A&P: Essay

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1. How have literary scholars assessed and interpreted “A&P”?

The story has received quite a lot of attention from critics. Robert Detweiler, in John Updike (1984) comments that Sammy’s reaction to Lengel’s chiding of the girls “is the reflex of the still uncorrupted, of the youth still capable of the grand gesture because he has not learned the sad wisdom of compromise” (p. 53). There is an “undertone of sorrow” in the story’s ending, because not only have the girls disappeared, but in their stead Sammy sees a young mother screaming at her children as they complain about not getting candy—“a much commoner refrain to the heady tunes of wishful American romance,” Detweiler comments.

Corey Evan Thompson, in The Explicator (Summer 2001), argues that Sammy does not quit because of the incident with the girls. On the contrary, Sammy has long been fed up with his job in the store. He has been working there a long time (as shown by his intricate knowledge of it and of everything that goes on outside the store window) and does not enjoy it. He has no respect for the customers and is looking for an opportunity to quit, which is not so easy to do because it would disappoint his parents: “Sammy must, therefore, remain an employee until he can find a reason to justify his quitting. Though masking his actions as chivalry, Sammy uses the girls; for they act as catalysts that precipitate his well-considered decision to resign.” Thompson concludes that Sammy is not “a hero, but rather . . .  a young man who takes full advantage of an opportunity to free himself from the responsibility-filled life that he desperately wants to avoid.”

Also writing in The Explicator (Summer 2003), Harriet Blodgett takes the view that the imagery in the story suggests that the three girls are being presentedplayfully  “as temptresses who lead Sammy astray.” By this she does not mean the traditional Sirens who lure sailors to their destruction but “creatures who had fish bodies and so came to be seen as mermaids and above all as symbols of seduction.” Blodgett points to the abundance of “ocean imagery” in the story, “from the Atlantic and Pacific (Markets) setting to the . . .‘Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks.’” She also notes that the girls wear bathing suits “and naturally they do not ‘even have shoes on.’”Blodgett quotes Sammy’s description of Queenie, who “came down a little hard on her heels, as if she didn't walk in her bare feet that much, putting down her heels and then letting the weight move along to her toes as if she was testing the floor with every step.” Blodgett comments, “as one might do, wearing flippers.”


2. What part does romantic attraction and sexual desire play in the story?

Often “A&P” is seen thematically in terms of rebellion against conformity, and that is indeed a valid interpretation, but another rather more mundane approach might explain the story just as well. Nineteen-year-old Sammy is simply turned on sexually by thesight of the three girls in bathing suits.Right from the first moment he sees the girls, he cannot take his eyes off them. He is so startled and discombobulated at the sight of them that he cannot remember whether he has rung up a customer’s purchase or not. He looks all three of them up and down, taking in their physical characteristics: the shape of their bodies, the color of their skin and hair. This is a sudden and unexpected treat for him; after all, it is the A&P store, not the beach, and this is just not what one would expect to see in this environment. His remark “They didn’t even have shoes on” shows how struck he is by their near nakedness. He is particularly attracted to the leader of the three, whom he dubs Queenie, carefully noting her long white legs and the fact—no doubt every erotic—that she has her shoulder straps down, which leaves an exquisiteexpanse of bare flesh from just above her chest to her neck, which he describes as “this clean bare plane of the top of her chest down from the shoulder bones like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light. I mean, it was more than pretty.” In other words, he is aroused by the sight, and, more than this, it is likely that he is not content simply to admire from afar. When she reaches the cash register, he notes that there is no ring on her finger, and one can just imagine him calculating his chances with her and trying to figure out a way in. He would love to get to know her, it would seem, and this is at least part of the reason why he quits his job with such a flourish. He wants to make an impression on Queenie, and he hopes she witnesses his gallant action. Maybe he will be able to strike up a conversation with her outside the store! But alas, she and her friends are gone, and Sammy’s sudden dream of romantic and sexual adventure fades on the spot.


3. What did John Updike himself say about this story?

“A&P” is the most well-known of Updike’s hundreds of stories, and he was often asked about it. Jeffrey Brown interviewed him for PBS Newshourin December 2003 (available from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/entertainment-july-dec03-updike_12-29/), and Updike mentioned that the origin of the story lay in a real incident, when he was in a store and saw “several girls in bathing suits cruising the aisles, and it was sufficiently startling that it stuck in my mind because although girls in bathing suits at the beach were one thing, girls in bathing suits and bare feet—bare feet on those well-trod tiles—all that sort of made, seemed to make a germ of the story.” When Brown asked Updike about the last line of the story, in which Sammy realizes “how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter,” Updike explained that in the final paragraph as a whole the reader gets“a glimpse of the adult life that he has momentarily put at risk; that is, the Lengels of the world, face grimly going through the necessary task of manning the slot that he has abandoned, and then the vision of married life, of the young mother with her squalling, greedy, candy-crazed child out on the hot parking lot.So in a way he’s saying hold off to all this, and he’s in a kind of limbo. But he does feel, yes, that the world, the world does not forgive easily. It won’t forgive a quitter. He has become a quitter, a quixotic quitter, you could say.”

