“A & P” is a short initiation story in which the young protagonist, in a gesture of empty heroism, quits his job at the supermarket because the manager has embarrassed three girls—and learns just “how hard the world was going to be to him hereafter.”
Most of the action in the story takes place in the short time Sammy stands at his cash register on a summer afternoon watching three girls from the nearby beach colony, dressed in “nothing but bathing suits,” wander the store in search of a jar of “Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream.” By the time the three reach his checkout stand, Sammy is halfway in love with their leader, a girl he nicknames “Queenie,” who has “nothing between the top of the suit and the top of her head except just her.” Sammy is attracted to the girl not only by her physical beauty but also by her regal bearing and by her clear disdain for small-town mores. Sammy is highly sensitive to the class differences between “the Point,” where the three are apparently vacationing (“a place from which the crowd that runs the A & P must look pretty crummy”), and the supermarket where he works (where “houseslaves in pin curlers” push shopping carts up and down the aisles, followed by squalling children).
Sammy’s fantasies are rudely interrupted when Lengel, the officious supermarket manager (and Sunday school teacher), notices and reprimands the girls for their dress: “We want you decently dressed when you come in here.” Queenie blushes, and Sammy jumps to their defense in the only way he can: “I say ’I quit’ to Lengel quick enough for them to hear, hoping they’ll stop and watch me, their unsuspected hero.” They do not, and Sammy is left to confront Lengel. “You didn’t have to embarrass them,” he says. Lengel explains, in defense of the town’s provincial mores, “It was they who were embarrassing us.” Lengel reminds Sammy that his impulsive action will hurt his parents and that he will “feel this” for the rest of his life, but Sammy is trapped by his own chivalric gesture, and by the romantic code of which it is a part and by which he swears: “It seems to me that once you begin a gesture it’s fatal not to go through with it.” Remembering how Lengel “made that pretty girl blush,” Sammy punches “the No Sale tab” on his register and walks out into the hot and empty parking lot.
“A & P” is a classic initiation story in which the young protagonist acts spontaneously and then learns something about the consequences of his actions. Sammy’s conversational, comic voice is perfectly appropriate for his nineteen years and is even a little ungrammatical in its first-person narration: “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits,” the story abruptly begins. Little else happens: Sammy follows the three with his eyes as they wander the store to arrive at his cash register with their “Fancy Herring Snacks.” The store’s middle-aged manager finally notices the girls and reminds them of the store’s clothing policy, and Sammy, their sudden and “unsuspected hero,” defends them by quitting his job. The immature Sammy believes that “once you begin a gesture it’s fatal not to go through with it,” and although Lengel warns Sammy of the consequences of his act, Sammy walks out anyway. When he gets to the parking lot, the girls are gone, and Sammy suddenly realizes “how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.”
Short as it is, the story has a number of classical overtones. Like the hero of some Arthurian legend, Sammy is on a romantic quest: In the name of chivalry, he acts to save “Queenie” (and her two consorts) from the ogre Lengel. On a more Homeric level, the hero is tempted by the three Sirens (from the wealthy “summer colony out on the Point”) and rejects his mentor to follow them. Such mythical possibilities point up the underlying richness of Updike’s prose, but there are sociopsychological implications in this initiation story as well. Although Sammy defends the three girls against the provincial morality of his small town, he is the only one holding his outmoded romantic code; the three girls ignore him. Sammy, in other words, is a working-class hero defending a privileged upper class which does not even acknowledge his existence, and Sammy loses his job because of romantic notions to which only working-class characters, apparently, still subscribe. On another level, the story points to a generation gap in which Sammy acts to protect the young women from the world of adults, only to end up in some limbo between the two worlds himself. With a series of binary oppositions, Updike has shown readers the complex world that adults inhabit and the compromise that is needed to navigate that world. The story’s many reprintings demonstrate its universal appeal.