M. Gilbert Porter (essay date 1972)

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SOURCE: "John Updike's 'A & P': The Establishment and an Emersonian Cashier," in English Journal, Vol. 61, November, 1972, pp. 1155-58.

[In the following essay, Porter argues that "A & P" depicts a nonconformist philosophy akin to that articulated by Emerson in "Self Reliance. "]

Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.

For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure.

(Emerson, "Self-Reliance")

"Right in the middle of town" surrounded by "two banks and the Congregational church and the newspaper store and three real-estate offices" stands Updike's symbolic A&P. As supermarket, it is the institution where, according to any newspaper advertisement, the best values in town can be found. It is the common denominator of middle-class suburbia, an appropriate symbol for the mass ethic of a consumer-conditioned society. And it is in this setting that Updike reveals, through what is almost a prose dramatic-monolog technique, the sensitive character of a nineteen-year-old grocery clerk named Sammy, who rejects the standards of the A&P and in so doing commits himself to that kind of individual freedom for which, as Emerson said, "the world whips you with its displeasure."

Like Fra Lippo Lippi and Holden Caulfield, Sammy tells his own story, and the crisis with which his story is concerned occurs on a quiet Thursday afternoon in Sammy's home town north of Boston. On a shopping errand, three teenaged girls in bathing suits come into the A&P which employs Sammy. At issue is the question of propriety: Does the attire of the girls satisfy the requirement of "decency" which the policy of the A&P demands? But because the manager is temporarily out of the store, the moment is not immediately forced to its crisis; and in the interim, as the girls wander through the aisles, Sammy reveals through his descriptions of the store and its customers that implicit set of values which will ultimately set him against community mores.

He has, first of all, an eye for quality. He speaks disdainfully, therefore, of such products in the store as "records at discount of the Caribbean Six or Tony Martin Sings or some such gunk you wonder they waste the wax on, . . . and plastic toys done up in cellophane that fall apart when a kid looks at them anyway." With its "fluorescent lights" and its "green-and-cream rubber-tile floor," even the store itself presents to Sammy an artificial atmosphere, and he sometimes extrapolates from the A&P to the superficial home lives of its customers. Taking his cue from the Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks, for example, Sammy imagines the parents of the attractive girls when they entertain: the men in "ice-cream coats" and the women "in sandals picking up herring snacks on toothpicks"; he compares his parents' parties, at which Schlitz is served in "tall glasses with 'They'll Do It Every Time' cartoons stencilled on." Prompted by his concern for what is meaningful, he implicitly rejects the pretensions of the one and the corniness of the other. But his discerning vision is focused most severely on the people around him in the store, on those who have, in Sammy's eyes, been dehumanized through long subjection to mindless routine.

Describing the unequivocal judgment of boys, Emerson said (again, in "Self-Reliance") that a boy, "looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by, . . . tries and sentences them on their merits, in the swift, summary way of boys, as good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent, troublesome. He cumbers himself never about consequences, about interests: he gives an independent, genuine verdict." Such...

(This entire section contains 1782 words.)

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are the verdicts that Sammy hands down on the patrons of the A&P, rather harshly investing each with his most characteristic animal feature. The woman who catches him distractedly ringing up a box of HiHo crackers twice, for example, he calls a "witch," whose "feathers" he must smooth before she "snorts" and leaves. The customers in the aisles he sees as "sheep pushing their carts" or as "scared pigs in a chute." In examining the dulled nature of these patrons, he exclaims, "I bet you could set off dynamite in an A&P and the people would by and large keep reaching and checking oatmeal off their lists. . . ". Sammy is repulsed by their insensitivity, their loss of individuality, and by the joyless, wooden nature of their existence.

And not only are they joyless and mechanical; they are ugly as well. Sammy feels he is surrounded by "houseslaves in pin curlers" and "women with six children and varicose veins mapping their legs." This is a harsh—though poetic—judgment, and some of his judgments are even unfair (for example, when he calls the elderly man with the four cans of pineapple juice an "old bum"), but the harshness, as Emerson noted, is mainly teenaged exaggerationese growing out of the typical tendency to make blanket judgments hastily and to place all individuals in their nearest category. Though harsh, his observations are essentially true. The housewives apparently do not take sufficient pride in their appearance; because of their slovenliness, they are more to be scorned than pitied. Whether it is their fault or not, the women with varicose veins are unlovely. Furthermore, many of them have become indifferent to beauty in any form. Though they live within short driving distance of the picturesque Cape Cod coast, "there's people in this town," Sammy remarks disgustedly, "haven't seen the ocean for twenty years."

The presence, then, of the three bathing beauties is a refreshing change of scene for Sammy. To the graceless dowdiness of pin curlers and varicose veins, they offer the contrast of winsome innocence and supple youth. Though only one of the girls fully satisfies Sammy's rigid standards for quality, the other two have something to recommend them over the common herd. One, for example, has "a sweet broad soft-looking can with those two crescents of white just under it.. . " and the other is, Sammy perceptively suggests, "the kind of girl other girls think is very 'striking' and 'attractive' but never quite makes it, as they very well know, which is why they like her so much . . . . " The most attractive girl, whom Sammy dubs "Queenie," has "white prima-donna legs" and breasts like two smooth "scoops of vanilla."

Sammy's response to this beauty is significant. About the expanse of flesh between her halter and her shoulders Sammy rhapsodizes: "It was more than pretty." And when she pays him with a dollar primly extracted from "the hollow at the center of her nubbled pink top," he exclaims appreciatively, "Really, I thought that was so cute." Though certainly there is an element of physical attraction in Sammy's response to Queenie, mainly his appreciation is aesthetic. He celebrates her beauty, her youth, her poise. And Stokesie, his fellow-checker, joins him.

The attitude of McMahon, the butcher, toward the girls provides a dramatic contrast to Sammy's attitude. McMahon's interest is clearly erotic, not aesthetic. As the girls walk away from the butcher counter out of sight of the checkstand, all Sammy can see is "old McMahon patting his mouth and looking after them sizing up their joints." As a member of the older generation and as an officer of sorts in the hierarchy of the A&P, McMahon is clearly aligned with Lengel, the manager, whose attitude suggests a kind of John Endicott Puritanism.

According to Sammy, Lengel is "pretty dreary," but this capsuled evaluation is rendered even harsher by the implications of Sammy's metaphorical description of the manager: Lengel, Sammy reports, has been "haggling with a truck full of cabbages" (suggesting a fishwife) before he comes in and confronts the girls; it is his usual habit to "scuttle" (like a beetle) into the office behind the door "marked MANAGER," where he "hides all day" (like a rat). As a close friend of Sammy's family, Lengel carries some parental authority; as a teacher in the Sunday school, he is a voice in the church; as the MANAGER of the A&P, he is a voice in the business community. In short, Lengel represents the Voice of The Establishment. As one of the "kingpins" who enforce "policy," he sees himself as the voice of authority, the guardian of the community ethic. Sammy even imagines Lengel "thinking all these years the A&P was a great big dune and he was the head lifeguard." In this role, then, and with his "sad Sunday-school-superintendent stare" (which equates flesh with sin), he delivers in the name of decency his pious judgment to the girls: "After this come in here with your shoulders covered. It's our policy." Asserting that they "are decent," Queenie leads her friends indignantly from the store.

