In "A&P" by John Updike, what kind of person is Sammy?

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roberthalley eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In "A&P" by John Updike, Sammy can be described as both narcissistic and hypocritical. His attitude towards others in the store is negative - and in the case of the three young girls, rather creepy. Additionally, he appears to think highly of himself, despite the fact that it is his duty to serve those he deems inferior. This characterization makes it hard to sympathize with his realization at the end of the story of "how hard the world [is] going to be to [him] hereafter."

Sammy's problematic attitude becomes evident at the very beginning of the story when he becomes distracted by the three young girls:

"I stood there with my hand on a box of HiHo crackers trying to remember if I rang it up or not. 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."

Despite being responsible for the mistake, he transfers blame to the woman by suggesting she was the one who 'tripped' him up. His description of her showcases his lack of respect for his elders, and when combined with his account of what the girls are wearing, it becomes clear that he places high value on external beauty.

A short while later, Sammy makes fun of the other shoppers, referring to them as "sheep" while commenting on how their reactions to the three young girls. The hypocrisy here is that in his own words, the patrons of the store pay relatively little attention to them, while he spends the whole time following them around the store with his eyes. In addition to this hypocritical nature of his behavior, it is also very creepy:

"She didn't look around, not this queen, she just walked straight on slowly, on these long white prima-donna legs. She came down a little hard on her heels, as if she didn't walk in her bare feet that much, putting down her heels and then letting the weight move along to her toes as if she was testing the floor with every step, putting a little deliberate extra action into it."

This passage - when added to his constant focus on the girls' bathing suits - makes Sammy come across as perverted at best. Though he is only nineteen years old, the reader gets the impression that these girls are a few years younger than him. This is where most of the creepy-vibe comes from, especially considering the way he keeps tabs on where they are in the store. Despite his own obsession, in his eyes it is the other patrons in the store who deserve to be mocked.

Another aspect of Sammy's hypocrisy has to do with his job as cashier. As previously stated, he refers to them as mindless sheep following the herd from aisle to aisle. However, what he does not mention is the monotony of his own job; one could argue that his task of scanning product after product makes him a sheep. In Sammy's mind, though, they are beneath him.

One final example of Sammy's character - specifically, his narcissism - becomes very clear during his attempt to impress the three young girls:

"The girls, and who'd blame them, are in a hurry to get out, so I say 'I quit' to Lengel enough for them to hear, hoping they'll stop and watch me, their unsuspected hero. They keep right on going, into the electric eye; the door flies open and they flicker across the lot to their car, Queenie and Plaid and Big Tall Goony-Goony (not that as raw material she was so bad), leaving me with Lengel and a kink in his eyebrow."

In reality, this act of publicly declaring "I quit" has relatively little to do with the girls themselves. Rather, Sammy does this to feed his own ego and make himself look better. As one would expect, this ill-conceived plan immediately fails; instead of becoming the girls' hero, he simply becomes unemployed.

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Gretchen Mussey eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Sammy is portrayed as a sarcastic, observant teenager in Updike's short story "A&P." Sammy is the story's first-person narrator and comes across as a cynical, bored teenager working a mundane job. Sammy proceeds to display his sarcastic personality by referring to the customers as "sheep" and making snide comments about a woman who gives him a hard time for making a mistake while checking her items out. Sammy also has a huge imagination and is captivated by the leader of a group of girls who enter the store in their bathing suits, which is against store policy. Sammy nicknames the leader of the girls Queenie and proceeds to image her upper-class, carefree lifestyle. The fact that Sammy is able to see past the customers' appearances and draw conclusions about their lifestyles emphasizes his observant, attentive nature. Sammy is also a naive adolescent who sympathizes with the girls when his manager, Lengel, criticizes them for wearing bathing suits in the store. Sammy naively believes that the girls will admire him for defending them, challenging his boss, and quitting his job in indignation. Sammy's defense of the girls displays his honorable personality and valiant character. Tragically, the girls do not notice or acknowledge Sammy for his actions, and he is left feeling defeated and anxious about the cold world ahead of him.

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accessteacher eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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It is interesting that although Sammy is the first-person narrator of this excellent short story, we only find out his name when he quits at the end of the tale. We know that Sammy is working as a checkout clerk in an A & P supermarket. It is important to focus on his language and how we are able to tell a lot about his character through his speech. He is clearly young, being nineteen, as he speaks in a kind of vernacular slang:

She was a chunky kid, with a good tan and a sweet broad soft-looking can with those two crescents of white just under it, where the sun never seems to hit, at the top of the backs of her legs.

It is interesting that his character seems to vacillate between apathetic cynicism of those around him and a kind of romantic sensibility that draws him to the girls in the supermarket. Note how he refers to the "cash-register-watcher" he is serving:

...a witch about fifty with rouge on her cheekbones and no eyebrows, and I know it made her day to trip me up. She'd been watching cash registers for fifty years and probably never seen a mistake before.

And yet, in spite of this humorous cynicism and references to "freeloaders" and the "bum" in the store, he is greatly impacted by Queenie. Watching the way that the manager Lengel embarrasses them makes him want to commit an act of defiance against the strictness of society and "policy." Although he tries to be a hero, his gesture goes largely unnoticed. Although he tries to find the girls, they are long gone, and as he leaves, he suddenly has an insight into "how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter" if he continues to challenge the strict order of society as he has just done.

Thus we can say that Sammy is a young man who oscillates between funny, cynical views and romantic sensibilities. He shows empathy for the girls and the way they are treated, and through quitting his job comes to an understanding of what it is to defy society.

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