“A & P” is a short initiation story in which the young protagonist, in a gesture of empty heroism, quits his job at the supermarket because the manager has embarrassed three girls—and learns just “how hard the world was going to be to him hereafter.”
Most of the action in the story takes place in the short time Sammy stands at his cash register on a summer afternoon watching three girls from the nearby beach colony, dressed in “nothing but bathing suits,” wander the store in search of a jar of “Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream.” By the time the three reach his checkout stand, Sammy is halfway in love with their leader, a girl he nicknames “Queenie,” who has “nothing between the top of the suit and the top of her head except just her.” Sammy is attracted to the girl not only by her physical beauty but also by her regal bearing and by her clear disdain for small-town mores. Sammy is highly sensitive to the class differences between “the Point,” where the three are apparently vacationing (“a place from which the crowd that runs the A & P must look pretty crummy”), and the supermarket where he works (where “houseslaves in pin curlers” push shopping carts up and down the aisles, followed by squalling children).
Sammy’s fantasies are rudely interrupted when Lengel, the officious supermarket manager (and Sunday school teacher), notices and reprimands the girls for their dress: “We want you decently dressed when you come in here.” Queenie blushes, and Sammy jumps to their defense in the only way he can: “I say ’I quit’ to Lengel quick enough for them to hear, hoping they’ll stop and watch me, their unsuspected hero.” They do not, and Sammy is left to confront Lengel. “You didn’t have to embarrass them,” he says. Lengel explains, in defense of the town’s provincial mores, “It was they who were embarrassing us.” Lengel reminds Sammy that his impulsive action will hurt his parents and that he will “feel this” for the rest of his life, but Sammy is trapped by his own chivalric gesture, and by the romantic code of which it is a part and by which he swears: “It seems to me that once you begin a gesture it’s fatal not to go through with it.” Remembering how Lengel “made that pretty girl blush,” Sammy punches “the No Sale tab” on his register and walks out into the hot and empty parking lot.