A&P: Themes

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Freedom versus Conformity

The A&P store is situated in what appears to be a fairly small and rather staid, largely Protestant—as suggested by the Congregational church—town some miles north of Boston. Likely to be culturally homogeneous, this early 1960s community exhibits a sameness in what people might think of as its moral standards. For example, people do not as a rule walk into the A&P store barefoot and in bathing suits. They cover up first. Stokesie’s comment, “Is it done?”, referring to the girls’ attire, is confirmation that the girls are flouting social convention, although they seem to be unaware of the minor stir they are creating by doing so. 

The conformity of life in the town is also suggested by Sammy’s characterization of the customers in the store as “sheep pushing their carts down the aisle” all in the same direction. In contrast, the girls walk in the opposite direction, a visual image that suggests how they are going against the grain. Sammy aligns  \himself emotionally with the girls, especially Queenie, who has the nerve to walk around not only in a bathing suit but also with the shoulder straps down. Sammy take pride in standing outside the conformist mind-set. He is more of a free spirit. Being young, he is not yet ready (and perhaps may never be) to accept things just as they are. He takes a critical view of the store, for example, not only its customers but also the products it sells, which include “records at discount of the Caribbean Six or Tony Martin Sings or some such gunk you wonder they waste the wax on, sixpacks of candy bars, and plastic toys done up in cellophane that fall apart when a kid looks at them anyway.”

Conformity is embodied not only in the customers but also in Lengel, the store manager, who is “pretty dreary” in Sammy’s view, but is a respectable member of the community, teaching Sunday School, for example. He knows straightaway that wearing a bathing suit in the store is not acceptable to local community standards, and he does not hesitate to inform the girls of store policy. Sammy’s sympathies, though, are entirely with the girls. He is not a “company man” in any sense of that term. He likely thinks, although he does not say so exactly, that people should be allowed to wear whatever they want, wherever they want. As a young single man, Sammy values his own freedom of action, as well as that of others. He is not weighed down by the responsibilities that Stokesie, only three years his senior but already with wife and children, has taken on. Sammy’s quitting of his job is an assertion of that freedom, a protest against conformity. He also knows that given that love of freedom, his future passage through the world that tends to reward conformity is not going to be easy.

Youth versus Age

The clash between freedom and conformity is also a clash between youth and age. The customers Sammy picks out for ridicule are all much older than he is, from an entirely different generation. The woman who gives him a hard time for ringing up her purchase twice, for example, is  “a witch about fifty with rouge on her cheekbones and no eyebrows,” who has likely “been watching cash registers forty years.” Sammy has a contempt for these old customers and he does not attempt to hide it from himself. He observes one “old party in baggy gray pants who stumbles up with four giant cans of pineapple juice” and wonders “what do these bums do with all that pineapple juice”? Sammy reveals this generation gap again when he refers to the records the store sells: “the Caribbean Six or Tony Martin Sings or some such gunk you wonder they waste the wax on.” Tony Martin was a popular singer and actor from the late 1930s to the 1950s. To Sammy, he obviously represents the older generation and its musical tastes, which he has no interest in. Perhaps it is the sort of music his parents listen to.

The other characters in the story, such as the three girls and Lengel, also fall into the divide between youth and the older generation. Interestingly, the story was published in 1961, only a few years before the counterculture of the 1960s emerged, in which the young rebelled against what they saw as the conformist culture of the 1950s and embraced a more open, freewheeling lifestyle. The counterculture challenged traditional authority in the name of freedom and self-expression. Established social norms were overturned as the young tried to shape their lives in accordance with their own beliefs and ideals. Standards of dress changed quite dramatically, becoming far less formal. This was particularly true for young women, who adopted the miniskirt, which only a decade previously would have been regarded as an immodest form of dress. Seen in this light, Sammy, the nineteen-year-old with the rebellious, idealistic outlook, who is prepared to stand up for what he believes to be right, according to his own conscience, is actually a foreshadowing of a generational change that lay just around the corner. The girls too might not have raised so many eyebrows had they entered the store in the late 1960s, when people were becoming accustomed to altered standards of dress, than in 1960 or 1961.

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