A & P Essay - Essays and Criticism

Essays and Criticism

Presaging the Youthful Rebellion of the 1960s

John Updike has been accused of writing extremely well about matters of very little importance. His prose, sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, does read beautifully, perhaps more beautifully than anyone writing today. Erica Jong says, in an essay in Robert Luscher' s John Updike: A Study of the Short Fiction, that his detractors are "transparently envious'' of him. I agree with Jong. Updike's prose style is not separable from the content of his works, and that content is not trivial. The story we are examining here, "A & P," is a fine example, especially since many critics consider it a slight work describing an ultimately insignificant moment in a young man's small life.

A reader skating along the smooth ice of Updike's prose might be quite content to simply watch the approaching horizon, but the careful reader who looks below the surface will see all sorts of interesting, and sometimes frightening things lurking there. In "A & P," it seems that a grocery checkout clerk named Sammy quits his job to impress a pretty girl in a bathing suit. But just below the surface, we can see that Sammy has made a conscious choice to protest his manager's bad treatment of the girl. And if we get close and look even deeper, we can see that this story, informed by the social and cultural currents of the times, is an early harbinger of the youthful rebellion of the 1960s, which was in its embryonic stage at the time Updike wrote "A & P."

The 1950s were to some extent years of conformity, of marching in step, and also (it is said) years of sexual repression. Married couples portrayed on television and in the movies had to have twin beds. Censors dictated that bedroom scenes involving man and wife had to have at least one partner with a foot on the floor at all times. On the political front, a few influential people believed there were communists everywhere—or so it would seem from the headlines and speeches of the day. At times Hollywood seemed obsessed with communists and troubled teenagers, with films like I Married a Communist and Runaway Daughter. To be different in any significant way was to be suspect. In short, some Americans believed that there existed people "out there" who would seduce the nation's children, turn the country communist, and play rock and roll music all day in order to arouse the base, sexual longings of the populace. These people were more afraid of being labeled outsiders than they were afraid of the outsiders themselves.

Most people, of course, were not so dogmatic in their thinking. Most lived productive, normal lives, unrecognized and basically content. There were other people who spoke out in various ways against the uniformity of American society. But they were, by and large, on the periphery of the culture.

Among those who spoke out, the bi-coastal Beat Movement, centered around Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, and various friends, fans, and hangers-on, came to the fore in the mid-1950s with the publication of Kerouac's On the Road and Ginsberg's Howl. Although neither work might seem dangerous to us in the 1990s, they were roundly condemned by mainstream society at the time for being too sexually explicit, encouraging the mixing of the races, promoting drug use, and instigating a host of other immoral and illegal acts. Combining a fear of sex, race, drugs, communism, and freedom of dress and self-expression, society labeled the Beats "beatniks." In fact, anyone who challenged the status quo was labeled, humiliated, criticized, and denounced everywhere, from the Oval Office at the White House to the pulpit of the local Congregational Church, from the halls of Congress, to the halls of Shillington High School.

It is into this rigid world that John Updike sends three young girls wearing nothing but bathing...

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John Updike's "A & P": A Return Visit to "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 language, at least two critics have found "You'll Never Know, Dear" to be "a far more complex story."

What remains unacknowledged, I think, is that shortly after writing "You'll Never Know, Dear," Updike made a second fictional excursion to Araby. This time he transformed Joyce's latter-day Vanity Fair, not into a cheaply exotic destination for a starry-eyed youngster, but into the richly resonant single setting for an older adolescent's sad tale: a tale of the modern supermarket The resulting story, since its publication in 1962, has been Updike's most frequently anthologized: the popular "A & P." Updike even signals his intention for us at the outset, giving his story a title that metrically echoes Joyce's: Araby...A & P (Grand Union or Safeway would not suffice.)

Like "Araby," "A & P" is told after the fact by a young man now much the wiser, presumably, for his frustrating infatuation with a beautiful but inaccessible girl whose allure excites him into confusing his sexual impulses for those of honor and chivalry. The self-delusion in both cases leads quickly to an emotional fall.

