How does John Updike use symbolism in the short story "A & P"?

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rb1384 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Updike's A & P is rich in symbolism, but unless the reader is paying careful attention it is almost lost in the colloquial tone of the story. The story is not only about Sammy's "coming of age" and recognizing that his actions in the world will have consequences. Updike is critiquing not only the materialism of a consumer society, but the class structure needed to maintain it. All of the shoppers, except Queenie and her friends, are always collectively described as "the sheep". They wander mindlessly down the aisles, filling their carts it would seem, merely for the sake of filling them. Consider the passage when Sammy observes Queenie going against the flow down a aisle where each item is carefully enumerated. The "sheep" are startled by the girls' appearance and quickly look away. Remember, this isn't a seaside A&P, but a "town" store. As Sammy puts it, these are people who have lived less than 5 miles from the ocean and have never seen it. The girls are, in a sense, "slumming". Later, when he is ringing up the smoked herring, he reflects on how hearing her voice allows him to slide down her throat and into her world which is obviously very different from his. He even remarks that at his home, guests would never get smoked herring but be lucky to get a Schiltz in a juice glass. The emphasis on class and consumerism is Sammy's undoing: he wants to be part of world that he doesn't - that he can't - belong to.

Jamie Wheeler eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Updike's "A & P" is rich in symbolism and begins in the very first paragraph.  Sammy is eyeing the three bikini-clad girls who walk into his supermarket where he is a checker.  His reverie is interrupted, however, by a "witch" whose "feathers" Sammy has to smooth.  The older generation are typically symbolized in negative terms throughout the story, those women who cannot and will not understand youth.

Queenie, on the other hand, is symbolic of all that is alluring about women and life that might be possible for Sammy on the outside, a life that seems palatable yet unattainable to Sammy.

Stokesie, Sammy's older co-worker, is symbolic of the life Sammy may well be headed for:  married, tied down with children, and few options for another life. 

Lengel, the manger, is symbolic of those too-far-gone, the adults who, like the witches, could not care less about youthful ambition.

Finally, and perhaps most symbolically, is the supermarket itself.  It is symbolic of the consumer culture that has a definite heirarchy:  the "witches" by bland "HiHo" crackers while Queenie purchases "Fancy Herring Snacks." 

edcon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

While Queenie and the other two girls walk through the aisles in their bathing suits, Sammy calls the other patrons of the A&P "sheep."  By this he means conformists—herd animals who do not think to question the status quo, which, in this case, consists of social mores about proper dress in public.

As the girls walk away from their brief conversation with McMahon at the meat counter, Sammy sees him sizing up the rear view of the girls. Here, Updike illustrates that the male gaze can legitimately be characterized as viewing women as pieces of meat.

The fact that Queenie is purchasing herring snacks and coolly addresses Lengel in a voice Sammy calls "tony" suggests that Queenie, with her regal bearing and entitled demeanor, sees herself above the working class Lengel and anyone else in the A&P who would venture to correct her.  There is an element of class at play in the episode with the girls; they are not ordinary teen rebels.