a hysteria narrative that disempowers women. Consequently, one potentially false condition (Mr. Martin's long-established public character, which is wholly susceptible to fabrication unknown to his fellow employees) is employed to extend logically to his innocence. Even though this argument is vulnerable to fallacy, it nevertheless serves satisfactorily as a means of erecting a rational scaffolding to justify Mr. Fitweiler's return to the fold without lessening his status by admitting previous error in judgment about Mrs. Barrows.
This shift in allegiance is heralded by Mrs. Barrows's response to Mr. Fitweiler's suggestion that she seek treatment from Dr. Fitch. "'I suggested to Mrs. Barrows when she had completed her -- uh -- story to me this morning, that she visit Dr. Fitch, for I suspected a condition at once,'" Mr. Fitweiler relates to Mr. Martin (16). "'She flew, I regret to say, into a rage, and demanded -- uh -- requested that I call you on the carpet.'" Note here that Mr. Fitweiler uses an animal-based metonymy (actually, it's more of a catachresis) to describe Mrs. Barrows's reaction, indicating that her rhetorical power, which had been manifested successfully in metonymy before, is now precisely the very thing that works against her. The account of events that she presents as true is reconfigured by Mr. Fitweiler after a significant pause as a "story", which would certainly indicate a reduction of her power, as is further suggested by Mr. Fitweiler's pause and subsequent revision of his initial word choice ("demanded") into the subservient "requested".
Mr. Fitweiler is endeavoring to present a company image of himself that is newly distanced from Mrs. Barrows, as these elements attest. Now, Mrs. Barrows is a storyteller rather than a visionary. She is no longer capable of effectively making demands to Mr. Fitweiler (or so he claims): instead, she is now at a much lower level of power because, after all, Mr. Fitweiler can no longer continue to be thought of by his employees as someone Mrs. Barrows can order around. Additionally, given the relatively monologic discourse arena at F & S, in which employees have to gather information second- or thirdhand, Mr. Fitweiler has provided Mr. Martin with narrative tokens that he can disseminate around the office (probably indirectly through Miss Paird, moreover). These narratives could then frame Mr. Fitweiler's return to the System in a manner that recuperates his stature that was diminished as a result of his previous trust in Mrs. Barrows as a special adviser.
Mr. Fitweiler is choosing his words carefully for two reasons: to signify his renewed alliance with the System, and to provide the vocabulary for describing that renewal. This is reinforced when Mr. Fitweiler adds: "'You may not know, Martin, but Mrs. Barrows had planned a reorganization of your department -- subject to my approval, of course, subject to my approval.'" Here, Mr. Fitweiler is supplying additional narrative information that had been classified, so to speak, as confidential and kept out of circulation among the other employees. While this confirms Mr. Martin's earlier suspicions about the threat to his department, it also confirms that Mr. Martin could not have known about this threat ahead of time. Therefore, it also could not be said that he had a motive for attempting to discredit Mrs. Barrows. Mr. Fitweiler's repeated reference to the preservation of his authority during Mrs. Barrows's tenure as his adviser further hints that he wants the employees to frame his authority as intact once again. Additionally, it intimates his preference that the employees cooperate in pretending that he hadn't been under her sway, even though it was clear he had been. His repetition of this observation could be seen as both evidence of his nervousness (is he protesting too much?) and an effort to be sure that it is recalled later for narrative distribution.
Mr. Fitweiler's final observation in this exchange identifies the team alliance shift that has taken place following his abandonment of Mrs. Barrows. Mrs. Barrows's preoccupation with reorganizing the filing department "'brought you, rather than anyone else, to her mind,'" Mr. Fitweiler tells Mr. Martin, and then pauses before continuing. "'But again that is a phenomenon for Dr. Fitch and not for us. So, Martin, I am afraid Mrs. Barrrows' usefulness here is at an end'" (16). Two male-based "teams" (Goffman, Presentation 77-105) are established here at the expense of the previous one consisting of Mr. Fitweiler and Mrs. Barrows. (This desire would also be consistent, from a biographical standpoint, of Thurber's frequent cultivation of homosocial relations with older, "experienced" males [original New Yorker editor, Harold Ross, in particular] who provided him with models for crafting his own adult male Self.) For, Dr. Fitch and Mr. Fitweiler function as a team whose authority is established by the predominantly (even more so in the 1940s) male-based medical establishment (the same people who brought us "hysteria").
