A & P Updike, John (Hoyer)
"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.
"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."
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.
"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 symbolic A&P. As supermarket, it is the institution where, according to any newspaper advertisement, the best values in town can be found. It is the common denominator of middle-class suburbia, an appropriate symbol for the mass ethic of a consumer-conditioned society. And it is in this setting that Updike reveals, through what is almost a prose dramatic-monolog technique, the sensitive character of a nineteen-year-old grocery clerk named Sammy, who rejects the standards of the A&P and in so doing commits himself to that kind of individual freedom for which, as Emerson said, "the world whips you with its displeasure."
Like Fra Lippo Lippi and Holden Caulfield, Sammy tells his own story, and the crisis with...
(The entire section is 1782 words.)
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 scene is an unnamed Massachusetts town (Tarbox of Couples?) north of Boston and "five miles from a beach, with a big summer colony out on the Point."
Into the staid store in this staid place walk three girls barefoot and in swimming suits, probably the daughters of wealthy summer residents from the Point. The store is not accustomed to such casualness, and the girls cause a small sensation while they shop. They buy only a jar of herring snacks and are about to pay at Sammy's checkout when Lengel, the store manager and a dour man who "teaches Sunday School and the rest," sees them. He comes forward to chide them for what to him is their indecency. The girls are flustered, but they stand up to him, especially the cool,...
(The entire section is 739 words.)
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 narrative voice is established immediately as familiar and colloquial, using the present tense for dramatic impact; it is as if the young narrator is recounting the incident to a friend. "In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits," he begins. "I'm in the third checkout slot, with my back to the door, so I don't see them until they're over by the bread."
Much of the humor in the story comes from Sammy's response to the girls. Mesmerized by his initial sight of them, he rings up "a box of HiHo crackers" twice, enraging his customer. When the girls come into view again, Sammy's attention becomes fixed on the "queen" of the three. She walks with poised nonchalance, barefoot, with the straps of her bathing...
(The entire section is 1011 words.)
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 over twenty anthologies since its inclusion in Douglas and Sylvia Angus's Contemporary American Short Stories in 1967. What accounts for the continuing popularity of this particular story?
The reviewers greeted Pigeon Feathers with that peculiar damnation-by-hyperbolic-praise which continues to plague Updike. Arthur Mizener began his page-one review in New York Times Book Review by hailing Updike as "the most talented writer of his age in America (he is 30 today) and perhaps the most serious," only to warn later of the dangers of Updike's Joycean "verbal brilliance" and of the sometimes awkward conflict in his work between "wit and insight" ["Behind the Dazzle is a Knowing Eye," New York Times Book...
(The entire section is 2249 words.)
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 that Updike uses Hawthorne's venerable etching of human folly as a prototype and depends heavily upon its well-known nuances to convey and enhance the complexities of his own tale.
First of all, Updike borrows Hawthorne's geographical setting. When Updike carefully sets the action of "A & P" in a town just north of Boston and has his protagonist refer to a woman customer as a witch who "would have been burned" over in Salem, he simultaneously points to the story he wishes the reader to recall and evokes Hawthorne's use of Salem as an emblem of Calvinist dogma.
As Yvor Winters notes, [in Hawthorne: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1966] no writer after Hawthorne sets a story in New England...
(The entire section is 1380 words.)
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," not only in plot and theme, but in incidental detail. That story, the 1960 "You'll Never Know, Dear, How Much I Love You"— like "Araby"—tells the tale of a poor, romantically infatuated young boy who, though obstructed by parental slowness, journeys with innocent urgency, coins in hand, to a seemingly magical carnival—only to find there, behind its facades, just a sleazy, money grasping, sexually tinged reality that frustrates and embitters him. Both stories draw on the Christian imagery of Bunyan's Vanity Fair episode to trace a modern boy's passage from innocence to experience, and to expose some of the pains and complexities of that passage. Notwithstanding "Araby"'s cachet as one of the great short stories in the English...
(The entire section is 2605 words.)
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 narrative techniques. Ringing up HiHo crackers rather than reading Virgil, Sammy stands apart from the sensitive young men Updike habitually portrays in his Olinger stories; he is closer in spirit to Ace Anderson of Updike's early story "Ace in the Hole." Yet his impulsiveness ultimately gives way to a nascent awareness of the compromises that may be entailed on the other side of the A & P's automatic door once he crosses through for the last time. While the story lacks the ache of nostalgia present in many of the collection's other pieces, Sammy's backward glance at the recent past seeks its full implications. In retelling the story, he refines the experience into a form that will live in his memory, significant in its continuing...
(The entire section is 1032 words.)
DeBellis, Jack. John Updike: A Bibliography: 1967-1993. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1994, 335 p.
Lists works by and about Updike in all genres, including translations, interviews, parodies, and caricatures.
Olivas, A. Michael. An Annotated Bibliography of John Updike Criticism 1967-1973, and a Checklist of His Works. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1975, 91 p.
Lists primary and secondary sources on Updike.
Burchard, C. Rachel. "The Short Stories." In John Updike: Yea Sayings, pp. 133-60, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971
Discusses Updike's short stories published prior to 1970.
Additional coverage of Updike's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography: 1968-1988; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 1-4R; Contemporary Authors Bibliographical Series, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 4, 33, 51; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, 13, 15, 23, 34, 43, 70; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 5, 143; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 3; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, Vols. 80, 82; DISCovering Authors;...
(The entire section is 186 words.)