Sammy, upon whom the issues underlying the incident have forced a decision, declares his intention to "quit." His gesture is both an affirmation of the girls' decency and a rejection of the A&P and the misplaced values for which it stands. That his act is a little histrionic results from his adolescence; it does not detract from the basic nobility of his chivalric intent, nor does it reduce the magnitude of his personal commitment. As Sammy prepares to leave, however, Lengel makes a final pitch for The Establishment. "You'll feel this," he warns, "for the rest of your life." But Sammy is not buying Lengel's line: He punches the "No Sale" tab and walks outside, where "the sunshine is skating around on the asphalt."

Sammy knows that Lengel's prediction is true. As he looks back into the store, he sees Lengel "checking the sheep through" and realizes that the world is going to be hard on him "hereafter." He is aware, of course, that he has separated himself from the flock, from the "A&P crowd," and has chosen to set himself against the majority—to incur that wrath which Emerson declared was the lot of the nonconformist. But Sammy has also realized that "once you begin a gesture it's fatal not to go through with it." He knows that in choosing to follow the dictates of his conscience he will often be at odds with the "kingpins" and policy-makers; but he knows a more important thing: That not to follow the voice of conscience is to be false to one's own integrity and therefore to live a lie, and Sammy has chosen to live honestly and meaningfully. He intends to be a man. As he walks resolutely from the store, the Massachusetts air seems to reverberate with the approbation of its nineteenth-century tutelary spirit; and the reader recalls that sage's charged words from "Self-Reliance": "Your genuine action will explain itself, and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing."


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“A&P” by John Updike

The following entry presents discussion of Updike's short story "A & P."

Often depicting middle-class, Protestant America, Updike's short fiction focuses on the feelings of loneliness and isolation that lead the "common man" to seek some form of higher truth or ultimate meaning. "A & P" represents one of Updike's most successful coming-of-age narratives; the story articulates a teenaged boy's sudden awareness of the split between his inner feelings and society's values. Like much of Updike's fiction, "A & P" first appeared in The New Yorker before being published in the collection Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories (1962).

Plot and Major Characters

"A & P" is narrated by Sammy, a nineteen-year-old boy who is a cashier at a local A & P grocery in a conservative New England town during the summer tourist season. When three adolescent girls enter the store wearing only their bathing suits, Sammy is mesmerized. He describes the appearance and actions of the girls with elaborate detail, observing that something about their demeanor suggests a remote, upper-class lifestyle that contrasts with his own. As the girls prepare to make their purchase, the store manager reprimands them for what he perceives as their indecent appearance. Hoping the girls will notice his chivalrous gesture, Sammy abruptly quits his job in protest. Realizing that he might later regret his impulsive action, Sammy nevertheless follows through with his decision to quit, and walks off the job. By the time he walks outside into the parking lot, however, the girls are already gone. The story ends on a melancholy note as Sammy reflects upon "how hard the world was going to be for me hereafter."

Major Themes

"A & P" concisely sets up oppositions between several motifs: the individual versus the collective, conservatism versus liberalism, the working class versus the upper class, women versus men, and consumerism versus Romanticism. Interpretations of "A & P" depend to some degree upon the reader's understanding of the reason for Sammy's hasty decision to quit his job: some argue that he is truly rebelling against the disparagement of the young women by the Puritanical manager, while others feel that he quits due to misguided self-interest, in hopes that the girls will notice him. Critics have often viewed Sammy's gesture as quixotically romantic, since he gains nothing through his decision except the loss of his job.

Critical Reception

"A & P" is one of Updike's most anthologized and most popular stories. While the narrative style of the story has been widely acclaimed, critical opinion is split between those who declare the piece a work of genius and those who find it devoid of profound content. Much critical discussion has focused on the significance of Sammy's actions: while many reviewers interpret his behavior as admirably honest and authentic, some argue that his inappropriate judgement of his town's standards leads to his isolation and loss at the conclusion. Commentators have found possible literary sources for the story in Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," Joyce's "Araby," and Emerson's "Self Reliance."

Robert Detweiler (essay date 1972)

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SOURCE: "Pigeon Feathers: The Design of Design," in John Updike, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1973, pp. 60-79

[In the following excerpt, Detweiler focuses on pacing and narrative tone in "A & P, " noting Updike 's gradual building of tension and "tempered humor."]

The fourteenth story of Pigeon Feathers, entitled "A & P," is one of Updike's most popular; and it has been anthologized in college and commercial collections. It is indeed one of the brilliant pieces that redeem the few pages of inferior writing in the book. Sammy, the narrator, is a nineteen-year-old working as a checkout clerk in the A & P market on a Thursday afternoon. The scene is an unnamed Massachusetts town (Tarbox of Couples?) north of Boston and "five miles from a beach, with a big summer colony out on the Point."

Into the staid store in this staid place walk three girls barefoot and in swimming suits, probably the daughters of wealthy summer residents from the Point. The store is not accustomed to such casualness, and the girls cause a small sensation while they shop. They buy only a jar of herring snacks and are about to pay at Sammy's checkout when Lengel, the store manager and a dour man who "teaches Sunday School and the rest," sees them. He comes forward to chide them for what to him is their indecency. The girls are flustered, but they stand up to him, especially the cool, regal one in a tempting suit who, Sammy guesses, is used to snobbier markets than this one. Sammy quickly rings up the bill and gives the girls their purchase. As they leave, he tells Lengel, "I quit"; punctuates the manager's surprised protests by banging up a "No Sale" on the register; and walks out. Outside, the bathing-suit trio has already gone; and Sammy is left with a sharp, painful revelation of "how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter."

Updike has Sammy narrate the story in a breezy, late-teenage vernacular; the brashness and occasional mild vulgarity of the language balance nicely the inherent sentimentality of the action. Sammy's references to one girl's breasts as "the two smoothest scoops of vanilla I had ever known" and to another girl as passable "raw material" cut the saccharine flavor of his impulsive and romantic gesture. Updike also alternates between the past and historical present tenses to provide a tight little dramatic episode that his fiction does not often exhibit. Since the tale builds upon an increasing tension of embarrassment, the play-by-play technique of the present tense description heightens the precise moments of strain and offers the reader, at the same time, a vicarious participation.

"A & P" is also one of the very few Updike stories (before the Henry Bech tales), that ventures into comedy, and this comedic quality is achieved through the tempered humor of the clever phrase and through the incongruous action that is meant to hold the slight pathos within its prescribed limits. In the end, as one might expect, the humor evolves an ironic element; for the smart remarks of the supermarket employees and the indignant stares of the customers do not really subject the girls to ridicule but expose instead the provinciality of their audience. The girls have class; the town does not; but Sammy, caught somewhere in the middle, makes the story. With a single act he achieves a new integrity, one that divorces him from his unthinking conservative environment and leaves him, not with a suddenly developed affinity to the wealthy set, but with a loneliness that signals his birth into alienation.

Sammy's reaction is the reflex of the still uncorrupted, of the youth still capable of the grand gesture because he has not learned the sad wisdom of compromise. But therein lie the pathos and the refreshing rashness of the story. Sammy's reckless vitality is echoed by the fancied percussion of the cash register: "Hello (hing) there, you (gung) hap-py pee-pul (splat)!" The undertone of sorrow resides in the depressing sight that awaits Sammy outside the supermarket: the girls for whom he has gallantly sacrificed his job have disappeared; in their place is a young married woman yelling at her spoiled children, a much commoner refrain to the heady tunes of wishful American romance. Bare beauty could brighten even the A & P; but since it is dangerously out of place there, it must be exorcised to safeguard the sorry successes of Grundyism.