Mr. Fitweiler's use of "us" indicates that he also is forming a team with Mr. Martin. Mr. Martin's scripted response to Mr. Fitweiler's last comment is designed to reinforce Mr. Fitweiler's renewed status of company respect. In order to construct this alliance, Mr. Martin has to agree with Mr. Fitweiler that Mrs. Barrows had at some point been "useful" to F & S. And, if Mr. Martin agrees, then Mr. Fitweiler will in turn agree that Mrs. Barrows's purported usefulness is now "at an end." Mr. Martin's reply, indeed, confirms his willingness to enter into this contract. He responds: "'I am dreadfully sorry, sir.'" Note, too, that both speakers employ exaggerated forms of fear, dread and sorrow in their remarks, as if to suggest that future commentary on Mrs. Barrows's employ will not reflect negatively on Mr. Fitweiler. Mr. Fitweiler's reference to fear ("I am afraid...") is, of course, merely figurative, in this sense, as it evidently refers to no real fear; the same is true for Mr. Martin's assertion of being full of dread. (Earlier, upon hearing of Mrs. Barrows's persecution complex and hallucinations, Mr. Martin had offered: "'I am very sorry, sir.'")
A significant paragraph break draws attention to the event that takes place immediately after this "pact" is reached:
It was at this point that the door to the office blew open with the suddenness of a gas-main explosion and Mrs. Barrows catapulted through it. "Is the little rat denying it?" she screamed. "He can't get away with that!" Mr. Martin got up and moved discreetly to a point beside Mr. Fitweiler's chair. (16)Mrs. Barrows's entry into the office is highlighted here, in part because Mr. Fitweiler's office represents a newly formed barrier similar to the one she had previously used in alliance with Mr. Fitweiler to empower herself. But at this point, it's something she has to force her way into (like Mr. Martin entering Mrs. Barrows's apartment, although with the opposite significance). At the same time, her once-powerful language is now working against her as it invokes the very discourse she claims Mr. Martin employed, and does so with the intonational register of the "scream" speech genre. Even though "little rat" is a powerful metonymy, street slang aligned with a form of empowerment, at this moment it is precisely this language that renders her account of Mr. Martin's behavior all the more implausible.
Mr. Martin's proxemic demonstration of his new coalition with Mr. Fitweiler occurs as Mr. Martin relocates to a space nearer to him during this confrontation. The earlier bond that had linked Mrs. Barrows and Mr. Fitweiler is dissolved and the new bond between Mr. Martin and Mr. Fitweiler is dramatized. Such a bond shift suggests another plot model: male homosocial bonding (even women participate in this, but subserviently so) disrupted by apparent male-to-female heterosexual bonding. (Again, the source of considerable tension in Thurber's own personal life.) This disruption is undone with a concomitant return to the status quo at the end of this exchange:
"You drank and smoked at my apartment," she bawled at Mr. Martin, "and you know it! You called Mr. Fitweiler an old windbag and said you were going to blow him up when you got coked to gills on your heroin!" She stopped yelling to catch her breath and a new glint came into her popping eyes.Here she is employing approximately the same type of metonymic language she undoubtedly reported while describing what Mr. Martin had allegedly said. Considering that it is loosely the same as that which she is known to employ herself, clearly no one would believe that she is accurately reporting Mr. Martin's speech.
Another parallel between this scene and an earlier one is presented in the epiphany that Mrs. Barrows experiences which is not unlike the one that preceded Mr. Martin's impromptu plan. Like the other repetitions, however, this one also marks the return of Mr. Martin's situation prior to Mrs. Barrows's influence on it. So, while Mr. Martin's epiphany seems in keeping with the imaginative epiphany associated with artistic creation, Mrs. Barrows's is merely that of the victim who suddenly realizes her victimhood. (Once more, as in the case of Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado.")
Narrative point of view comes into play here. Although the reader experiences the narration of Mr. Martin's epiphany as unfolding gradually, the reader learns almost nothing about Mrs. Barrows's until it is fully developed as a mere low-watt illumination. Accordingly, for the reader, Mrs. Barrows's revelation is a meager "glint" that indicates that it is only now that she sees something that should have been clear to her before (and it's something that Mr. Martin had already understood well before she had). (Ironically, Mr. Martin didn't really plan it at all -- at least in the sense of "plan" that she's evidently using here. He did have a fixed plan, remember, but when it fell apart, an unplanned plan emerged.)
But, while Mr. Martin's epiphany is empowering -- it allowed him to gain control of the situation in Mrs. Barrows's apartment and, more importantly, its physical indication occurred out of Mrs. Barrows's sight -- hers, to the contrary, is on increasingly full display. Since it only infuriates and subsequently unhinges her all the more, Mrs. Barrows's epiphany thus only works to her disadvantage:
"If you weren't such a drab, ordinary little man," she said, "I'd think you'd planned it all. Sticking your tongue out, saying you were sitting in the catbird seat, because you thought no one would believe me when I told it! My God, it's really too perfect!" She brayed loudly and hysterically, and the fury was on her again. She glared at Mr. Fitweiler. "Can't you see how he has tricked us, you old fool? Can't you see his little game?" (16-17)This outburst only reinforces Mr. Fitweiler's suspicions that whatever Mrs. Barrows had reported about Mr. Martin's behavior has its origin in her own dementia. For semiotics, though, it offers a substantial instance of the irrational, false operations of signification because what Mrs. Barrows now sees (what Mr. Martin had seen earlier) is something that Mr. Fitweiler and the other employees cannot see. Its presence is constructed out of an absence that Mrs. Barrows cannot summon into existence again. And, significantly, Mrs. Barrows's account is nevertheless plausible.
