In the story "A & P," what motivates Sammy?

Expert Answers
carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

John Updike, an award winning American author,  wrote both short stories and novels. "A & P "was one of his early publications.  He wrote for the New Yorker Magazine and won two Pultizer Prizes for his Rabbit series.

This story uses first person point of view with Sammy, a nineteen year old  boy as the narrator.   He is a cashier at the local grocery store.   The setting is a grocery store in a  small town in Massachusetts during  the summer.  The author described Sammy as a "typical well intentioned male trying to find his way in society.  Updike, who was 29 when he wrote the story in 1961,  explained that he used Sammy as a mouthpiece for his own "lustful and quizzical feelings."  This sexiness helped make Sammy a fun and interesting character.

Typical of his time, Sammy is both sarcastic and sensitive.  He is keenly observant of everything and everyone who comes into the store.  The other characters serve the purpose of reflecting the times and revealing Sammy's prejudices and societal blindness.  He is particularly aware of the three girls, dressed in their bathing suits.  Sammy is dismissive and contemptuous of the other A & P customer, seeing them as "sheep" and house slaves."

The story centers on an issue that has been rereconciled today." No shoes, not shirt, no service.  In the 1960s, an unwritten dress code was still in play.  Women dressed up to go to town and certainly to church.  Hats and gloves were still part of the ensemble.  Men still wore suits and ties to work and church. 

The three girls who come into the store are dressed in two piece bathing suits.  Sammy watches them and likes one in particular: he names her "Queenie."  When the manager embarrasses them about their inappropriate dress, Sammy gets a "scrunchy feeling" inside.  Although the girls blush and are taken back,  Sammy's reaction is heroic yet almost ridiculous.  For his own ambiguous reasons, he announces: "I quit!"

What were his reasons for quitting?  The reader is not completely sure. He certainly wanted to impress the girls although they did not even hear him.  Additionally, Sammy did not like the way the manager treated the girls.  Probably most importantly, he wanted to set himself apart from the establishment and even from  his friend Stoksie. Escaping his mundane job and essentially boring life,  quitting was not the smartest move Sammy could have made. On the other hand,  Sammy's desire for Queenie ends up as a means to escape the A & P and, in effect, his own life  The world he imagines through Queenie-- a world of sophication and summer vacations and freedom inspire him to hunger for a different life.

Sammy takes several steps toward maturity.  In the beginning of the story , he is totally self-centered; but then he stands up for the things he knows are right and principled. Since  he was disappointed that the girls did not see him,  the reader learns that maybe Sammy did the right thing, though perhaps for the wrong reasons. Sammy is one of those unforgettable literary characters.