Further Reading

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DeBellis, Jack. John Updike: A Bibliography: 1967-1993. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1994, 335 p.

Lists works by and about Updike in all genres, including translations, interviews, parodies, and caricatures.

Olivas, A. Michael. An Annotated Bibliography of John Updike Criticism 1967-1973, and a Checklist of His Works. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1975, 91 p.

Lists primary and secondary sources on Updike.


Burchard, C. Rachel. "The Short Stories." In John Updike: Yea Sayings, pp. 133-60, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971

Discusses Updike's short stories published prior to 1970.

Additional coverage of Updike's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography: 1968-1988; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 1-4R; Contemporary Authors Bibliographical Series, Vol. 1; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 4, 33, 51; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, 13, 15, 23, 34, 43, 70; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 5, 143; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 3; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, Vols. 80, 82; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors: Most-Studied Authors Module; DISCovering Authors: Novelists Module; DISCovering Authors: Poets Module; DISCovering Authors: Popular Fiction and Genre Authors Module; Major 20th-century Writers; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 13; and World Literature Criticism.

Suzanne Henning Uphaus (essay date 1980)

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SOURCE: "Some Short Stories," in John Updike, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1980, pp. 121-30.

[In the following excerpt, Uphaus provides a brief overview of plot and major themes in "A & P, " emphasizing the story's ironic tone.]

Updike's story "A & P" is perhaps his most popular; it has been anthologized in many college texts. "A & P" derives its impact from the narrative voice, comic contrast, and the ironic distance between the intentions of the protagonist and what he actually accomplishes.

Sammy, the narrator, is a nineteen-year-old checkout clerk at an A & P market in a New England town that is close to a wealthy beach colony. The narrative voice is established immediately as familiar and colloquial, using the present tense for dramatic impact; it is as if the young narrator is recounting the incident to a friend. "In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits," he begins. "I'm in the third checkout slot, with my back to the door, so I don't see them until they're over by the bread."

Much of the humor in the story comes from Sammy's response to the girls. Mesmerized by his initial sight of them, he rings up "a box of HiHo crackers" twice, enraging his customer. When the girls come into view again, Sammy's attention becomes fixed on the "queen" of the three. She walks with poised nonchalance, barefoot, with the straps of her bathing suit off her shoulders; "as a result the suit had slipped a little on her," Sammy tells us, to reveal where her tan ends. She leads the other girls down one aisle, to the meat counter, and up another aisle, appearing by the checkout lanes with a jar of "Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream." They come to Sammy's lane, and from the "hollow at the center of her nubbled pink" bathing suit top, the queen lifts a folded dollar. As Sammy watches this maneuver he tells us, "The jar went heavy in my hand."

At this point the manager of the store appears. Lengel, a Sunday school teacher, is affronted by the indignity of the girls shopping in his store in such attire. "We want you decently dressed when you come in here," he tells the girls, who blush, suddenly embarrassed. Enraged that Lengel has humiliated the girls, Sammy says, "'I quit' . . . quick enough for them to hear, hoping they'll stop and watch me, their unsuspected hero." But the girls "keep right on going," and Sammy is left to carry out his heroic gesture, remove his apron and his bow tie, ring up No Sale on the register, and leave, jobless and alone. The final sentence registers Sammy's awareness of "how hard the world was going to be for me hereafter."

The irony of Sammy's heroism reflects Updike's conviction, obvious in many of his works, that the heroic gesture is often meaningless and usually arises from selfish rather than unselfish impulses. Sammy wants to be noticed by the girls, but he isn't. They are of a social class beyond his, for he is a town boy, they are summer vacationers, from families who snack on herring in sour cream as they sip their cocktails. Sammy is aware of the gulf between them; the only way he can get them to notice him is to differentiate himself from what he sees, through their eyes, as the hopeless provincialism of the small town that insists on "decent dress" in its supermarkets. When the manager rebukes the girls, "Queenie" (as Sammy calls the leader), begins to get "sore now that she remembers her place, a place from which the crowd that runs the A & P must look pretty crummy. Fancy Herring Snacks flashed in her very blue eyes."

But the comic tone of the story is also created by the contrast between the usual customers at the A & P and these girls. Sammy is painfully aware of female appearances, and he describes the matrons he sees daily on his job in terms that are representative of his age group. There is a "witch about fifty with rouge on her cheekbones and no eyebrows" who screeches when he rings up her purchase twice. There are "a few house-slaves in pin curlers." There is "an old party in baggy gray pants" buying four giant cans of pineapple juice, and there are "women with six children and varicose veins mapping their legs." They are described repeatedly as "sheep" who are "pushing their carts down the aisle." When Sammy closes down his register and quits, he tells us the middle-aged matrons knock against each other to get to another checkout counter "like scared pigs in a chute."

On the other hand, the three girls, and especially the queen, are described in intimate and pleasurable detail. The queen has "long white prima-donna legs," and "oaky hair that the sun and salt had bleached." But to prevent the story from becoming maudlin, Updike often uses Sammy's youthful and unromantic descriptive powers. The dollar bill that the girl lifts from her cleavage is uncreased by Sammy "tenderly as you may imagine, it just having come from between the two smoothest scoops of vanilla I had ever known. . . . " As he waits breathlessly at the checkout for the girls to appear from one of the aisles, Sammy describes "the whole store" as being "like a pinball machine and I didn't know which tunnel they'd come out of." The maudlin is also prevented by Updike's precise eye for detail; there is no soft-focused romanticism here. The girls appear against a background of "Diet Delight peaches," stacked dog food, packaged spaghetti, and cheap plastic toys.

Sammy's quitting has been described, by one critic, as "the reflex of the still uncorrupted, of the youth still capable of the grand gesture because he has not learned the sad wisdom of compromise." Sammy's loneliness at the end of the story is the result of this gesture: the girls have taken no notice of him, but he has alienated himself from the town by presuming to judge its standards.

Ronald E. McFarland (essay date 1983)

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SOURCE: "Updike and the Critics: Reflections on 'A & P'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 20, Nos. 2-3, Spring-Summer, 1983, pp. 95-100.

[In the following essay, McFarland surveys critical interpretations of "A & P" and considers why the piece "has emerged as Updike's best known story. "]

During the twenty years since its appearance in Pigeon Feathers (1962), "A & P" has been established as John Updike's most widely read short story. Its popularity among anthologists, as recourse to the listings in Studies in Short Fiction demonstrates, has made the story standard reading for thousands of college and high school students. It has appeared in over twenty anthologies since its inclusion in Douglas and Sylvia Angus's Contemporary American Short Stories in 1967. What accounts for the continuing popularity of this particular story?