Mr. Martin's deception is worth exploring here. Knowing full well that no one would believe such a report from Mrs. Barrows, Mr. Martin crafts his utterances and behavior in a way that would correspond to what those who know Mrs. Barrows at work would associate with her personal sign field. Her discourse, her manner, her interests, and so on, all figure into the self display that Mr. Martin performs in her apartment. These are all false, though, and in more than one sense. First, he is lying by saying and doing the things he says and does in her apartment. Second, he has crafted his self according to that of Mrs. Barrows's orientations. Therefore, when Mrs. Barrows makes truthful claims about his behavior to those who know her from work, the semiotic frame she employs is exactly what seems to signify the invalidity of her claims.
Fauconnier asks: "Are 'virtual' presuppositions cancellable by 'stronger' implicatures and implications?" (Mental 82). This seems to apply here. While Mrs. Barrows's account is wholly possible (it terms of activities that Mr. Martin could actually have engaged in), it is implausible, given that everybody at F & S is familiar with her behavior and discourse, as well as that of Mr. Martin. In other words, while Mr. Martin could have done what she claims, it's much more likely that she is fabricating these claims. (Even though we know she is not.) Fauconnier adds that "traditionally, counterfactuals like 'If men had wings, they would fly' are viewed as cases of possibly valid reasoning from premises that are false in actuality" (107). From this perspective, Mrs. Barrows's account seems consistent with Fauconnier's characterization of "counterfactuality," which consists of "a case of forced incompatibility between [mental] spaces." Such a "contradictory space (as in proofs by reductio ad absurdum)," he notes, "contain[s] false mathematical statements (to which true laws can apply)" (119). It is useful to return to Mr. Martin's enjoyment of the metonymy "rub out" regarding this issue. This is effectively what he has done with his speech/act in Mrs. Barrows's apartment. He has engaged in an activity that left no plausible physical trace of its presence but remains as a memory residue in the individual who had seen it when it had existed.
Although Mrs. Barrows is telling the truth, "truth" has no necessary bearing on signification. In fact, that she is telling the truth and nobody will listen to her is designed to only further accentuate her mounting anger, and thus further discredit her. And, Mr. Martin's performance in front of the others at F & S additionally strengthens his well-established (though somewhat false) credibility, even while his performance is, in fact, false. Still, it is a false representation of his usual true behavior -- and is "true" in that sense. As a result, the "habit" (in its fullest semiotic sense) associated with Mr. Martin has become so ossified that variation from it is both wholly unbelievable and yet also wholly likely. (Which is, by extension, what makes Mr. Martin's decidedly outrageous, unbelievable performance in Mrs. Barrows's apartment nevertheless comically plausible by virtue of its impossibility.)
Unbeknownst to Mrs. Barrows, Mr. Fitweiler "had been surreptitiously pressing all the buttons under the top of his desk and employees of F & S began pouring into the room" (17). With this move, Mr. Fitweiler is exercising his power as someone who can command agents to act for him in a manner similar to his summons of Mr. Martin only minutes earlier. (These buttons reverse up/down hierarchies; in this case, down is more powerful because it is aligned with invisible power. There is a parallel here, too, with Mr. Martin's pressing of Mrs. Barrows's apartment doorbell as the first implementation of his plan to rub her out. This reinforces her disempowerment insofar as it is her buttons he is pushing, while Mr. Fitweiler is pushing his own. Another metonymy is employed here in relation to the expression commonly used to suggest manipulation of one's vulnerabilities as "pushing one's buttons.")
