What symbols and instances of irony can be found in the story "A&P" by John Updike?

In "A&P", Queenie symbolizes Sam's desire for a better life and to defy authority. The A&P, in contrast, symbolizes the conformist, dead-end path he is supposed to follow. Ironically, Sam hopes to impress the girls by quitting after Lengel tells them to dress decently in the store, but they do not notice his gesture.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Queenie is a symbol of Sam's desire for a better life. When she and her two girlfriends walk into his A&P in bathing suits to buy herrings, he is impressed with the confident way she holds her body and walks through the store. He is impressed too that she and...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Queenie is a symbol of Sam's desire for a better life. When she and her two girlfriends walk into his A&P in bathing suits to buy herrings, he is impressed with the confident way she holds her body and walks through the store. He is impressed too that she and her friends defy the store's dress code by shopping in bathing suits. Queenie even has the straps of hers turned down.

Queenie's dress and attitude also symbolize Sam's desire to defy authority and be his own person. She is not cowed by her surroundings as he is.

The A&P, in contrast, symbolizes the conformist, dead-end life that Sam is expected to lead in his small town, following the rules and accepting a dull but safe lot in life.

Ironically, Sam believes he is making a grand, defiant gesture by standing up for and defending the girls when he quits because of the way Lengel, the store manager, warns them to dress "decently" when they come into the A&P. However, the girls do not notice his gesture. As a further irony, Sam has simply projected his own desires onto Queenie and her friends. He has no way of knowing, in reality, what their economic situation is or if they even care about how they were spoken to by Lengel.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The dramatic irony of Updike's story comes at the end: Sammy's grand gesture of defiance by quitting his job to protest Lengel's judgment of the girls falls short of any real resonance. The girls don't notice, and perhaps all that Sammy has accomplished is achieving unemployment. Lengel's admonition to the girls, "We want you decently dressed when you come in here," is not arguably not overly harsh or over-the-top, but perhaps Sammy's response to it is.

Updike employs symbolism in creating a scene that captures the zeitgeist of early 1960s suburbia and the generation gap. In the opening scene, when Sammy is distracted by the girls in bathing suits, he mistakenly rings up the customer's HiHo crackers a second time. Sammy characterizes her reaction as "giving me hell," which symbolizes the conflict between teens and adults. The appearance in the store of the girls and their bathing suits—especially Queenie's, with the straps pushed down—is another symbolic act that demonstrates the perennial conflict between generations. It is the adults in the store who object to the girls' actions.

By setting the story in a grocery store, Updike is able, through symbolism, to observe the increasing consumerism of the age. As Sammy tracks the girls' movements through the store, he describes a lot of processed, packaged convenience foods and "light bulbs, records at discount of the Caribbean Six or Tony Martin Sings or some such gunk you wonder they waste the wax on, six packs of candy bars, and plastic toys done up in cellophane that faIl apart when a kid looks at them anyway."

And finally, when Sammy makes the symbolic gesture of removing his apron and bow tie, he pushes the "no sale" tab on the cash register. This act is meant to represent the idea that he is not buying into Lengel's idea that the grocery store has a dress code and that he is justified in publicly correcting the girls' behavior.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The situational irony in John Updike's short story "A&P" takes place when Sammy defends the girls for wearing bathing suits into the store and defies his manager by quitting his job on the spot. Sammy has visions of Queenie and her friends praising him for defending them in the store, but he walks out to an empty parking lot. Sammy's moment of triumph and display of chivalry ironically goes unnoticed, and he experiences the cold reality of life for the first time. Sammy had believed that the girls would admire his valiant, noble actions, but he is left feeling upset and empty when they leave without saying anything.

In regards to symbolism, the girls' bathing suits represent their casual disdain for the town's rules and are a symbol of their independence and youth. Sammy's attire is also symbolic, and his bowtie and apron represent conformity. Once Sammy quits, he throws off these items as a sign of his independence. The Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream conjure thoughts of Queenie's mother's fancy party and symbolically represent the girls' upper-class social status. The shoppers that Sammy refers to as sheep symbolically represent the town's unthinking majority, who blindly conform to society's rules and regulations.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The most ironic moment of this story is when Sammy resigns.  He is making a statement on behalf of the girls, being their hero.  The irony is - they do not hear him.  They are gone and out of the store before the moment of the resignation is even finalized. 

...so I say "I quit" to Lengel quick enough for them to hear, hoping they'll stop and watch me, their unsuspected hero. They keep right on going, into the electric eye; the door flies open and they flicker across the lot to their car, ...leaving me with Lengel and a kink in his eyebrow.

However, the importance of this irony is that it drives Sammy forward, forcing him into a moment of maturity.  He has an opportunity to take back his declaration, buy chooses not to.  He wants to stand up for what he believes to have been injustice.  This should be a moment of pride and celebration, but there lies the other irony - it isn't.  Instead, this moment of adulty is marked by struggle, not achievement:

my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.

The symbols of this story revolve around the depiction of the customers.  The girls are described as bees, the lead one being the queen, who have a certain power in the store as they buzz about it, making others nervous.  The other customers are sheep, who flock together nervously, reacting but not responding to any situation.  And certainly not thinking.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team