The reviewers greeted Pigeon Feathers with that peculiar damnation-by-hyperbolic-praise which continues to plague Updike. Arthur Mizener began his page-one review in New York Times Book Review by hailing Updike as "the most talented writer of his age in America (he is 30 today) and perhaps the most serious," only to warn later of the dangers of Updike's Joycean "verbal brilliance" and of the sometimes awkward conflict in his work between "wit and insight" ["Behind the Dazzle is a Knowing Eye," New York Times Book Review, March 18, 1962]. He did not mention "A & P." J. M. Edelstein, who made a passing comment on "A & P" but focused on "Lifeguard," found Updike's work "rewarding," but also "terribly frustrating" ["The Security of Memory," New Republic, May 14, 1962]. Along with the stories' "glitter and shine," occasional "dazzle," their "irony" and "neat felicity," Edelstein also detected "a cleverness and an obvious mannerism that becomes tiresome." Granville Hicks did not mention the story in his lead review for Saturday Review, though his praise of Updike ("bold, resourceful, and intensely serious") was more unstinting than that of other reviewers ["Mysteries of the Commonplace," Saturday Review, March 17, 1962]. Only the unsigned reviewer for Time, who began, "John Updike is a brilliant writer who has so far failed to write a brilliant book" [Time, March 16, 1962], reflected upon "A & P." But here, too, the damning with exaggerated praise was evident. Lauding "A & P" as the best story in Pigeon Feathers, the reviewer concluded that "it is as forgettable as last week's New Yorker"

Regardless of this indifferent reception, "A&P" has emerged as Updike's best known story. One reason that anthologists have embraced the story is probably their awareness of audience. Sammy, the 19-year-old check out boy, has natural appeal to a classroom full of 18- and 19-year-olds. His colloquial usages make him "accessible" to college-age readers, and the frequently remarked similarities with J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield have probably added to his appeal.

In his instructor's handbook [in The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, 1977], R. V. Cassili characterizes Sammy as "a goodnatured, average boy" with "a vague preference for beauty, liberty, youth, and recklessness as against the stultifying cant of a stodgy civilization." This has been the main trend of the critical response to Sammy as a character. "He will not always be understood," Rachael C. Burchard writes, "but he refuses to be captured by conformity and monotony" [John Updike: Yea Sayings, 1971]. Hailing "A&P" as "one of the brilliant pieces" in Pigeon Feathers, Robert Detweiler finds [in John Updike, 1972] that with his act Sammy "achieves a new integrity, one that divorces him from his unthinking conservative environment." The most effusive admiration of Sammy, however, is provided in M. Gilbert Porter's essay, which discovers Emersonian qualities of various sorts in the protagonist and which argues that the "histrionic" aspect of his gesture "does not detract from the basic nobility of his chivalric intent, nor does it reduce the magnitude of his personal commitment" ["John Updike's 'A & P': The Establishment and the Emersonian Cashier," English Journal 6, November 1972]. Sammy, Porter concludes, "has chosen to live honestly and meaningfully." This decision, presumably, makes him an Emersonian character rather than an ordinary fellow who, one may surmise, elects to live dishonestly and meaninglessly. Porter admits that Sammy's view of the adult world is "harsh," but he also finds it "essentially true."

An important reason for the continuing attractiveness of "A&P," however, as is often the case with stories which prove to be of interest to literary critics and other serious readers, is its ambiguity, or, more narrowly, the ironic doubleness with which the protagonist is presented. Caught up in the colloquial comedy of Sammy's narration, the reader tends to view the story (and especially the protagonist) uncritically, thus discovering in Sammy at least a Quixotic type of nobility. Shortly after it was published, William Peden described the story as "trivial rather than significant, and more dull than delightful," perhaps because he could detect little besides adolescent arrogance in the protagonist, though he did not elaborate. More recently, Donald J. Greiner, noting [in The Other John Updike, 1981] that the girls in the story, ironically, are not in need of Sammy's help, observes: "Sammy learns that no one welcomes or even tolerates idle idealism. Rather than insist on principle, he has merely shown off." Suzanne Uphaus [in John Updike, 1980] also detects the "ironic distance" between what Sammy intends and what he accomplishes, "which reflects Updike's conviction . . . that the heroic gesture is often meaningless and usually arises from selfish rather than unselfish impulses." Much of the impact of the story, as I shall demonstrate, derives from the ambiguity, the ironic doubleness, with which Updike has invested his protagonist.

In order to illustrate (in a couple senses of the word) this story, Updike creates what I will call "brand-name symbolism." From the HiHo crackers to the Falcon station wagon, Updike's brand names are more than simply appropriate projections of the setting. They are symbols, comical, if only because of their nature and context, which have meaningful associations when properly considered. They also contribute to the ironic portraits offered throughout the story.

Sammy associates himself at the outset with HiHo crackers, and they are a fitting symbol for him—an ordinary, middle-class (not Ritz crackers) snack item. How seriously, then, ought one to take Sammy? How seriously does he take himself? The brand name connotes light-heartedness and high spirits. The movement of the story, and of Sammy's perspective, is from the easy gaiety and freedom of youth toward the "hard" realities of adult societal judgment. As Sammy observes, his parents think what has happened is "sad," but, although he sees that life hereafter will be hard for him, he doesn't yet see how unfortunate is his fall from boyhood.

The girl Sammy calls "Queenie" is associated with "Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream: 490." (I recently priced a similar product at $1.98 for an 8-ounce jar.) The brand name not only fits the imperial Queenie, but also suggests the social class, the upper crust, to which she belongs. The incongruity of the common HiHo crackers and a luxury hors d'oeuvres like herring snacks anticipates one aspect of the hard lesson that Sammy will learn. Queenie's brand-name symbol represents a world completely alien to that of Sammy, who visualizes her parents and their stylish friends "picking up herring snacks on toothpicks off a big glass plate." As X. J. Kennedy observes in his instructor's manual [to Literature, 1979], the unsophisticated Sammy "thinks martinis are garnished with mint." The brand name that Sammy refers to as symbolic of his own family is Schlitz.

In the confrontation itself there are several ironies. The A&P, after all, is the subsuming brand name in the story. It is a democratic melting pot of sorts, a typically American institution where, just as the Atlantic and Pacific come together, so do crackers and herring snacks, and so do the proletarian (the "bum" in his baggy pants who buys pineapple juice), the bourgeois, and the patrician. All are equal, one might suppose, at the supermarket. Yet it is here that a standard of social decorum is asserted, so the irony cuts at the upper class girls. Sammy is no kinder to his reflections on the proletariat (including the streetworkers) and the bourgeoisie than Lengel, the manager, is in his treatment of the patricians. At the same time, the social code itself is undercut, for though it is distinctly bourgeois in nature, its aim is to sustain the appearance of "class" (the patrician). The code of decorum keeps the store from being what it would pretend to be. The supposedly elite upper class is, in fact, very casual, too casual, under the circumstances, for the snobbish middle-class manager.

Some less central brand-name symbols also figure in the story. McMahon, the butcher is mentioned in the context of Diet Delight peaches, an ironic anti-product to that of his department. The only brand name (of a sort) associated with the town besides the A&P is the Congregational church, a standard, Protestant, middle-class denomination, which is virtually surrounded by such non-spiritual businesses as two banks, a newsstand, and three real estate offices. Finally, although the company is not named, record albums which denote a particular middle-class brand of music are alluded to: the Caribbean Six and Tony Martin Sings. The common name of the popular singer contrasts with the presumably exotic sextet.