"Stockton," said Mr. Fitweiler, "you and Fishbein will take Mrs. Barrows to her home. Mrs. Powell, you will go with them." Stockton, who had played a little football in high school, blocked Mrs. Barrows as she made for Mr. Martin. It took him and Fishbein together to force her out of the door into the hall, crowded with stenographers and office boys. She was still screaming imprecations at Mr. Martin, tangled and contradictory imprecations. The hubbub finally died out down the corridor.Mr. Fitweiler's imperative ("You will...") further indicates his reascension of power, as was seen just before when he commanded Mr. Martin to recount his previous evening's activities. While this is the same monologic form that had been used in the blue-memo, closed-door semiotic arena at F & S before, it takes on a different contour now by recalibrating his power as company president. Note that there is no discussion about what to do with Mrs. Barrows's complaints about Mr. Martin. Mr. Fitweiler, the individual who introduced her into F & S and granted her considerable power, is now doing just the opposite, and doing so successfully. Additionally, Fitweiler is able to engage in an overt display of power without losing power himself. Even though he has a "scene" on his hands, he manages it in a manner that enables him to maintain the power he had earlier, or perhaps even gain greater power through this display of force. Primary and secondary employees thus serve as "audiences" (Goffman, Presentation ) to this shift in Mrs. Barrows's status in the company. So, this summons and removal can be seen as a performance designed to formally dramatize her disempowerment.
A male-oriented sports allusion reinforces this display. Stockton's football background is mentioned by the narrator in connection with removing Mrs. Barrows, which harks back to the simile employed when Mr. Martin entered Mrs. Barrows's apartment somewhat forcefully. This would return to the subject of male-based discourse (and its wider extensions) that Mrs. Barrows had used earlier so powerfully. Both in her apartment and later in Mr. Fitweiler's office, this same network of power is turned against her. This also is reflected also in the total disregard for her speech at this point. As was mentioned above, Mrs. Barrows began by lucidly telling the truth about Mr. Martin; here, she is ignored by everyone in attendance. By the time of her removal, her speech has lost this lucidity, becoming the babble of someone successfully categorized as hysterical (suggested by apparent onomatpoeia: she causes a "hubbub"). Even in her own capacity as an encoder, Mrs. Barrows is unable to initiate a coherent message, thereby marking the completion of her disempowerment.
Additionally, the cooperation of a female employee (the presumably married Mrs. Powell) who is an enabler of male power suggests that such obeisance is the only tolerated means of ascension for women within such an environment. (Mrs. Powell's "slave name" also implies her own adherence to male order, and probably without the breakaway radicalism of Mrs. Barrows, a woman whose single status implies that she is somehow "divorced" from the institution of marriage.) Mrs. Barrows's earlier, and temporarily successful, exercise of assertion and employment of male discourse, along with the abnormal variance she engaged in to achieve this power in the first place, attest to the ultimate unacceptability of women functioning in a powerful fashion under these circumstances and in this domain at this time.
Finally, the forceable removal of Mrs. Barrows in this scene signals the total elimination of her access to the locus of her power. While Mr. Fitweiler's office had at one time buttressed her authority at F & S, the display of her removal palpably reconfigures the office as a source of her disempowerment. (After all, her conflict with Mr. Martin takes place here, so it serves as a symbolic site along these lines.) This would significantly mirror the unusual way that she began her employ at the company: brought in under unusual, inexplicable circumstances, she is fired in the same way.
Mr. Fitweiler's closing remarks to Mr. Martin suggest a temporary assumption of humility, a symbolic lowering of his head to acknowledge the presence of someone who had retained status:
"I regret that this has happened," said Mr. Fitweiler. "I shall ask you to to dismiss it from your mind, Martin." "Yes, sir," said Mr. Martin, anticipating his chief's "That will be all" by moving to the door. "I will dismiss it." He went out and shut the door... (17)Several interactive power recognitions take place here. While Mr. Fitweiler's use of "regret" would appear more literal than his earlier use of "fear" ("I am afraid..."), it nonetheless suggests that he is adopting only a temporary pose of status diminution. This pose is indeed brief; his subsequent request to Mr. Martin is, once more, couched in the form of a declaration, even though it is, in fact, a request. His selection of "shall" is also pertinent, insofar as it implies that he is obliged or compelled to make this request under the circumstances, as opposed to it originating from his own initiative.
Mr. Martin demonstrates his empowerment-through-voluntary-subservience within the larger System as he internalizes the commands of authority: he dismisses himself through an anticipated order. Like a form of ventriloquism, he gives himself the order and leaves Mr. Fitweiler's office, but does so in a way that is reminiscent of autonomy. Compare this exit from the site of power to Mrs. Barrows's, for instance. Even though he is under the sway of authority, Mr. Martin finds a satisfactory logic that creates the illusion of agency in the process. (This also would be related to his display of power as he's leaving Mrs. Barrows's apartment and he shows himself to the door, so to speak.)
The closing lines following his exit reinforce this sophisticated, yet almost invisible, acquisition of power by Mr. Martin:
He went out and shut the door, and his step was light and quick in the hall. When he entered his department he had slowed down to his customary gait, and he walked quietly across the room to the W20 file, wearing a look of studious concentration. (17)Again, maintainning an exterior facade allows Mr. Martin to act powerfully despite his relatively unpowerful position in the company. While he treats himself a brief display of joy (and a characteristically subdued one, at that), it is something he strategically abandons when he approaches his office. Even though he has to assume his persona of lesser status when he enters, this is the most powerful way that he can exist within the System.
