In John Updike's short story "A&P," what does Sammy mean by saying that he "felt how hard the world was going to be" to him?
John Updike’s short story “A&P” has often been read as a story of initiation, in which the narrator and central character learns some important lessons about the nature of life. Sammy himself seems to interpret the story in this way, as he suggests when, in his final comment, he says,
my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.
In other words, Sammy seems to think that he has learned a lesson in the painful ways of the world. By sacrificing his job in order to stand up for the young woman who (Sammy thinks) has been insulted by Sammy’s boss, Sammy believes he has learned that the world can be harsh and unjust.
According to some critics, Sammy’s final comment is typical of the self-centeredness he has displayed throughout the story. Just as he tends to see everything from his own limited perspective (these critics argue), so at the end he sees himself mainly as a victim, and he exaggerates the harshness of the lesson he has learned.
Other critics consider Sammy a basically sympathetic character but think that by the end of the story he has displayed a fair amount of immaturity. For these critics, his final comment is typical of the immaturity he has often exhibited earlier.
Other readers think that Sammy in general, like his final comment in particular, is complex and ambiguous. For these readers, he is not a simple, simplistic character, and neither his actions nor his final comment can easily be assessed, either negatively or positively. Such readers consider Sammy, his decision, and his final comment as genuinely thought-provoking rather than as objects of simple praise or derision.
Finally, some critics believe that Sammy’s function as the narrator of the story makes it particularly difficult to know exactly how we are meant to judge him throughout the story and particularly at the end.
Reader-response critics, who emphasize the subjectivity of the ways people respond to works of art, might say that any of the responses reported above is just as legitimate as any of the other responses. In contrast, formalist critics, who argue that the best works of art display a kind of complex unity, might sympathize with readings that stress the ambiguities and ironies of the tale.