The ironic doubleness and ambiguity are most obvious, however, with the last brand-name symbol in the story, the "powder-blue Falcon station wagon." Associated with "some young married screaming with her children" and being a station wagon, the vehicle relates to the sheeplike customers, the women with varicose veins and six children, and the fifty-year-old cash-register-watchers. But the vehicle's model name, "Falcon," suggests predatory aggressiveness. Falconry is traditionally a sport of aristocrats, and poetically the falcon has been connected with the power of Christ (a sort of anti-type to the dove). The vehicle itself, therefore, is a sort of self-contradiction. It is small wonder that the confused Sammy anticipates a hard life ahead. The world which he is entering creates just such confusing, ambiguous symbols for itself.

Some readers, as I have indicated above, have asserted confident and even dogmatic readings of Sammy's character. He is commonly seen as "standing for" youth (naive, but "right"), beauty, sensitivity, nonconformity, individualism, honesty, and excitement. It appears that the story has been promoted largely by those who read the protagonist in that way. Like Holden Caulfield, then, the altruistic (even chivalric) Sammy learns a hard lesson about reality, the "sad wisdom of compromise," as Detweiler calls it. But Sammy lacks several essentials of the worthy hero. For one thing, he has no perspective on his situation. He can judge the effects of his "gesture," apparently, only from a brief passage of time. Furthermore, despite what some readers have said, Sammy appears to have very little sensitivity, except, of course, to the obvious nubile beauty of Queenie and her friends (although they respond to it differently, both Stokesie and McMahon also perceive that beauty). Sammy's reaction to the angry customer early in the story and his lack of sympathy for the varicose-veined mothers simply indicate his immaturity and failure of compassion. His descriptions of customers as sheep, or as "scared pigs in a chute" may be funny, but a moment's reflection shows them to be simply jejune. Finally, by his own account, Sammy's "gesture" (the word is used advisedly, for it is a mere gesture) is intended to impress the girls who have, ironically, missed the whole show.

If my antithetical portrait of Sammy were the whole story, however, he would be no more engrossing as a protagonist than what I might call "Sammy the altruist," as portrayed by other readers. Sammy, in fact, achieves a certain degree of heroism not so much by his gesture, which initially appears to be selfishly motivated rather than a defense of principle, but by his insistence upon going through with it even after the girls have left. At the end, the reader perceives Sammy as both victor and victim. Against the many instances of his insensitivity and immaturity, the reader finds some signs at the end that Sammy is growing up. In short, it is only partly correct to say that Sammy is noble or chivalric, and it is only partly correct to say that he is acting on selfish impulses. Much of the continued popularity of the story derives from Updike's refusal to guide the reader to an easy solution.

At this writing, I can account for ten books or monographs published on the works of John Updike, a writer who, at fifty, may have his best work ahead of him. His facility with language and what David Thorburn describes as his "unmannerly fertility" [in John Updike: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1979] may always be held against him. The charges (particularly of his facile style) are reminiscent of those one encounters from time to time against F. Scott Fitzgerald. Robert E. Spiller wrote [in The Cycle of American Literature, 1956] "Fitzgerald's strength—and his weakness—lay in the sincerity of his confession and in the gift of words in which it was expressed." Like Fitzgerald, Updike concentrates on a specific social milieu. Updike's subject, Thorburn writes, "is always some variation on the spiritual and communal enfeeblement of contemporary American society, particularly among the suburban middle class." Like Fitzgerald's, Updike's reputation will have to wait a generation or two to be properly measured, but I think he will prove to be the major spokesman of a longer and more complex era (the 1960's through the 1980's) than the Jazz Age.

Patrick W. Shaw (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: "Checking Out Faith and Lust: Hawthorne's 'Young Goodman Brown' and Updike's 'A & P'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 23, No. 3, Summer, 1986, pp. 321-23.

[In the following essay, Shaw suggests that "A & P" alludes to Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" and emphasizes the story's motifs of repression and eroticism.]

While [Hawthorne's] "Young Goodman Brown" has been carefully and frequently scrutinized, John Updike's "A & P" is a story that for the most part has gone unexamined. The several commentaries which have sought to elucidate it are oversimplified and inexact. Such critical imbalance between the stories is hardly noteworthy until we realize that Updike uses Hawthorne's venerable etching of human folly as a prototype and depends heavily upon its well-known nuances to convey and enhance the complexities of his own tale.

First of all, Updike borrows Hawthorne's geographical setting. When Updike carefully sets the action of "A & P" in a town just north of Boston and has his protagonist refer to a woman customer as a witch who "would have been burned" over in Salem, he simultaneously points to the story he wishes the reader to recall and evokes Hawthorne's use of Salem as an emblem of Calvinist dogma.

As Yvor Winters notes, [in Hawthorne: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1966] no writer after Hawthorne sets a story in New England without expecting it to suggest the allegorical qualities to which the Puritan mind was predisposed. Thus Updike places his story near Salem, knowing that the (in)famous Massachusetts village will cue the reader to his themes of repression, persecution, and self-delusion.

Like Hawthorne, Updike creates narrative tension by having his protagonist confront a female who is sexually and intellectually superior and by keeping the protagonist unaware of the imbalance. Goodman blithely abandons his honeymoon cottage, thinking condescendingly of "Poor little Faith"—the same Faith whose seductive whisper to "tarry with me this night" he has just rejected and who will soon have her revenge in the woods. As H. J. Lang correctly notes, reflecting the sentiments of Roy Male, Faith and her ribbons might look innocent in the brightness of day, but at night they are diabolical [H. J. Lang, "How Ambiguous is Hawthorne?" in Hawthorne: A Collection of Critical Essays]. At no point, however, does Goodman suspect what role he himself has played in motivating Faith to such devilish actions. Updike's Sammy likewise reveals his perplexing obtuseness. He punctuates his juvenile thoughts with chauvinistic asides and double entendras, such as "she just got it (the suit)" and "you never know for sure how girls' minds work (do you really think it's a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar?)." While acutely aware of the girls' bodies, he unwittingly shows that in understanding feminine psychology his own mind is even less than a bee in a jar. By Sammy's own admission, the girls are not physically spectacular. Yet, merely by strolling into the supermarket wearing "nothing but bathing suits," they immediately dominate Sammy and mock his supercilious attitude by causing him to quit his job. Sammy knows what is on each aisle in the store and constantly thinks of what is inside bottles, cans, and jars; but he has no idea what is inside the girls, no sensitivity to their psychology or sexual subtlety. His awareness stops with their sweet cans and ice-cream breasts.

Just as Faith exhibits her alluring pink ribbon, the girls in the A & P cleverly advertise what they have to offer. Queenie not only wears the revealing two-piece pink swimsuit, but she carefully leaves the straps off her shoulders, looping them (like ribbons) about her arms to further highlight her appeal. She is conscious of the erotic overtones of such dishabille, and when one of her girl friends announces that they "just came in for the one thing," the potential for double entendre equals Sammy's own snickering asides. Ironically, however, both Faith and Queenie waste their efforts. Faith of the pink ribbon is disappointed in her new husband; and Queenie of the nubbled pink bikini discovers—after encountering Lengel, Stokesie, and Sammy—that the A & P offers wide selection in just about everything except men.

Updike also uses the emblematic value of pink dualistically in characterizing his young woman, as does Hawthorne. In "Young Goodman Brown," pink conveys the paradox of Faith's innocence (white) and the violence of her passions (red). Updike borrows from and extends this symbolism.