Joey Hart, however, does not seem capable of providing Mr. Martin with the sophisticated uses of metonymy (both linguistic and trans-linguistic) that he stumbles upon on his own. It appears that Mr. Martin has acquired competence (through no effort on his own, significantly) in engaging in what Fauconnier and Turner call "projection to a middle space" ("Conceptual" 1). This entails employing "a general cognitive process, operating uniformly at different levels of abstraction and under superficially divergent contextual circumstances." A "middle space" of this nature can, in turn, "[give] rise either to a more abstract 'generic' space or to a richer ['fourth'] 'blended' space" (3) which yields an "often counterfactual or 'impossible' structure" (5). This, of course, is exactly what happens when Mr. Martin conceives of a semiotic construct that nobody would believe, for precisely the reason Fauconnier and Turner identify. (As they note, "blended spaces can pick out non-correspondence between source and target" .)
Another way to view this dissonant linkage between Mr. Martin at work and his behavior in Mrs. Barrows's apartment is through frame incompatibilities consistent with Goffman's work on this concept. For Goffman, "rekeyings" (Frame Analysis 81) can radically change the nature of a frame, with substantially different significations as a result (i.e., a sound first decoded as a firecracker exploding may turn out subsequently to have been gunfire). In a related fashion, Schön notes that "generative metaphor" entails a "'carrying over' of frames or perspectives from one domain of experience to another" (137) that leads to "frame restructuring" (139). And, in some cases, this restructuring is infelicitous, to say the least (as Mrs. Barrows would attest).
Another perspective on metonymy in Thurber's story can be derived from considering the domains involved (not unlike Fauconnier's target/source). As Lakoff points out, "lexical items that are conventional in the source domain," for instance, "are not always conventional in the target domain" (211).
Instead, each source domain lexical item may or may not make use of [a] static mapping pattern. If it does, it has an extended lexicalized sense in the target domain, where that sense is characterized by the mapping. If not, the source domain lexical item will not have a conventional sense in the target domain, but may still be actively mapped in the case of novel metaphor.This also can explain the events in "The Catbird Seat." It is wholly possible that Mr. Martin could have done what Mrs. Barrows apparently claimed he had done (in fact, he had done it, as we know). Yet, considering (once more) that her articulations derive from her individual source domain, nobody believes that they could have come from Mr. Martin's equally individualistic domain. As Fauconnier and Turner conclude, "mapping a coherent source onto a conceptually incoherent target is not enough to give the target new conceptual structure" (13). Or, one could add, new conceptual structure that is necessarily believable.
The employment of metonymy in this story thus highlights both the systemic and a-systemic of use signs, and concomitant practices of associated decoders and encoders. Fauconnier and Turner comment on research that demonstrates that "although the process of blending follows a logic, its output cannot be predicted" (5). "Because subjects recruit from a wide range of knowledge in the process and because the blend routinely contains emergent structure not simply inherited from either input concept," the problems with systematizing practices such as metonymy are indeed manifold (again, as Jakobson and Ruegg remark).
Nonetheless, as Mr. Martin learns, the use of linguistic and trans-linguistic metonymy can yield all sorts of new semiotic constructs with a host of correspondingly new uses. In this respect, Mrs. Barrows provides him with a heuristic for self-transformation, one that may prompt consideration of whether she may have been an asset to F & S had Mr. Martin learned this earlier. (If he actually is aware of having learned it at all, that is.)
Schön provides a concrete example of this. He desribes a test case of researchers involved in product development who faced some unanticipated problems with the performance of a new kind of bristle used in a paintbrush. They were stymied, he relates, until one of them thought of approaching the problem through a metonymy: "a paintbrush is a kind of pump" (140). As Schön notes, this example reveals that "metaphor making" can entail "the restructuring of the perception of...phenomena....which enables us to call 'metaphor' what we might otherwise have called 'mistake'" (141). This returns to the consideration of framing as the creation of a "story" about an event (as opposed to an "explanation", as discussed in Lecture 7). "Each story construct[s] its view of social reality through a complementary process of naming and framing," Schön suggests. "Things are selected for attention and named in such a way as to fit the frame constructed for the situation." Accordingly, as Lakoff asserts, metaphor in general offers "the possibility for understanding novel extensions in terms of the conventional correspondences" (210).
