In John Updike's short story "A&P," what theme or moral lesson is being expressed? 

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One of the themes that emerges in "A&P" is that actions often have unintended consequences.

Queenie and her friends casually enter the grocery store "in nothing but bathing suits." This behavior which lies outside the norms of expected public behavior catches not only the eye of Sammy, the narrator, but...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

One of the themes that emerges in "A&P" is that actions often have unintended consequences.

Queenie and her friends casually enter the grocery store "in nothing but bathing suits." This behavior which lies outside the norms of expected public behavior catches not only the eye of Sammy, the narrator, but his store manager as well. Queenie has not really considered the ramifications of not properly dressing for grocery shopping; when confronted, she deeply blushes. As it turns out, Queenie doesn't mind being the center of attention which flatters her, but she doesn't expect to be reprimanded. In fact, she tries to challenge Lengel's definition of decency, but he doesn't budge. Queenie slinks out, defeated, and has learned a lesson about the consequences of not following expected social norms.

Sammy learns some of the most powerful lessons about consequences. It is clear that he quits his job at least in part to try to impress the girls:

I say "I quit" to Lengel quick enough for them to hear, hoping they'll stop and watch me, their unsuspected hero.

Because the girls infatuated him from the moment they entered the store, Sammy feels some need to defend their sense of honor. He makes a rash decision to quit his job in an effort to win their favor. He fails miserably:

They keep right on going, into the electric eye; the door flies open and they flicker across the lot to their car...leaving me with Lengel and a kink in his eyebrow.

Sammy knows that he's made a mistake, and Lengel tries to talk Sammy out of his decision. But Sammy realizes that it would be "fatal" not to follow through at this point even though Lengel reminds him that his parents are depending on him. Sammy looks for "his" girls in the parking lot when he walks out, but they are gone and he isn't surprised. Thus, Sammy learns that making quick decisions with the intention of impressing people can have defeating consequences.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

A theme of John Updike's short story entitled "A&P" is that of initiation. In this story, Sammy moves from the dreamy, romantic world of a teenager into the complex world that adults inhabit. 

Sammy is mesmerized when three girls walk into the grocery store "in nothing but bathing suits." Because he is sexually intrigued with the girls, he rings up an item twice, and his customer complains loudly. After the customer leaves, Sammy watches the girls, creating romantic ideas about them, even naming one Queenie. In contrast to what Sammy labels the "sheep" who come through the store in hair curlers and house dresses, with broken and varicose veins on their legs (all of which repulse him), these girls elicit romantic and erotic thoughts in Sammy.

It is not long before the manager of the store, Mr. Lengel, confronts the girls; he explains the dress code and company policies to them, adding, "We want you decently dressed when you come in here." Embarrassed by this confrontation, the girls start to leave the store, so Sammy impulsively tells Mr. Lengel, "I quit." As he does so, Sammy watches the girls, hoping they will notice him, "their unsuspected hero," as he calls himself. However, because the girls are in a hurry to get out of the building, they do not hear Sammy when he says,"I quit," and his heroic moment is lost.

Mr. Lengel, who is a friend of Sammy's parents, tells Sammy, "I don't think you know what you are saying . . . Sammy, you don't want to do this to your Mom and Dad." Aware of the truth of this statement, Sammy, nevertheless, removes his apron and bow tie. Lengel argues further, "You'll feel this for the rest of your life." But, because the pretty girl who has blushed at Lengel's scolding has made Sammy feel "so scrunchy inside," he continues his impulsive action.

Once outside, Sammy is initiated into the adult world as he "felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter"; he also realizes too late the truth of Mr. Lengel's words. For in the adult world there are compromises that sometimes must be made. Sammy now knows that he has acted rashly and lost his job for the attention of girls who did not even seem to notice his chivalric act.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The theme or moral lesson that the author is trying to express in the story A&P by John Updike is that we must be ready to face the music and accept consequences as a result of each and every one of our actions. Therefore, if we want to avoid problems that might follow us for the rest of our lives the best thing to do is to think before we act. Otherwise, there is an effect to every cause.

In the story, the young man chose to stand of for something he momentarily believed in: That his boss was being rude to some pretty girls who entered the establishment in bathing suits-which is inappropriate in the first place. Similarly, the girls made the choice of breaking those rules, so they got yelled at and they probably won't be admitted back in the place.

Meanwhile, Sammy lost his job as a result of his ridiculous attempt as chivalry and, in consequence,  this one incident apparently affected him for long enough for him to have to tell the story and deem it a very "sad" tale.

Posted on