John Updike’s short story A&P is about a 19-year-old boy-transitioning-to-man, Sammy, ambivalently employed at a small town market in Massachusetts, “north of Boston,” whose attempt at chivalry – he impetuously quits his job as a cashier at the market in protest of the store manager’s treatment of three scantily-clad girls from the “better” part of town who wander in – and the seeming emptiness of this futile gesture. Applying “Marxist literary criticism” to Updike’s story requires no great stretch of imagination. A&P is all about class and social distinctions, whether it’s the hierarchical structure of the store – Lengel, the manager, presiding over the lower rungs of the ladder occupied by Sammy and Stokesie – or the upper-class status enjoyed by the three female interlopers, with even this small sample of humanity divided by Sammy’s perception of hierarchy (“. . .the third one, that wasn't quite so tall. She was the queen. She kind of led them, the other two . . .”), or the interjection of arbitrarily-derived rules of social conduct exemplified by Lengel’s reference, in chastising the three hapless girls regarding their inappropriate attire (“’Girls, I don’t want to argue with you. After this come in here with your shoulders covered. It’s our policy.’ He turns his back. That’s policy for you. Policy is what the kingpins want”). Marxist criticism views literature through the prisms of class conflict and social constructs that emphasize the inequalities inherent in non-Marxist cultures.
A&P, of course, is told through the first-person, specifically, through the eyes of Sammy. Updike’s penchant for wry observations of mainstream America were known for the sense of ennui experienced by his main protagonists, as in his hugely-successful “Rabbit” series of novels. Sammy’s observations of his surroundings, his running commentary on the environment in which he functions, serve as the author’s somewhat ambivalent indictment of the monotonous constipating lives of his characters. He was a little more generous in an interview with Life magazine referenced in the New York Times obituary following his death:
“My subject is the American Protestant small-town middle class,” Mr. Updike told Jane Howard in a 1966 interview for Life magazine. “I like middles,” he continued. “It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.”
Sammy’s observations of the world he inhabits, however, are more direct, and more attuned to the proletarian perspective and its critical take on middle-class life, as when he compares the store’s customers to the proverbial “sheep,” mindlessly “pushing their carts down the aisle the girls were walking against the usual traffic (not that we have one-way signs or anything).” The use of the “sheep” analogy is no accident, as Updike brought a very theological perspective to his writing and the condescending approach to congregants embodied in that phrase has to be viewed through the Marxist prism whether intended by the author or not. Nor can it be accidental that Updike has his protagonist, a 19-year-old small town supermarket cashier, suggest that his coworker, the aforementioned Skokesie, envisions himself as the future proprietor of an establishment with a regal, czarist theme, as in the following quote from A&P: “I forgot to say he thinks heʼs going to be a manager some sunny day, maybe in 1990 when itʼs called the Great Alexandrov and Petrooshki Tea Company or something.” The futility of Sammy’s noble gesture – his announcement that he is quitting his job on the spot in protest of Lengel’s treatment of the three girls – is emphasized by the failure of the target of his chivalry, the girls, to even notice this grand gesture made on their behalf:
“I say ‘I quit’ to Lengel quick 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.”
Sammy recognizes the essential meaninglessness of his spontaneous uprising against injustice, but notes, in closing, that to not follow through on his announcement would be “fatal.” He may, as Marx suggested, have nothing to lose but his chains, but Updike was sufficiently erudite to recognize himself that Sammy’s gesture has more serious consequences than a metaphorical liberation from proletarian strictures. His family will now suffer economically from this sudden drop in income, and the supermarket will continue to operate with or without him. Exhortations to the masses to sacrifice their economic security, tenuous though it may be, is easy for a philosopher sitting in a library contemplating grand gestures.