Metonymy in the particular can be viewed as "a device to generate local subsetting metaphors from the semantic fields of their referent by exploiting relevant perceptual characteristics," as Richard Rhodes and John Lawler contend ("Athematic Metaphors" 3). Furthermore, Rhodes and Lawler argue that metonymy actually can strengthen the bonding effect of mutual language use within a given linguistic (or, by extension, semiotic) community. "An explicit reference to a salient topic is an effective cohesive device," they suggest, "and its value may often exceed that of redundancy" (4). While this bonding is arguably dysfunctional in Mr. Martin's case, the point still holds. This is revealed as well in Lakoff and Johnson's observation that "metonymies are not random or arbitrary occurrences, to be treated as isolated instances. Metonymic concepts are also systematic..." (37). Or, as the discussion in Lecture 5 concludes, metonymic concepts are, rather, also systemic -- which, Halliday reminds us, does not necessarily mean "systematic".
For instance, the "contesting" between Mr. Martin and Mrs. Barrows can be seen as monologic versus dialogic discourse practices. In this sense, Mr. Martin prefers sign fields that respectfully restrict themselves to fairly literal exchanges, while Mrs. Barrows prefers those that place all significative exchanges up for grabs, figuratively speaking. There also are finite versus infinite play differences between the two characters. Mrs. Barrows's discourse is open in this orientation, for metonymy is employed only to engender additional, responsive significations. Mr. Martin's discourse, on the other hand, exists only as a means of establishing a victor and ending "open" play as quickly and as effectively as possible through a zero sum of accounting.
Mrs. Barrows subverts the rule-governed behavior that had empowered Mr. Martin during his tenure at F & S. If she were to succeed in rearranging the company (and specifically Mr. Martin's filing department), he could no longer "play" at work the way he likes to. Thus, she threatens the continuation of his work-play. Is she, then, as a disruptive finite player? Perhaps. But, Mr. Martin's desire to continue play is based entirely on its finite manifestation. In other words, while he does want to extend his play, this extension would merely continue a repetition of finite play. This is not infinite play; it is infinite finite play.
Nevertheless, Mr. Martin is also drawn into infinite play strategies in response to Mrs. Barrows's "moves", recognizing that his own are directly conditioned by (but not necessarily limited by) the preceding moves of the other player. Nevertheless, in keeping with his finite orientation, he employs these strategies solely to conclude play. He appropriates her powerful metonymy (itself appropriated several times over earlier on), but does so in a manner that is semiotically far less subversive than the way she uses it.
Thus, whenever he is utilizing metonymy, it is a pathetic, ultimately joylesss endeavor. For instance, regarding his change in step at the end: it is indeed light and quick, but it is squelched so quickly and done in such total isolation that it is the least form of pleasure. Like Nietzsche's man of intellect (discussed in Lecture 7), he assumes his usual mask at the end to conceal his vital engagement with Mrs. Barrows and effectively "rub out" its transformative, efferverscent influence on him.
In terms of play devices, Mr. Martin employs tokens of adulthood (alcoholic drinks, cigarettes) only instrumentally as components of play. Mrs. Barrows uses them, on the contrary, as means for social intercourse (with other intercourse potentials possible) that reinforce the metonymic field of her activity.
The transformative potential of her form of play rubs off on (as opposed to rubbing out) Mr. Martin in ways that dramatizes the positive impact she could have on him if he were open to transformation. Look at how his interaction with her has livened up his life. He goes from living a virtually lifeless life to concocting and (figuratively) carrying out a murder, with all of the excitement that goes along with it. But this enlivenment is threatening, possibly because it is too vertiginous. In effect, it seems that Mr. Martin can enjoyably engage in this play only as long as he can control its containment. If it were to move beyond the realm of "sure play," too much danger exists. He could lose his job. His comfortable and highly routinized lifestyle could become disrupted, if not lost forever.
Consider, though, the possible enlivening force of this change. Mr. Martin leads what would well seem to New Yorker audiences of the early 1940s as decidedly dull, tedious, and uneventful life. This would hardly be a desirable condition to maintain. Mr. Martin evidently needs to be shown this, and his one chance of receiving this insight resides solely in the threat to his order that Mrs. Barrows signifies. In other words, the only catalyst that can drive Mr. Martin out of the comfortable cul-de-sac of his lifestyle is the very one he successfully prevents from doing so. His "victory", then, is exactly like that of finite play. Rather than finding a transformative way to extend play, Mr. Martin finds a way to end the game altogether. His little victory bounce in his step is a pathetic token of just how pathetic, indeed, this form of play can be. (Note, too, that his pleasure is wholly inward: the only person who shares his secret at the end is Mrs. Barrows and the "team" this establishes is wholly negative and dysfunctional.)
The character oppositions also reinforce this play distinction. Mrs. Barrows is aligned with disorder, degeneracy, the scrutinization of established hierarchy, play order, and intuition (Nietzsche). Mr. Martin, however, is aligned with dis-order (Eco), de-generacy (Merrell), the maintenance of established hierarchy, juridical order, and intellect (Nietzsche).
