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The climactic scene of John Updike's "A & P" emphasizes the significance of time and place as it contributes to the theme of Individualism. This scene takes place as Lengel returns from the back of the store where he has been haggling with a truck driver and is almost through the door marked "Manager." Instead, Lengel, a Sunday school teacher, decides to confront the girls who are now in the checkout line and enforce the social code of his age, the late fifties. Approaching the girls, he says, "Girls, this isn't the beach." And, it is at this point in the narrative that Sammy's thoughts turn to rebellion:
...Lengel...asks me, "Sammy, have you rung up their purchase?"
I thought and said "No' but it wasn't about that I was thinking.
As the girls hurry to leave, Sammy says, "I quit" as quickly as his can, hoping the girls will appreciate his radical action. However, the girls have already gone and Sammy is left alone to go through with his "fatal gesture" alone. He folds the apron and steps out the heaving door into the world in which he will test again and again his individualism.
It doesn’t say when it is set. But, the story was published in 1961 and given the context and atmosphere of the story, and the A & P, it’s safe to say the story is set in the 1950s or early 1960s. The setting is a town north of Boston. But I can see how it could be generally interpreted as any suburban town in 1950s America.
You might say that conformity is as prominent today as it was then. You might be right. But these days, conformity is overtly challenged. In the 1950s, conformity and conservative social values were advocated more blatantly. This is in stark contrast to the revolutionary decade that would follow. This was the height of that idealized American Dream, complete with a nuclear family and a white picket fence around a suburban house. Speaking of conformity, suburban housing plans were designed with similar housing units. To some extent, this is still true today.
This was a place of architectural and social conformity. Certainly, the 1960s were the most revolutionary decade for America in the last 60 years. And in terms of industry and buying the latest material goods, it’s hard to say which decade showed the most conformity.
But in terms of social values, from 1950 to the present, the decade of the 1950s were the most socially conservative and conformist. This makes Sammy’s individual decision to leave his job more dramatic and significant. And he did so in camaraderie with the girls who were dressed very inappropriately by 1950 standards. If Sammy were to leave a job in 2011, it wouldn’t have the same existential or rebellious significance today than it would back then.
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