Just as Faith's pink ribbon epitomizes innocence masking passion, Queenie's pink suit suggests the emerging desires competing with chastity. She is sincere and accurate when she tells Lengel that she is "decent," yet the protest is ironic. She may not consciously set out to entice males when she enters the A & P packaged in her revealing bathing suit, but her unconscious intent is quite another matter. Like all else in the store, her innocence seems for sale—something clearly implied by her casual lifting of the dollar bill from between her breasts.

Updike further uses pink as a clue to why Sammy responds as he does. Goodman Brown's paranoia comes in large measure from his ambiguous reaction to Faith's desires and his ultimate failure to reconcile his "evil" sexuality with his spiritual teachings. Because nothing in his catechisms has prepared him for Faith's sensuality, a life of guilt and remorse is his lot. Modern Sammy unknowingly echoes Goodman's dilemma when he describes Queenie's suit as being "dirty-pink"—dirty being a pejorative term connoting the puritan disapproval which taints Sammy's views and which helps us understand that Sammy's sudden quitting is not only a way of attracting the girls' attention but also a way of punishing himself for lustful thoughts. He periodically congratulates himself for having no sexual responses to the "houseslaves in pin curlers," with their varicose veins and dowdy attire. Queenie, however, allows him no such smugness. Conditioned by containers and packaging, Sammy is overpowered by the nubile body and its not-so-hidden persuasions. Queenie attracts him like a bee to honey, a trite but appropriate simile which Sammy himself introduces with the bee-in-jar remark.

Such sexual responses are an expected biological reaction; but along with his normal desire comes guilt, the "dirty" residue of sincere emotions. Beneath Sammy's hip talk and cool facade lies an inheritor of the same Calvinist intolerance that wrecks Goodman Brown. Like Goodman, Sammy can deal with the obvious witches, because in his unsophisticated ethic they are physically unappealing and therefore evoke no lust. He cannot, however, cope with the sexy and nimble girl who strolls into his domain and who is far more destructive than the witchy housewives he feels so self-righteous about rejecting.

Goodman's embittered fate is a precursor of Sammy's, and the irony of Updike's final line with its carefully selected words is that although Sammy's complaint about "how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter" epitomizes juvenile self-pity, it also stands as an accurate prognosis of his future. Yvor Winters recognized that from all the complexity of Calvinist analyzing and agonizing, one fact emerges: the Puritan believed that "the behavior of the individual took on symbolic value." Thus when Sammy bolts from the social order emblematized by the store and the church just outside, he places his soul in direst jeopardy. For the Puritan, "diligence in one's calling" was a fence against sin, and in one thoughtless moment Sammy breaks the covenant of work and casts himself outside the pale of Calvinist grace. Until such time as he can somehow redeem himself, the world will indeed be hard on him—both the world of the village north of Boston and the world of the "hereafter."

Updike's dependence upon the preestablished qualities of Hawthorne's story implies both a knowledgeable continuation of historic literature and a highly selective narrative technique. The selectivity comes from the fact that in assuming certain audience responses to his allusion, Updike simultaneously assumes a "meaning" for "Young Goodman Brown." He views it as a prototypical psychosexual drama which examines human repressions and serves as a microcosm of a chronic national eroticism, topics which in works subsequent to "A & P" become a central concern of Updike's art and which are apparent in novels such as the recent The Witches of Eastwick.

Walter Wells (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: "John Updike's 'A & P': A Return Visit to Araby," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 30, No. 2 Spring, 1993, pp. 127-33.

[In the following essay, Wells demonstrates how narrative and thematic details of "A & P" closely resemble those of Joyce's "Araby."]

John Updike's penchant for appropriating great works of literature and giving them contemporary restatement in his own fiction is abundantly documented—as is the fact that, among his favorite sources, James Joyce looms large.

With special affinity for Dubliners, Updike has, by common acknowledgment, written at least one short story that strongly resembles the acclaimed "Araby," not only in plot and theme, but in incidental detail. That story, the 1960 "You'll Never Know, Dear, How Much I Love You"— like "Araby"—tells the tale of a poor, romantically infatuated young boy who, though obstructed by parental slowness, journeys with innocent urgency, coins in hand, to a seemingly magical carnival—only to find there, behind its facades, just a sleazy, money grasping, sexually tinged reality that frustrates and embitters him. Both stories draw on the Christian imagery of Bunyan's Vanity Fair episode to trace a modern boy's passage from innocence to experience, and to expose some of the pains and complexities of that passage. Notwithstanding "Araby"'s cachet as one of the great short stories in the English language, at least two critics [namely Hamilton and Detweiler] have found "You'll Never Know, Dear" to be "a far more complex story."

What remains unacknowledged, I think, is that shortly after writing "You'll Never Know, Dear," Updike made a second fictional excursion to Araby. This time he transformed Joyce's latter-day Vanity Fair, not into a cheaply exotic destination for a starry-eyed youngster, but into the richly resonant single setting for an older adolescent's sad tale: a tale of the modern supermarket. The resulting story, since its publication in 1962, has been Updike's most frequently anthologized: the popular "A & P." Updike even signals his intention for us at the outset, giving his story a title that metrically echoes Joyce's: Araby . . . A & P. (Grand Union or Safeway would not suffice.)

Like "Araby," "A & P" is told after the fact by a young man now much the wiser, presumably, for his frustrating infatuation with a beautiful but inaccessible girl whose allure excites him into confusing his sexual impulses for those of honor and chivalry. The self-delusion in both cases leads quickly to an emotional fall.

At 19, Updike's protagonist, Sammy, is a good bit older than Joyce's—at the opposite end of adolescence, it would seem. While in Joyce's boy we readily believe such confusion between the gallant and profane, I think we needn't assume that Sammy is likewise unable to distinguish between the two quite normal impulses. His attraction to the girl in the aisle is certainly far more anatomically and less ambiguously expressed than that of Joyce's boy to Mangan's sister. But it is Beauty that confounds the issue. When human aesthetics come into play, when the object of a young man's carnal desire also gratifies him aesthetically, that is when the confusion arises. In Irish-Catholic Dublin of the 1890s, such youthful beauty not surprisingly invokes analogies between Mangan's sister and the Queen of Heaven (though the swinging of her body and "the soft rope of her hair toss[ing] from side to side" [Joyce], which captivate the boy, hint at something less spiritual than Madonna worship). And while beauty's benchmarks in Sammy's more secular mid-century America are more anatomical than spiritual, Updike does have Sammy call his young femme fatal "Queenie," and he does make her the center of a "trinity" of sorts, showing her two friends at one point "huddl[ing] against her for relief" ("A & P").

Once smitten, both young protagonists become distracted, agitated, disoriented. Joyce's turns impatient "with the serious work of life" (Joyce). His teacher accuses him of idling. His heart leaps, his thoughts wander, his body responds "like a harp" to the words and gestures of Mangan's sister, which run "like fingers . . . upon the wires." Similarly, Updike's young hero can't remember, from the moment he spots Queenie in the aisle, which items he has rung up on the cash register.

