Study Guide

A & P

by John Updike

A & P Essay - Critical Essays

A & P Updike, John (Hoyer)

Introduction

"A & P" Updike, John (Hoyer)

The following entry presents discussion of Updike's short story "A & P."

Often depicting middle-class, Protestant America, Updike's short fiction focuses on the feelings of loneliness and isolation that lead the "common man" to seek some form of higher truth or ultimate meaning. "A & P" represents one of Updike's most successful coming-of-age narratives; the story articulates a teenaged boy's sudden awareness of the split between his inner feelings and society's values. Like much of Updike's fiction, "A & P" first appeared in The New Yorker before being published in the collection Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories (1962).

Plot and Major Characters

"A & P" is narrated by Sammy, a nineteen-year-old boy who is a cashier at a local A & P grocery in a conservative New England town during the summer tourist season. When three adolescent girls enter the store wearing only their bathing suits, Sammy is mesmerized. He describes the appearance and actions of the girls with elaborate detail, observing that something about their demeanor suggests a remote, upper-class lifestyle that contrasts with his own. As the girls prepare to make their purchase, the store manager reprimands them for what he perceives as their indecent appearance. Hoping the girls will notice his chivalrous gesture, Sammy abruptly quits his job in protest. Realizing that he might later regret his impulsive action, Sammy nevertheless follows through with his decision to quit, and walks off the job. By the time he walks outside into the parking lot, however, the girls are already gone. The story ends on a melancholy note as Sammy reflects upon "how hard the world was going to be for me hereafter."

Major Themes

"A & P" concisely sets up oppositions between several motifs: the individual versus the collective, conservatism versus liberalism, the working class versus the upper class, women versus men, and consumerism versus Romanticism. Interpretations of "A & P" depend to some degree upon the reader's understanding of the reason for Sammy's hasty decision to quit his job: some argue that he is truly rebelling against the disparagement of the young women by the Puritanical manager, while others feel that he quits due to misguided self-interest, in hopes that the girls will notice him. Critics have often viewed Sammy's gesture as quixotically romantic, since he gains nothing through his decision except the loss of his job.

Critical Reception

"A & P" is one of Updike's most anthologized and most popular stories. While the narrative style of the story has been widely acclaimed, critical opinion is split between those who declare the piece a work of genius and those who find it devoid of profound content. Much critical discussion has focused on the significance of Sammy's actions: while many reviewers interpret his behavior as admirably honest and authentic, some argue that his inappropriate judgement of his town's standards leads to his isolation and loss at the conclusion. Commentators have found possible literary sources for the story in Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," Joyce's "Araby," and Emerson's "Self Reliance."

Criticism

M. Gilbert Porter (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "John Updike's 'A & P': The Establishment and an Emersonian Cashier," in English Journal, Vol. 61, November, 1972, pp. 1155-58.

[In the following essay, Porter argues that "A & P" depicts a nonconformist philosophy akin to that articulated by Emerson in "Self Reliance. "]

Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.

For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure.

(Emerson, "Self-Reliance")

"Right in the middle of town" surrounded by "two banks and the Congregational church and the newspaper store and three real-estate offices" stands Updike's...

(The entire section is 1782 words.)

Robert Detweiler (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "Pigeon Feathers: The Design of Design," in John Updike, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1973, pp. 60-79

[In the following excerpt, Detweiler focuses on pacing and narrative tone in "A & P, " noting Updike 's gradual building of tension and "tempered humor."]

The fourteenth story of Pigeon Feathers, entitled "A & P," is one of Updike's most popular; and it has been anthologized in college and commercial collections. It is indeed one of the brilliant pieces that redeem the few pages of inferior writing in the book. Sammy, the narrator, is a nineteen-year-old working as a checkout clerk in the A & P market on a Thursday afternoon. The...

(The entire section is 739 words.)

Suzanne Henning Uphaus (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Some Short Stories," in John Updike, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1980, pp. 121-30.

[In the following excerpt, Uphaus provides a brief overview of plot and major themes in "A & P, " emphasizing the story's ironic tone.]

Updike's story "A & P" is perhaps his most popular; it has been anthologized in many college texts. "A & P" derives its impact from the narrative voice, comic contrast, and the ironic distance between the intentions of the protagonist and what he actually accomplishes.

Sammy, the narrator, is a nineteen-year-old checkout clerk at an A & P market in a New England town that is close to a wealthy beach colony....

(The entire section is 1011 words.)

Ronald E. McFarland (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Updike and the Critics: Reflections on 'A & P'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 20, Nos. 2-3, Spring-Summer, 1983, pp. 95-100.

[In the following essay, McFarland surveys critical interpretations of "A & P" and considers why the piece "has emerged as Updike's best known story. "]

During the twenty years since its appearance in Pigeon Feathers (1962), "A & P" has been established as John Updike's most widely read short story. Its popularity among anthologists, as recourse to the listings in Studies in Short Fiction demonstrates, has made the story standard reading for thousands of college and high school students. It has appeared in...

(The entire section is 2249 words.)

Patrick W. Shaw (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Checking Out Faith and Lust: Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown' and Updike's 'A & P'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 23, No. 3, Summer, 1986, pp. 321-23.

[In the following essay, Shaw suggests that "A & P" alludes to Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" and emphasizes the story's motifs of repression and eroticism.]

While [Hawthorne's] "Young Goodman Brown" has been carefully and frequently scrutinized, John Updike's "A & P" is a story that for the most part has gone unexamined. The several commentaries which have sought to elucidate it are oversimplified and inexact. Such critical imbalance between the stories is hardly noteworthy until we realize...

(The entire section is 1380 words.)

Walter Wells (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "John Updike's 'A & P': A Return Visit to Araby," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 30, No. 2 Spring, 1993, pp. 127-33.

[In the following essay, Wells demonstrates how narrative and thematic details of "A & P" closely resemble those of Joyce's "Araby."]

John Updike's penchant for appropriating great works of literature and giving them contemporary restatement in his own fiction is abundantly documented—as is the fact that, among his favorite sources, James Joyce looms large.

With special affinity for Dubliners, Updike has, by common acknowledgment, written at least one short story that strongly resembles the acclaimed "Araby,"...

(The entire section is 2605 words.)

Robert M. Luscher (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Ceremonies of Farewell: Pigeon Feathers," in John Updike: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne Publishers, 1993, pp. 22-42.

[In the following excerpt, Luscher argues that "A & P" is "another story of a character caught in the middle between romance and realism."]

"A & P," Updike's most frequently anthologized piece, is, on the surface, uncharacteristic. Sammy, the brash teenaged narrator, fashions a seamless narrative and fastmoving plot that is structurally distinct from the lyrical mood or the much looser construction generally evident in Updike's short fiction. A closer inspection of "A & P," however, reveals similar thematic concerns and...

(The entire section is 1032 words.)