How does the setting of the conservatism of the 1950s and the role of social class play enter into John Updike's "A & P"?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The 1950s was the era of Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, and I Love Lucy--all television shows in which the "leading ladies" wore shirdresses with pearls and earrings, donning an apron when they cleaned or cooked.  When they went grocery shopping, many women of the middle class would dress almost as nicely as they did for church on Sundays, while the upper classes had their groceries delivered to the kitchens where servants would receive it. The yards of middle class homes had picket fences, sidewalks were neatly edged, boys all wore their hair short, and girls had few deviations of style. The first decade after World War II, the 1950s was a period in which people desired peace and contentment; as a result, they sacrificed individuality for a safe conformity against the supposed threat of Communism.  Conformity was also a standard for popularity and moral character.

One critic writes that John Updike's story portends the counterculture of the 1960s:

...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."

Certainly, Updike's main character, Sammy, evinces a repulsion for the conformity and complacence he observes in the grocery store's customers, who, confronted by the appearance of the girls in their bathing suits, are shocked at their lack of modesty that suggests to them immorality. The rattled customers lose direction as they start into the checkout slot with their carts and "begin to knock against each other, like scared pigs in a chute." Sammy, then, mesmerized by the provocative attire of the girls, listens as the manager, who represents the established thinking says to the girls,

"Girls, ...after this come in with your shoulders covered.  It's our policy."

Indeed, this "policy" of conformity that Sammy rejects in his mind as he thinks cynically to himself,

"That's policy for you.  Policy is what the kingpins want.  What the others want is juvenile delinquency."

In a chivalric gesture, then, Sammy tells Lengel he quits because the manager has embarrassed the girls with whom he has become infatuated. When Lengel tells Sammy "I don't think you know what you're saying," ironically, Sammy replies with an old expression of his grandmother's: "Fiddle-de-doo," and he unties his apron in rebellion and punches the "No Sale" button on the cash register as he refuses to make the compromises to conformity of the adult world. Once outside, however, Sammy's stomach is queasy, and he realizes "how hard the world was going to be" for himself if he does not conform.