Study Guide

A & P

by John Updike

A & P Analysis

Style and Technique (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Style is meaning in “A & P.” The story opens abruptly—“In walks these three girls”—and maintains that vernacular, conversational, ungrammatical voice throughout its 250 lines. The point of view is strictly Sammy’s and, although tense shifts occasionally from past to historical present (as it would in such a retelling), Sammy’s voice has an authenticity and immediacy that is matched in very few twentieth century stories. That voice can be both pedestrian (“I thought that was so cute”) and poetic (as when Sammy describes Queenie’s bare upper chest as “a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light”).

Sammy’s voice is also explicitly humorous. When he first sees the girls, he cannot remember whether he has rung up the box of HiHo crackers under his hand.I ring it up again and the customer starts giving me hell. She’s one of these cash-register watchers, a witch about fifty with rouge on her cheekbones and no eyebrows, and I know it made her day to trip me up. She’s been watching cash registers for fifty years and probably never seen a mistake before.

When Lengel tells the girls, “this isn’t the beach,” it strikes Sammy as humorous, as if the thought had just occurred to Lengel, “and he had been thinking all these years the A & P was a great big dune and he was the head lifeguard.”

All the characters, in Sammy’s language, become animals: Lengel is about to “scuttle” crablike into his office when he first sees the girls; the other customers group like “sheep” and “pigs in a chute” when they see the trouble at the front register; the three girls “buzz” to one another, like a queen bee and her two drones. Sammy’s voice, his humor, and his detailed descriptions of the supermarket setting undercut the implicitly romantic and sentimental situation of the story.

What Updike has achieved in “A & P” is a story of richness and ambiguity. The girls and Lengel argue the meaning of “decent,” for example, and the word reverberates with socioeconomic import; Sammy jumps to the defense of the girls, but he has earlier shown that his attitude toward the dress code is similar to Lengel’s (“You know, it’s one thing to have a girl in a bathing suit down on the beach”).

“A & P” works well as a story because the tone, the language, and the point of view are so appropriate to and consistent with the subject. Updike, in writing a seriocomic story on the common theme of initiation, has achieved a small masterpiece through a rich, supple prose that conveys the story’s comic tragedy through its very language and imagery.

A & P Historical Context

No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service
Today it is common for businesses to post signs stating the rules of their premises, "No Shirt,...

(The entire section is 692 words.)

A & P Setting

The action of "A & P" takes place in grocery store in a town north of Boston that is five miles from the nearest beach. Updike told...

(The entire section is 146 words.)

A & P Literary Style

Point of View and Narration
Sammy, a checkout clerk, narrates this story in the first person. His voice is colloquial and...

(The entire section is 730 words.)

A & P Social Sensitivity

Today it is common for businesses to post signs stating the rules of their premises: "No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service," or for movie theaters...

(The entire section is 686 words.)

A & P Compare and Contrast

1959: Although only 10 percent of all grocery stores are large enough to be considered supermarkets, they account for almost 70...

(The entire section is 293 words.)

A & P Topics for Discussion

1. If three girls in bathing suits walked into your local supermarket, what do you think the reaction would be today? Has society's attitude...

(The entire section is 178 words.)

A & P Ideas for Reports and Papers

1. Rewrite the first paragraph of this story in the third person. Why do you think Updike wrote it in the first person?

2....

(The entire section is 144 words.)

A & P Topics for Further Study

Rewrite the first paragraph of this story in the third person. Why do you think Updike wrote it in the first person? Which version do you...

(The entire section is 146 words.)

A & P Related Titles / Adaptations

Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories (1962) by John Updike. "A & P" is one of the stories in this collection which contains stories...

(The entire section is 34 words.)

A & P Media Adaptations

"A & P" is read by the author on the audiocassette Couples and Pigeon Feathers, published by Caedmon Audio Cassette. The cassette...

(The entire section is 30 words.)

A & P What Do I Read Next?

Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories (1962) by John Updike. "A & P" is one of the stories in this collection which contains stories...

(The entire section is 218 words.)

A & P For Further Reference

Butscher, Edward. "John Updike: Overview." In Reference Guide to Short Fiction, 1st ed. Edited by Noelle Watson. Detroit: St. James...

(The entire section is 323 words.)

A & P Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Uphaus, Suzanne, John Updike, Ungar, 1980, pp. 125-26.

Detweiler, Robert. John Updike, Twayne,...

(The entire section is 148 words.)

A & P Bibliography (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Bloom, Harold, ed. John Updike: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

Boswell, Marshall. John Updike’s Rabbit Tetralogy: Mastered Irony in Motion. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000.

Greiner, Donald. John Updike’s Novels. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1984.

Luscher, Robert M. John Updike: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993.

Miller, D. Quentin. John Updike and the Cold War: Drawing the Iron Curtain. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001.

Newman, Judie. John Updike. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.

Schiff, James A. John Updike Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1998.

Updike, John. Self-Consciousness: Memoirs. New York: Knopf, 1989.

Uphaus, Suzanne Henning. John Updike. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980.