At 19, Updike's protagonist, Sammy, is a good bit older than Joyce's—at the opposite end of adolescence, it would seem. While in Joyce's boy we readily believe such confusion between the gallant and profane, I think we needn't assume that Sammy is likewise unable to distinguish between the two quite normal impulses. His attraction to the girl in the aisle is certainly far more anatomically and less ambiguously expressed than that of Joyce's boy to Mangan's sister. But it is Beauty that confounds the issue. When human aesthetics come into play, when the object of a young man's carnal desire also gratifies him aesthetically, that is when the confusion arises. In Irish-Catholic Dublin of the 1890s, such youthful beauty not surprisingly invokes analogies between Mangan's sister and the Queen of Heaven (though the swinging of her body and "the soft rope of her hair toss[ing] from side to side," which captivate the boy, hint at something less spiritual than Madonna worship). And while beauty's benchmarks in Sammy's more secular mid-century America are more anatomical than spiritual, Updike does have Sammy call his young femme fatale "Queenie,'' and he does make her the center of a "trinity" of sorts, showing her two friends at one point "huddl[ing] against her for relief."

Once smitten, both young protagonists become distracted, agitated, disoriented. Joyce's turns impatient "with the serious work of life." His teacher accuses him of idling. His heart leaps, his thoughts wander, his body responds "like a harp" to the words and gestures of Mangan's sister, which run "like fingers...upon the wires." Similarly, Updike's young hero can't remember, from the moment he spots Queenie in the aisle, which items he has rung up on the cash register.

Even details in the two stories are similar, Updike clearly taking his cues from "Araby." Both boys are excited by specified whiteness about the girls—Joyce's boy by "the white curve of her neck" and "the white border of [her] petticoat" in the glow of Dublin lamplight, Sammy by the "long white prima-donna legs" and the white shoulders to which he refers repeatedly "Could [there]," he wonders, "have been anything whiter than those shoulders[?]." Joyce's boy also observes a nimbus surrounding Mangan's sister, "her figure defined by the light from the half-opened door." True, Mangan' s sister comports herself more humbly than her American counterpart. Queenie walks, heavy-heeled and head high, with the haughty pride of the affluent, secularized American upper middle class. But her enticing whiteness, in Updike's sly parody, is also given a luminous, halo-like quality: "around the top of the cloth," says Sammy of the bathing suit that "had slipped a little on her...there was this shining rim."

Both girls, remote as they are from their ardent admirers, also engage in some subtly seductive posturing. In the supermarket aisle, Queenie turns so slowly that Sammy's stomach is made to "rub the inside of [his] apron." It's the same sensation, we suspect, that Joyce's protagonist feels when Mangan's sister "turn[s the] silver bracelet round and round her wrist'' and bows her head toward him in the lamplight in front of her door. Queenie bows to no one, but the "clear bare plane of the top of her chest...[is] like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light.'' Her beauty, too, like that of Mangan's sister, is incandescent as it inclines toward her aspiring young knight.

Certainly one artistic motive for Updike's second reworking of "Araby" must be to contrast the spiritual value-systems and the adolescent sexual folkways of Joyce's Dublin with those of suburban New England in the Atomic Age. (The disillusionment of little Ben, who is only ten in "You'll Never Know, Dear," is clearly presexual.) "A & P" holds the secular materialism of Updike's own day up for comparison against the slowly imploding, English-dominated Irish Catholicism of the mid-1890s—and, behind it, the fervor of Protestant evangelism in Bunyan' s seventeenth century. As critics have often noted, few non-Catholic writers in America make issues of religious faith...

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Irony and Innocence in John Updike's "A & P"

John Updike's short story "A & P" first published in The New Yorker and then in Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories (1962), has become something of a classic of college literature anthologies, and no doubt the story's brevity and its outrageously naive yet morally ambitious teen-age hero have much to do with that status. Part of the story's appeal, too, derives from the fact that the wild comedy of its boisterously inventive and rebellious narrator modulates at its end into a gentle but benign sobriety. Moments after Sammy dramatically surrenders his job at the cash register to protest the unchivalrous treatment of the three girls in swim suits who have broken the store's unwritten dress code, we may rejoice in the...

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Updike and the Critics: Reflections on "A & P"

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...

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Sammy's Colloquial Voice in "A & P"

"A & P" is one of Updike's most popular and anthologized tales. Told in the first person from Sammy's point of view, the story calls attention not to the tone of nostalgia but the brashness of his colloquialism. The first sentences suggest his confidence: "In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits. I'm in the third check-out slot, with my back to the door, so I don't see them until they're over by the bread. The one that caught my eye first was the one in the plaid green two-piece." Sammy's sympathy with the teeny boppers is established immediately by the contrast between the girls and the typical cash-register watcher, "a witch about fifty with rouge on her cheekbones and no eyebrows" who gives him a hard time...

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