Narrative depiction of these characterizations reinforces these differences. Mr. Martin's character is described "neutrally" by the narrator. Even in his own speech, Mr. Martin employs markers of formality such as excessive (or high) politeness as a means of concealing his actual feelings (he concludes every one of his exchanges with Mr. Fitweiler with the respect-tag of "sir"). But Mrs. Barrows's character is described from Mr. Martin's perspective. Her feelings are characterized as unchecked flow; thought that isn't mediated by reflection, but rather, spews forth in fountain-like sprays.
Mr. Martin's negative impact on Mrs. Barrows is reflected in her speech. When she is revealing Mr. Martin's actions in Mr. Fitweiler's office, we are told that she is "yelling, but she was not braying" (15). And, as she "left the president's office" after telling him about Mr. Martin's visit the evening before at her apartment "and went into her own, shutting the door." This is a shift that is remarkable for its ordinariness. Suddenly, Mrs. Barrows is described in at least neutral terms and is humanized as well. Has she been trapped into finite play all of a sudden? It seems so, since her vertiginous onslaught in the president' s office apparently was met with uncharacteristic negativity. In other words, the president apparently has shifted to the form of play he had engaged earlier with Mr. Martin. While Mrs. Barrows had temporarily altered the register of their play into an infinite mode, it appears as though the status quo has returned, thanks to Mr. Martin. What had become vertiginous play suddenly turns "serious" (i.e., finite).
Ironically, the narrator uses a metonymy while describing Mr. Martin's reputation as someone possessing a "cautious, painstaking hand" (9). This is extended into the realm of play like a "hand" of cards or the player's response to the "hand" he has been dealt and his external suggestions of subsequent play strategies. Regarding Mr. Martin's plan to murder Mrs. Barrows, the narrator notes: "No one would see his hand, that is, unless it were caught in the act" (9). (This returns to the paradoxical signification of Mr. Martin's visit to Mrs. Barrows, for indeed, no one is able to see his "hand" -- figuratively it isn't "there" as a result of its implausibility.)
"Hand" additionally represents Mr. Martin's mode of self-presentation which is based solely of contained -- or at least, closely monitored revelations of -- emotion. Like Nietzsche's man of intellect, his "strength" is conveyed through his refusal to engage in certain "weak" self-displays. Mrs. Barrows's irritating ejaculations, for instance, are not enough to make him lower his emotional barrier. "It was fortunate," Mr. Martin thinks to himself, "that he had stood up under [her abrasive personality] so well. He had maintained always an outward appearance of polite tolerance. 'Why, I even believe you like the woman,' Miss Paird...had once said to him. He had simply smiled" (10).
This "strength" is ironized in several ways, however. In one respect, Mrs. Barrows's expressions are hardly something so disturbing that they reasonably merit comparisons with other painful experiences one is said to "stand up" under (most typically, torture). Mr. Martin's silence and smile, on the other hand, provide him with an impoverished smugness and an inability to express his feelings out of necessity for maintaining his relatively cheerless persona.
In every way, Mrs. Barrows's "system" for dealing with everyday life is eminently metonymic in nature. The narrative, it will be recalled, conveys Mr. Martin's impression of Mrs. Barrows's system when he recalls her first appearance at F & S: "On that day confusion got its foot in the door" (10-11). In this way, her system is metonymically linked with disorder. Its refusal to adhere to the monosemous logic aligned with the F & S System comes across to Mr. Martin as wholly antithetical and destructive. Moreover, perhaps Thurber has the narrator employ a metonymy in that final sentence above to demonstrate how her rhetoric is already seeping into Mr. Martin's logically "pure" mindset. Thus, through free indirect discourse, the narrator suggests that Mrs. Barrows's system immediately initiated a metonymical challenge to the System. Furthermore, note that Mrs. Barrows's initial contact with Mr. Fitweiler has the same status that is usually granted to vertigo in play theory. By apparent chance she sees an opportunity to make a powerful move and accomplishes her persuasion not by rule-bound logic, but by "a monstrous magic."
Mr. Martin casts Mrs. Barrows's transgressions as a reverse synecdoche. She "stood charged with willful, blatant, and persistent attempts to destroy the efficiency and system of F & S," Mr. Martin says through the narrator (10). In other words, Mr. Martin's location of his Self as a member of a specific company is then turned upside down so that it is the destruction of the company which threatens the security of his self. In the same way that Mr. Martin projects his opinion as an objective recounting, he describes the impact of Mrs. Barrows on other members of the company team to suggest that his perspective is by no means the result of subjective aberration. "She had begun chipping at the cornices of the firm's edifice and now she was swinging at the foundation stones with a pickaxe" (11).
