On its simplest level, “A & P” is a humorous adventure story, in which a young protagonist acts in the name of romantic love—and pays the price. The optimistic reader may feel that a sensitive hero has been freed from a dead-end job and a restrictive moral code, but a more realistic response will also recognize that Sammy’s act has left him in a kind of limbo: He now belongs neither to the world of Lengel and his parents (because he has quit the job they hoped he would keep) nor to the world the girls represent and to which, through his romantic gesture, he aspires. Like Sarty in William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” (another story about a young boy acting against his parents), Sammy’s act takes him, not from one world to another but to a place in between—and nowhere.
Like so many short stories, both European and American, “A & P” is primarily a story of initiation, as a young boy moves from innocence (and ignorance) to experience (and knowledge). Like the young boy in James Joyce’s “Araby,” perhaps the quintessential initiation story, Sammy has gained some knowledge (through what Joyce called an “epiphany” or revelation) both of himself and of adulthood, but he has also discovered “how hard the world was going to be” to those who cling to their romantic notions about life. Lacking as yet the maturity to accept compromise or to live with the world’s injustices, this noble and still uncorrupted youth has acted rashly and lost everything, except perhaps himself. The reader implicitly feels that Sammy’s initiation into the adult world will continue long after this short story is over.
Short as it is, the story has a number of classical overtones. Like the hero in an Arthurian legend, Sammy is on a romantic quest: In the name of chivalry, he acts to save the “queen” (and her two consorts) from the ogre Lengel. At the same time, Sammy is tempted by the three Sirens from “the Point” and rejects his mentor (or older guide), Lengel, to follow them; from this perspective, Sammy’s initiation comes when he recognizes the futility of this quest and returns to Lengel, who presents him with the truth. Such mythical possibilities point up the richness of John Updike’s prose.
There are also sociopsychological implications in this initiation story. Although Sammy defends the three girls against the provincial morality of Lengel and the town (“Poor kids, I began to feel sorry for them, they couldn’t help it”), it is only Sammy who holds to the outmoded romantic code; the three girls ignore him. Sammy, in other words, is a working-class “hero” defending a privileged upper class that does not even acknowledge his existence. In the medieval romance, all the characters were aristocratic. Here Sammy loses his job because of romantic notions to which only working-class characters, apparently, still subscribe.