In "A & P," what comment does Updike make about supermarket society?
Updike's word choice in his short story "A & P" suggests a cynical and critical view of a consumer society in which people have been conditioned to conform in various ways.
From the beginning, Updike paints a picture of a detached society in which people are objectified rather than respected as individuals. Consider the following quote:
The sheep pushing their carts down the aisle— the girls were walking against the usual traffic (not that we have one-way signs or anything)— were pretty hilarious. You could see them, when Queenie's white shoulders dawned on them, kind of jerk, or hop, or hiccup, but their eyes snapped back to their own baskets and on they pushed. I bet you could set off dynamite in an A & P and the people would by and large keep reaching and checking oatmeal off their lists and muttering "Let me see, there was a third thing, began with A, asparagus, no, ah, yes, applesauce!" or whatever it is they do mutter. But there was no doubt, this jiggled them. A few house-slaves in pin curlers even looked around after pushing their carts past to make sure what they had seen was correct.
The narrator refers to the customers as "sheep." Sheep are known to be an animal that prefers to stay with the flock. They are dependent on each other for safety and usually dependent on a leader for direction (in the form of a shepherd). Comparing the customers to sheep, he is implying they all stay together, do the same things, are not independent, and look to a leader for direction.
He also makes a comment in this paragraph that the girls are not only in bathing suits—which breaks the code of conduct everyone else adheres to—they are also walking the wrong direction. There are no signs posted that say people cannot walk in the direction the girls are walking, but the "sheep" would never go against the flock; that would be nonconformity. The sheep all know the unspoken rules, though the three girls do not seem to understand them. The narrator notes that seeing the girls in their seemingly inappropriate attire rattles the sheep.
The narrator also refers to the customers as types rather than individuals. He calls them "house-slaves" in curlers, rather than housewives. This again insinuates that they are not independent individuals capable of thinking for themselves or going against the grain of society.
Lengel functions as the "shepherd" in this story. He is the one who enforces the rule and guides the sheep. This makes the sheep feel safe. However, Sammy notices that it makes the young girls feel ashamed and embarrassed. At that point, he chooses to break away from the "flock" and defend the honor of the girls, who were not doing anything wrong in Sammy's mind. He knows that by choosing this path, his life will be more difficult. This is likely because no one in his life will understand why he takes a stand against what he sees as an injustice because the "sheep" would never see it as an injustice. They expect others to follow the code of conduct that is dictated by society.
Updike is sharply critical of supermarket society, and this criticism is expressed through the voice of his narrator in "A & P," Sammy, who sees the way that Lengel, his boss, treats the girls who have the courage to walk into the supermarket in their bathing costumes as being repressive and unfair. Sammy describes the people in the supermarket variously as being "sheep" and "houseslaves," highlighting the way in which society demands conformity and suppresses individuality. This is of course the role that Lengel fulfills when he challenges the girls and tells them they must not enter the supermarket in their bathing costumes again. The story ends with Sammy's realisation about how hard life is going to be for him now that he has left his job:
...my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be for me hereafter.
Sammy has taken a stand against "policy" and the conformity that supermarket society instills in society. However, although in one sense he is pleased with the stand he has taken, he also recognises that the very act of making that stand is going to make life harder and more challenging for him, as he is going against the flow and standing out from the norm. Updike therefore presents supermarket society in a very negative light through the various images associated with other characters and the way that Lengel describes his humiliating treatment of the girls as being just following "policy." In supermarket society, Updike seems to suggest, there is no place for individuality and spontaneity, and humans are expected to act like the sheep Sammy describes the shoppers as being in the store.