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."...
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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...
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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 condescending yet charming irony of his naive conclusion:"I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter." Sammy surely overrates the harm he has done to his prospects. We chuckle at his groundless apprehension and at Updike's momentarily convincing if mischievous pretense that the world is benign. We are gladdened to have had our disbelief suspended.
But this analysis of the tonal satisfactions of the ending overlooks its deeper irony and the story's more considerable structural design on which that irony depends. The running theme which links the bulk of the story's incidents repeatedly demonstrates Sammy's inability to imagine himself personally at risk. The expectation this motif awakens in us is that Sammy will...
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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 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." He did not mention "A & P." J. M. Edelstem, who made a passing comment on "A & P" butfocused on "Lifeguard," found Updike's work "rewarding,'' but also "terribly frustrating." Along with the stones' "glitter and shine," occasional "dazzle," their "irony" and "neat felicity," Edelstein also detected "a cleverness and an obvious mannerism that becomes tiresome." Granville Hicks did not mention the story in his lead review...
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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 for ringing up a box of HiHo crackers twice. Admiring the three girls for daring to enter the grocery store dressed in bathing suits, he especially likes the one who wears her straps down and her head high. He also enjoys the shock on the faces of the housewives in pin curlers who do a double take to corroborate this breach in decorum: "these are usually women with six children and varicose veins mapping their legs...there's people in this town haven't seen the ocean for twenty years."
The sketch turns on the offhand comment that his parents think the outcome sad. We know then that despite the colloquial immediacy of the tale, "A & P" is the record of an incident which Sammy has already lived through but not forgotten. His...
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