This produces a form of play in which one simply ends up back where one had begun, going "nowhere" ultimately in the process of play. (But, this "nowhere" does not necessarily resist infinite play; it is not driven by strong goal-orientation in that sense; its goal is only to extend play and produce player transformation. As a result, whether one played in a way that returned to an originary beginning, or not, is of no consequence in terms of the type of play elicited. Finite play could, therefore, also end up in a place far removed from that of its origin.) Like Derrida (as discussed in Lecture 7), Mr. Martin adapts to infinite play, but then ends up opting for the poor "victory" characteristic of finite play. He has "won", but look at what he has lost along the way.
This is evident once again in the way Mr. Martin uses metonymic discourse for finitude: "The term 'rub out' pleased him because it suggested nothing more than the correction of an error -- in this case an error of Mr. Fitweiler" (9). In effect, his metonymies possess, arguably, the same monosemous register as that of "non-figurative" language. Mrs. Barrows's influence on him, accordingly, can be seen as wholly untransformative.
Or, is it? Does Mrs. Barrows serve as a metonymical guide who Mr. Martin would by necessity become so reliant upon that he would have to consequently abandon his new-found empowerment? In other words, would Mr. Martin become dependent upon Mrs. Barrows's metonymical system, pathetically mouthing a figurative discourse that co-opts his own imaginative expression? (After all, the climax of his victory against Mrs. Barrows is signalled by his repeating her own saying to her: "I'm sitting in the catbird seat.") Along these lines, Mr. Martin's conformity to her metonymical arena would align himself dependently with another force that would thereby diminish his self-direction. (Consider Walt Whitman's narrator at the end of "Song of Myself," or Virgil in Dante's Inferno -- neither guide can take his pupil on the journey toward selfhood without the pupil's own contribution. Indeed, it is that very contribution by the pupil that ultimately produces the transformative component of the journey.)
Is this what Mr. Martin realizes? After all, he employs several metonymies, and very powerfully so, as a result of interacting with Mrs. Barrows. And there is no evidence that he had used them at all prior to that interaction. (Joey Hart has to explain Mrs. Barrows's metonymies to Mr. Martin, it may be recalled.) Is this independence, then, a mark of his superior empowerment? Mrs. Barrows is still employing metonymies when denouncing Mr. Martin in front of the others in Mr. Fitweiler's office -- yet they "listen" to Mr. Martin's silence, so to speak, and ignore her. Perhaps this suggests that undue reliance upon a single discourse form (if that is what she does) is too limiting, and that the truly powerful sign user can learn from other users within his semiotic community without becoming derivatively dependent upon a specific individual's sign repertoire. Or, conversely, it could suggest that the other employees at F & S are similarly finite players. In this respect, Mr. Martin's "silence" is an "explanation" (as discussed in Lecture 7) versus the mere "story" that Mrs. Barrows is telling. Although her narrative is much more engaging than Mr. Martin's (as, when he had divulged his previous evening's activities to Mr. Fitweiler at his request), its metonymical fabrication renders it implausible, if not impossible.
For, who is "better" off in "The Catbird Seat"? Or, in the "discussion" of semiotics? Clearly, this may be a misguided query itself.
Instead, perhaps, it may be more transformative, more generative, more infinite to continue on playing instead. Playing actively and infinitely, it should be added, but playing nonetheless. For this is no "mere" play -- such an orientation itself is aligned with finitude. Rather, it provides new nodes in the ever-expanding, ever-altering rhizomorphous non-model that may well serve as the most "productive" methodology (an a-methodology?) to embrace.
To return to metaphor, for instance, one might consider Schön's emphasis on the benefits of metonymical "stories" that potentially yield spatially progressive decodings that, in turn, reveal new facets of semiosis on the whole. (Schön is actually discussing the difficulties in social policy analysis, but it easily extends to semiotics.) "Indeed, it is through storytelling," he argues, "that we can best discover our frames and the generative metaphors implicit in our frames" (149). Schön distinguishes an analytical pursuit based not on "problem-solving stories," but instead, on "problem-setting stories" that help to provide unanticipatable perspectives on sign systems. "When we interpret our problem-setting stories so as to bring their generative metaphors to awareness and reflection, then our diagnoses and prescriptions cease to appear obvious and we find ourselves involved, instead, in critical inquiry," he suggests.
We become aware of differences as well as of similarities between the new problematic situation and the familiar situation whose description we have projected upon the new. The glide from facts to recommendations no longer seems graceful or obvious. Attention to generative metaphor becomes a tool for critical reflection on our construction of [our] problems. (150)This is a model that semiotics can readily benefit from. As in the case of Thurber's story, much more complex, interesting, and endlessly fructive instances of semiosis can be generated from a seemingly impoverished initial "text" of any kind, if one is so inclined.
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