Even details in the two stories are similar, Updike clearly taking his cues from "Araby." Both boys are excited by specified whiteness about the girls—Joyce's boy by "the white curve of her neck" and "the white border of [her] petticoat" in the glow of Dublin lamplight (Joyce), Sammy by the "long white prima-donna legs" ("A & P") and the white shoulders to which he refers repeatedly. "Could [there]," he wonders, "have been anything whiter than those shoulders[?]" Joyce's boy also observes a nimbus surrounding Mangan's sister, "her figure defined by the light from the half-opened door." True, Mangan's sister comports herself more humbly than her American counterpart. Queenie walks, heavy-heeled and head high, with the haughty pride of the affluent, secularized American upper middle class. But her enticing whiteness, in Updike's sly parody, is also given a luminous, halo-like quality: "around the top of the cloth," says Sammy of the bathing suit that "had slipped a little on her . . . there was this shining rim."

Both girls, remote as they are from their ardent admirers, also engage in some subtly seductive posturing. In the supermarket aisle, Queenie turns so slowly that Sammy's stomach is made to "rub the inside of [his] apron." It's the same sensation, we suspect, that Joyce's protagonist feels when Mangan's sister "turn[s the] silver bracelet round and round her wrist" (Joyce) and bows her head toward him in the lamplight in front of her door. Queenie bows to no one, but the "clear bare plane of the top of her chest . . . [is] like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light" ("A & P"). Her beauty, too, like that of Mangan's sister, is incandescent as it inclines toward her aspiring young knight.

Certainly one artistic motive for Updike's second reworking of "Araby" must be to contrast the spiritual valuesystems and the adolescent sexual folkways of Joyce's Dublin with those of suburban New England in the Atomic Age. (The disillusionment of little Ben, who is only ten in "You'll Never Know, Dear," is clearly presexual.) "A & P" holds the secular materialism of Updike's own day up for comparison against the slowly imploding, English-dominated Irish Catholicism of the mid-1890s—and, behind it, the fervor of Protestant evangelism in Bunyan's seventeenth century. As critics have often noted, few non-Catholic writers in America make issues of religious faith and doubt as important in their fictions as does Updike. In Victorian Dublin, redolent with the musty odor of incense, parochial schools, and the litter of dead priests, the Araby bazaar, a romanticized, pseudo-Oriental pavilion created by the fund raisers of the Jervis Street Hospital, stands incongruously pagan and temporary. It is there briefly, soon to be gone. Updike's supermarket, on the other hand, is permanently planted in the light of day near Boston, precisely where the church used to be: "right in the middle of town." "[From its] front doors," says Sammy, "you can see two banks and the Congregational church and the newspaper store and there real estate offices .. . "—quite the satellites to material abundance they've become. The temple of modern consumerism has supplanted the house of worship at the heart of things. It is also an era in which Sammy (and hardly Sammy alone) takes for granted that the godless communists will take control sooner or later (as the British had long since assumed control in Joyce's Ireland). Sammy looks ahead quite assuredly to a time when the A & P (the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Co., that bedrock American institution) will be "called the Great Alexandrov and Petrooshki Tea Company or something."

Updike heightens the story's skepticism over the destiny of American Christianity by having his three girls stroll through the aisles of the A & P inappropriately clad, in reductive parody of Bunyan's pilgrims in Vanity Fair:

[E]ven as they entred into the fair, all the people in the fair were moved, and the town it self as it were in a Hubbub about them; and that for several reasons: For, First, the pilgrims were cloathed with such kind of Raiment as was diverse from the Raiment of any that Traded in that fair. The people therefore of the fair made a great gazing upon them. Some said they were fools, some they were Bedlams, and some they are Outlandish-men. (Bunyan)

The sheep pushing their carts down the aisle—the girls were walking against the usual traffic . . . —were pretty hilarious. You could see them, when Queenie's white shoulders dawned on them, kind of jerk, or hop, or hiccup, but their eyes snapped back to their own baskets and on they pushed. I bet you could set off dynamite in an A & P and the people would by and large keep reaching and checking oatmeal off their lists. . . . But there was no doubt this jiggled them. A few houseslaves in pin curlers even looked around after pushing their carts past to make sure what they had seen was correct. ("A & P")

Contrast these two sets of "pilgrims" in the marketplace. Bunyan's proudly ignore exhortations that they partake of the bounty of the fair, insisting instead that the wares of the marketplace are nothing but stimuli to vanity. They will, they say, buy only the Truth. Queenie and her pals, on the other hand, do buy: one jar of Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream.

Queenie's approach to the checkout stand, Sammy warns us, begins "the sad part of the story." Lengel, the store's manager, a self-appointed moral policeman who also teaches Sunday school, confronts the girls at the register—just as Bunyan's pilgrims are confronted by "the Great One of the fair" (i.e., Beelzebub; Bunyan). "Girls, this isn't the beach," Lengel tells them ("A & P"), echoing the Devil's demand in Vanity Fair that the pilgrims account for "what they did there in such an unusual Garb" (Bunyan). Queenie and her friends, like Bunyan's pilgrims, protest that they "weren't . . . shopping" ("A & P"), only buying the snacks that Queenie's mother asked them to get on their way home from the beach. Bunyan's pilgrims explain to their inquisitor that they are just passing through on their way to the Heavenly Jerusalem. Sammy imagines, in fact, that the girls are returning to their own latter-day heavenly city, the affluent beach set where folks eat "herring snacks on toothpicks off a big glass plate and . . . [hold] drinks the color of water with olives and sprigs of mint in them"—this by comparison to the lemonade and Schlitz beer crowd, whence Sammy comes, where the suds are drunk from glasses with stenciled cartoons. In Bunyan's world, the choice was earthly vanity or heavenly salvation; in Updike's, it's just one level of class vanity or another.

To Queenie's protest, Lengel replies that it "makes no difference. . . . We want you decently dressed when you come in here." Queenie snaps back, insisting that she and her friends "are decent." But they are nonetheless (after Lengel allows Sammy to ring up the herring snacks) quietly banished from the store. Bunyan's pilgrims, of course, are more harshly persecuted, thrown in a cage and forced to assert their dignity much more protractedly than Updike's girls. The difference, however, is only one of degree.

At the checkout stand, Sammy witnesses Queenie's mortification up close with profound, if complicated, sympathy. He tenderly unfolds the dollar bill she hands him ("it just having come," he says, "from between the two smoothest scoops of vanilla I had ever known"), puts her change "into her narrow pink palm," hands her the jar of herring in a bag, then blurts out "I quit"—quickly enough, he hopes, for the girls to hear, so they will stop and acknowledge "their unsuspected hero."

It's pure impetuousness on Sammy's part, a gallant gesture, a promise of sorts. Like Joyce's boy in Dublin, when face to face with the object of his adoration, not knowing what else to say or do, Sammy offers a gift. Where the Irish boy, in his comparatively poor working-class milieu, wants (perhaps needs) to offer something material to Mangan's sister to show his adoration, Sammy, who inhabits an affluent American world cut loose from the consolations of Christian faith, a world of largely material values, offers instead an assertion of principle as his gift. His Queenie has been wronged, and he will stand by her; in an age when the supermarket has replaced the church as the community's central institution, "principle" is the nearest equivalent one has to spiritual commitment. But before we anoint Sammy's act as one of pure principle, however imprudent, we should ask ourselves whether he would have done the same had one of the other girls—maybe Big Tall Goony-Goony—borne the brunt of the reprimand, with Queenie out of the picture. I doubt it.