Updike also comments on the story in a videointerview with Donald M. Murray (available from http://digital.films.com/play/EW4QDW). He describes Sammy as “a typical well-intentioned American male trying to find his way in the society and full of good impulses.” He also notes that, as shown by what Queenie buys and how she talks about her parents, she is of a higher social class than Sammy, so the story takes on the element of “blue-collar kid longing for a white-collar girl.” This “element of social inequality” had Updike wondering to what extent Sammy’s “gesture of quitting has to with the fact that she is rich and he is poor.” (Taking up this point, most readers would likely think that given Queenie’s higher social class, and her awareness of it, she would be unlikely to beinterested in a mere grocery store clerk, although Sammy, optimistic as young men tend to be when pursuing a girl, likely does not realize this.) In this interview, Updike reiterates the notion that Sammy will find life hard after this incident becauseit will be known in this small town that he quit his job, and people will not admire him for it. “He’ll be known perhaps as a quitter,” Updike said, adding that what Sammy does is a kind of “feminist protest.”


4. How important is the historical context in understanding this story, which was first published in 1961?

“A&P” has a universal and somewhat timeless appeal, and in many ways it is as fresh now as when Updike first wrote it, over half a century ago. People today still push their carts around supermarkets, and it would still be unusual to see three girls in bathing suits in such a place. Such an incident, if it should occur, would likely turn heads now as it did then, and also inflame the passions of young men. However, some small details in the story give some clues that it was in fact written in a different era from the present. One clue is Stokesie. He is only twenty-two years old yet is already a married man with two children, which likely means that he married very young indeed, perhaps around the age of twenty. In the 1950s and early 1960s in the United States people did marry much younger than they do today. In 1956, the average age for men to marry was 22.5, compared to 29 in the 2010s, the highest it has ever been. (Updike himself married in 1953 at the age of 21, while he was still in college.) Also, it might strike a contemporary reader as odd to find two young men working at the cash register in the store. No female employees are shown. In those days, however, there were fewer women in the workforce than there are today. Women usually left the workforce when they got married and had children. According to government statistics (available from http://www.bls.gov/mlr/1999/12/art1full.pdf), in 1960, 37.7 percent of women age 16 and older were in the workforce. This figure rose rapidly to 43.3 percent in 1970, 51.5 percent in 1980, and 57.5 percentin 1990. (In 2010, the figure was 58.6 percent.)Another notable detail  in the story is Stokesie’s apparent desire to stay with the A&P company and build his career there. In those days, it was more common for people to stay with one employer throughout their working lives than it is today.

Finally, the general point should be made that the 1950s and earliest years of the 1960s are often depicted as times of conformity. U.S. society, in this view, was quiet and stable in that period, following the turbulence of the 1930s and 1940s. Updike certainly had this in mind when he wrote the story. He told interviewer Donald M. Murray (available from http://digital.films.com/play/EW4QDW) that in those days, during the late years of the Eisenhower administration and early Kennedy years, “people were expected to conform,” although there was also an“undercurrent of rebellion” and “voices of dissent” in figures such as novelist Jack Kerouac, poet Allen Ginsberg, and movie actor James Dean. The fictional Sammy in “A&P” is one such voice.


5. What point of view does Updike employ in “A&P”?

Point of view in a work of fictionrefers to the character or characters through whose eyes the story is told. The narrative technique Updike employs in “A&P” is called first person narration, which can be recognized by the use of the first person pronoun, “I.” In other words, the story is told through the point of view of nineteen-year-old Sammy. The perspective, therefore, is that of a young person—his thoughts, feelings, observations, and actions. Had Updike chosen to tell it from Lengel’s point of view (or Queenie’s, for that matter, or Stokesie’s), it would have been a very different story. In first person narration, the narrator can write only of what he or she sees, hears, thinks, feels, knows, or is told directly. Other characters in the story can be known only through what they do, as seen by the narrator; what they say within his or her earshot; what others may say about them; and the opinions the narrator has about them. This is in contrast to what is known as an omniscient third person narrator, who knows the thoughts and feelings of all the characters.

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