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.