The promises of both young men prove futile, of course. Joyce's boy gets to Araby too late, and recognizes in the flirtatious banter there between the salesgirl and her two English admirers, and in the two men counting money, something uncomfortably close to the nature of his own longing: his dream, he later sees, was actually sexual, and money would not buy it. In the A & P, Queenie and her friends disappear out the door. Sammy's promise is also in vain; but, like Joyce's young protagonist, he's stuck with it. "It seems to me," says Sammy, "that once you begin a gesture it's fatal not to go through with it." He removes his apron and bow tie, and leaves the market. Once outside, he looks back woefully through the store windows and sees Lengel replacing him behind the cash register. Business goes on, and—as at Araby—the money must be collected. Like Joyce's boy peering into the darkened rafters of the Araby bazaar and lamenting the vanity of his impulsive act, Sammy says at the end of his story, "My stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter."

Hereafter . . . it's an oddly formal word with which to conclude for Sammy, who is otherwise a most colloquial storyteller. Does Updike mean to hint that Sammy's epiphany bears intimations of immortality?—and not very positive ones at that? Joyce's boy would seem simply to have matured as a result of his insight, to have become better equipped for life as an adult. Though convinced as a youth that his devotion to Mangan's sister was divinely driven, he has come to realize—as his older, more articulate narrative voice makes clear—that he had, back then, been "a creature driven and derided by vanity" (Joyce). Looking backward, Joyce's narrator has resolved his earlier confusion of spirit and libido, and can recount for us, however wistfully, how that resolution came about. Updike's Sammy, by comparison, speaks less retrospectively. He is still 19 at the end of his story, and still looking around for the girls in the parking lot, though "they're gone, of course" ("A & P"). Sammy looks ahead—into the life that lies before him, even perhaps (given that concluding word) at his own uncertain path to the Hereafter. And he sees nothing very clearly, only indefiniteness.

Both protagonists have come to realize that romantic gestures—in fact, that the whole chivalric world view—are, in modern times, counterproductive. That there are, however, for American adolescents in post-atomic, Cold War New England, any viable alternatives is less assured. Sammy's is the more ambivalent epiphany.

Robert M. Luscher (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: "Ceremonies of Farewell: Pigeon Feathers," in John Updike: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne Publishers, 1993, pp. 22-42.

[In the following excerpt, Luscher argues that "A & P" is "another story of a character caught in the middle between romance and realism."]

"A & P," Updike's most frequently anthologized piece, is, on the surface, uncharacteristic. Sammy, the brash teenaged narrator, fashions a seamless narrative and fastmoving plot that is structurally distinct from the lyrical mood or the much looser construction generally evident in Updike's short fiction. A closer inspection of "A & P," however, reveals similar thematic concerns and narrative techniques. Ringing up HiHo crackers rather than reading Virgil, Sammy stands apart from the sensitive young men Updike habitually portrays in his Olinger stories; he is closer in spirit to Ace Anderson of Updike's early story "Ace in the Hole." Yet his impulsiveness ultimately gives way to a nascent awareness of the compromises that may be entailed on the other side of the A & P's automatic door once he crosses through for the last time. While the story lacks the ache of nostalgia present in many of the collection's other pieces, Sammy's backward glance at the recent past seeks its full implications. In retelling the story, he refines the experience into a form that will live in his memory, significant in its continuing impact on his life. Like Walter in the preceding story, Sammy must wait until the initial disturbance passes before his creatively enriched memory of the incident becomes one of the first "pricked moments" in the darkening sky of maturity. "A & P" finally turns out to be another story of a character caught in the middle between romance and realism, and beginning to learn the lessons of bittersweet triumph.

Sammy's narrative, one of the nine first-person experiments in the volume, displays a surprising elasticity of tone, from the ungrammatical opening sentence to the adolescent comparison between Queenie's breasts and scoops of vanilla ice cream to more exact and poetic similes that may reveal an embryonic writer (e.g., "shoulder bones like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light"). Sammy's lively verbal performance seeks to engage our sympathy for his individualistic gesture in a world of sheep-like shoppers and his manager Lengel's prudish conventionalism. Retelling his story, he casts himself in the role of the "unsuspected hero" that he fails to become for Queenie and her friends. Yet in some respects, his bravado reveals the distance he still must travel toward true maturity. Though only 19, Sammy condescendingly refers to one of Queenie's friends as a "kid"; near the end of the story, however, we learn that Sammy's mother still irons his shirts. Nonetheless, he attempts to associate himself in the reader's mind with Stoksie, who is married, independent, and three years his senior; the only difference between them, he asserts, is the two children Stoksie has "chalked up on his fuselage already"—a testimony to his masculinity in Sammy's wishful vision.

In quitting his job, Sammy initially seeks to impress the three girls with a gesture that will establish his heroism as a masculine protector. Yet his attitude toward women is callow and chauvinistic: he likens the female mind to a "little buzz like a bee in a glass jar" and admires Queenie more for her body and social status than for her retort to Lengel. Furthermore, his disproportionate admiration of Queenie's 49-cent jar of Fancy Herring Snacks exhibits a basic social insecurity; to Sammy, this food is an exotic delicacy emblematic of a lifestyle beyond the reach of his parents (whose "racy" parties feature lemonade and Schlitz beer in stenciled glasses)—a lifestyle on which the ordinariness of the A & P has no right impinging. When Queenie speaks, Sammy "slid right down her voice into her living room," but the scene he imagines is a naive projection of his concept of the good life rather than a moment of genuine insight.

Sammy's shortcomings, however, must be weighed against the strides he makes during and after the experience. He may cling to adolescent attitudes and be motivated by the wrong reasons, but losing his job has at least spurred him to reconsider his position. Initially, he joins Stoksie in leering at the trio of girls in bathing suits, but he experiences a turning point in his feelings when, from his slot at the end of the meat counter, he watches McMahon, the butcher "patting his mouth and looking after them sizing up their joints. Poor kids, I began to feel sorry for them, they couldn't help it." Seeing the butcher assessing the girls like so much meat, as he himself was, awakens Sammy's pity and stirs some guilt; he still calls them "kids," but with an incipient awareness of their victimization. Whatever his faults, Sammy has an active imagination, a growing facility with language, and a perceptive eye and ear. While his defense of the girls may be motivated by a combination of lust, admiration for Queenie's social status, and sentimental romanticism, his gesture is not without principle and quickly assumes more serious overtones. His uncharitable assessments of Lengel and the customers show his growing distance from the world of the A & P; quitting merely severs whatever connection remains.

Yet the tenuous link he felt with Queenie and her world vanishes when she crosses the electric eye and Sammy remains to follow through on his actions; though he follows her across the threshold, he ends up alone in the parking lot, suspended between two inaccessible worlds. Instead of his dream girl, he is met with a premonition of the realities of married life: a young mother yelling at her spoiled children. While saved from the "injection of iron" that has made Lengel inflexible, Sammy realizes the truth of his last words: "You'll feel this for the rest of your life." Indeed, Sammy's recounting of the story shows him determined to do so; he refuses to stoop to self-pity and see its denouement as "the sad part," preferring instead to savor the incident's harsh lesson of "how hard the world was going to be on me hereafter" and thus prepare himself for its unforseen repercussions.


Critical Overview