WHAT ARE THE MAJOR THEMES IN "A & P" by John Updike?

Expert Answers
mdelmuro eNotes educator| Certified Educator

John Updike often wrote about adolescent and young adult male minds (See: Rabbit series). They often act rashly with their sexual urges and drives, pushing them to make unwise decisions. This folly of youth plagues the 19-year-old narrator, Sammy, who decides to be an "unsuspected hero" to three young women wearing their bathing suits into the store where he works.

When these three girls wearing bathing suits walk into Sammy's store, he diverts all of his attention to them, particularly the one in the "plaid green two-piece ... a chunky kid, with a good tan and a sweet broad soft-looking can with those two crescents of white just under it, where the sun never seems to hit, at the top of the backs of her legs." He watches her and the one he calls "Queenie" as they make their way around the store scantily clad. His narration suggests he believes everyone else in the store is watching them the same way, but this is somewhat ambiguous due to the narrator's unreliability. What is for sure though, is that Lengel, the store manager, sees the girls and tells them, "[T]his isn't the beach." Outraged with his boss, Sammy quits.

Ultimately, Sammy's decision proved foolhardy as he walked outside the store and sees no one "but some young married screaming with her children." The girls are gone. Why would they wait for Sammy? He didn't talk to them even as he rang up their groceries. As Sammy stood out in the empty parking lot looking back at his former boss at his former register, this foolhardy decision seems to strike him as his "stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter." This final line does not seem to be referring to the immediate problems of his loss of money, but of something larger, an unstated character flaw he sees in himself.

Doug Stuva eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The previous commentators seem to view Sammy in a negative light and come down on the side of society.  I see the story a little differently. 

To me, Sammy is the only character in the story that shows any individuality, and this is not a bad thing.  The idea isn't that you better do as society tells you or there will be consequences--like a warning.  The idea is that social norms are arbitrary and anyone with any brains or individuality has trouble going along with them. The societal norms are shallow and inflexible, and only sheep follow them.    

The individuality Sammy shows is positive, not negative, and the choice he makes a good one, not a bad. 

The future Sammy faces at the end of the story is one of constantly bumping up against asinine social norms.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In my opinion, the main theme of this short story is individualism.  It is a story about what happens when people try to do "their own thing" rather than doing what society expects them to do.

In this story, the three girls are, to some extent, doing their own thing.  Queenie has gotten them to go to the store in their bathing suits, which was completely unacceptable at the time.  They pay for this by being humiliated by the manager.

Sammy also tries to be an individual.  In his case, he tries to stand up for the girls against his boss.  He, too, pays for his choice by losing his job and having nothing to show for it.

So I think the theme is that in our society, you have to do what is expected or pay the price.

bullgatortail eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Another major theme of John Updike's short story, "A&P", is that of individual choice and the eventual consequences of the action. Most of the characters in the story have choices to make. Sammy, the cashier who narrates the story, makes the decision to quit his job at the A&P after his boss is rude to a customer. Mr. Lengel, the manager, decides to warn the young female customer about her skimpy attire. The teen, "Queenie," has to decide how to respond after Lengel's warning. Their decisions all have consequences, especially Sammy's, who must now face the rest of the summer (and perhaps longer) without employment and with an uncertain future.