John Updike's "A&P" gives the reader insight into an unusual character. Please explain.

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

“I look around for my girls, but they’re gone.”

John Updike’s protagonist in “A & P” wants to be a hero, but Sammy falls short.  Sammy serves as the narrator of the story which provides a little slice of his life that leaves him with a bleak future.

Sammy, a typical boy of nineteen, most likely comes from a middle-class home. At first Sammy seems to be a typical boy, but, his banter is droll and clever. Sammy applies his sarcastic and rude attitude toward some of his customers.  He has an epithet for everyone: Queenie, witch, cash register watcher, and house slaves. The boy has an “attitude.”

The story takes place in a grocery store in the 1960s.  This was a time when people still dressed up to go to church, work, and even the grocery store.  People were judged by how they dressed. The two main employees are the cashier/checkers Sammy and his married friend Stoksie. 

Three girls in bathing suits come into the grocery store.  Sammy zones into the girls quickly and is enthralled by the one he calls Queenie.  She is attractive and probably is aware of it. The other girls seem to follow Queenie around. He picked out her name because she is the queen bee with the other girls circling around her.  Sammy realizes that the girls are dressed for the beach, not for the grocery store.  

The girls were searching the store for a can of herring snacks in sour cream. When Queenie is ready to pay, she pulls her dollar out of her bra.  Sammy feels weak in the knees. Then, something happens that ruins everything.  Lengel, the manager,  notices the girls.

Lengel comes in from haggling with a truck full of cabbages on the lot...Lengel's pretty dreary, but he doesn't miss much.  He comes over to them and says: 'Girls, this isn't the beach.'

Queenie blushes and tries to defend herself by saying that she was on an errand for her mother.

Lengel does not let up: ‘That’s all right. But this isn’t the beach.’ He adds on that they need to be dressed decently when they come into the grocery store.  Queenie says that they are decent. All of the customers watch the scene. Sammy rings up their purchase, and the girls hurry out. 

On the spur of the moment, Sammy makes a heroic gesture and quits his job, probably for a couple of reasons.  He does not like how the girls were treated by the manager and he hopes that he could impress the girls. 

Lengel tries to get Sammy to listen to reason. The manager is a friend of Sammy’s parents. Sammy had made up his mind and takes off his apron and turns it in.  He adds to the scene by making the cash register drawer pop out with a loud noise.    

Sammy hurries to the exit, but the girls are gone.  They probably did not even know what he had done on their behalf.  After he looks back in the store, Sammy realizes that he may have made a mistake.

Quitting to protest the treatment and humiliation that the girls experienced was done with almost wholesome reasons.  He felt incensed by the rudeness and mishandling of the situation.  Sammy does feel sympathy for the girls. Demonstrating his sincerity by his spontaneous gesture, Sammy actions may not turn out as nobly for him.           

Sammy seemed to enjoy his job and his ability to make fun of the customers [not to their faces]. Would Sammy have quit if the three people in question were boys in bathing suits? It is doubtful.  Sammy liked those girls more than he wanted to be a hero.