What is the theme of the short story "A&P"?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Although his treatment of theme may be more humorous than in such classic stories as Joyce's "Araby" and Faulkner's "Barn Burning," John Updike's "A & P" has the theme of Initiation.

Like so many young people, Sammy's focus on reality is myopic and romanticized. He views the customers in the grocery store from the youthful reaction of repulsion for those who have accepted defeat in their lives. For instance, he describes the women as "houseslaves in pin curlers," who push their shopping cart distractedly, unconcerned about the broken and varicose veins that map their legs. So, when the three teen-aged girls enter the store in their two-piece swim suits that reveal their youthful bodies, especially the one whom Sammy calls "Queenie," a pretty girl whose "long white prima donna legs" stand in sharp contrast to the housewives. His romantic remark, "Really, I thought that was so cute" as Queenie reaches into her suit top for her dollar bill reveals Sammy's subjective and hormonal reaction.

Charged by his physical and romantic impulses, Sammy acts rashly in reaction to Mr. Lengel's scolding of the girls. Thus, both his cynicism toward the managerial rules and his idealistic and cavalier attempts to gain the girls' attention drive Sammy to say "I quit." Further, he ignores Lengel's attempt to persuade Sammy not to act in such a rash manner, "You'll feel this for the rest of your life." So, as he stands outside looking back into the store, much like Joyce's protagonist in "Araby," Sammy has the sinking feeling of "how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter." For, Sammy has been initiated into the adult world abruptly with all its complexity and necessity for compromise.