John Updike's story "A & P" is all about the setting. If the story had not occurred in a grocery store in a beach town with the dubious hero, Sammy, being a clerk in the A & P grocery store, the story could not have happened. Without this setting (or one very, very much like it), the scantily clad girls could not have come in and wandered down the aisles causing the hero and other clerks to salivate over them while they discussed food purchases. In addition, the teen age hero could not have been distracted from his work with thoughts of chivalry. Moreover, the manager could not have had occasion to reprimand the girls for their attire and request they vacate the premises.
Furthermore, if the manager had not done this, there would have been no occasion for our slightly confused hero to enact his wild imaginings (which fall flat around his properly clad feet in the parking lot) by symbolically removing his attire (his clerk's apron) and quitting his job to champion the rights of the girls who walk away leaving him in cold oblivion in an unpopulated parking lot. The setting is the backbone of John Updike's pathetic tale of a pathetically illusioned youth.
The story is really about young men’s fascination with young girls. Updike was an art student before he became a writer. His visual sensitivity is apparent in his stories. "A & P" is a picture of a supermarket in a small resort town. He brings the three girls into the store to create drama. It is definitely “small-town” drama. The drama is only there to intrigue the reader—but the real purpose of the story is to paint a picture. Without the three girls the piece would be just a sketch. It would be hard to interest a reader in a simple description of the inside of a small-town supermarket in the middle of an uneventful summer day. The girls also give a visual focus to the work because Sammy's eyes follow them around the store, up and down the aisles with which he is so familiar. The title of the story suggests that this is not so much about the people as it is about a typical American supermarket.
Updike's story is especially valuable in that it demonstrates a truth about writing. It is easy to get readers to visualize things they are familiar with, and very difficult to get them to visualize things with which they are not familiar. That is why there are so many analogies, similes, and metaphors in poetry and prose fiction. That is why we ourselves us so many analogies, similes and metaphors in our own conversation.
Updike's task was easy in "A & P." We have all seen supermarkets with their aisles loaded with colorful cans, packages and bottles. We have all seen those shoppers pushing their carts up and down the aisles and then lining up with such docility at the checkout counters. We have all seen women like the one in the story who watches the cash register hoping to catch the checkout clerk in a mistake. We can easily visualize the store manager because they all look so much alike, dress so much alike, and seem to be trying to be visible and invisible at the same time. And we can visualize those two boys checking out the customers and checking out those three girls. We have all seen girls like the ones Sammy describes, and we have seen them in bathing suits, bold and self-conscious, walking gingerly in their bare feet--but not usually inside stores, even today!
I don't think we should attach too much importance to the happening but should enjoy the experience of being transported in our imaginations into a little world for a few moments. We feel sympathy for most of the little people involved, including Sammy, the store manager, the shoppers for whom this trip is the biggest event of their day, and for the three girls for whom this big adventure will end in success and embarrassment. It is a Norman Rockwell kind of setting, with Norman Rockwell characters, and even a Norman Rockwell message about life in the United States.
In John Updike's short story "A&P" the boy works in an A&P store. The setting is a grocery store in the 1950's. It is in a small town and the boy works a mundane job as a cashier. He sees the same thing day after day. The same isles. The same colors. the same keys on the cash register. However, for the boy the store seems almost devoid of color.
The girls come in totally different than the expected norm. They are cheerful and vibrant. They are the opposite of the store and shift the mood of the boy. The setting is important because the boy is able to see that the girls mean excitement and something better than the store where everything always seems to be the same.