A&P Critical Overview
by John Updike

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Critical Overview

(Short Stories for Students)

Updike was only in his twenties when he wrote "A & P," but he had already gained a reputation for his concise and elegant prose. In a New York Times Book Review article on Pigeon Feathers, the collection in which "A & P" was reprinted, Arthur Mizener called him "the most talented writer of his age in America...and perhaps the most serious." Having already published two novels and a collection each of stories and poems, Updike had familiarized reviewers with his propensity for capturing small moments in his fiction. Though many claimed he did so with grace, others criticized Updike because the moments were small, and in their opinion, insignificant. "A & P" originally suffered from this view. An anonymous reviewer in Time magazine remarked that "this dedicated 29 year old man of letters says very little and says it well," echoing the sentiment of many of his contemporaries. The reviewer went on to say that "even the book's best story—a young A & P food checker watches three girls in bathing suits pad through the store and quits his job impulsively when his boss reproaches them for their immodesty—is as forgettable as last week's New Yorker."

Yet, "A & P" has become Updike's most popular story over the years and has appeared in more than twenty anthologies. Young people especially seem to identify with Sammy and respond to the way he tells his story. Robert Detweiler surmised in his book, John Updike, that Sammy's popularity is due to his "integrity, one that divorces him from his unthinking conservative environment" M. Gilbert Porter, in an essay for English Journal, noted that Sammy's overreaction "does not detract from the basic nobility of his chivalric intent, nor does it reduce the magnitude of his personal commitment." Ronald E. McFarland, in an essay for Short Studies in Fiction claimed that the story's enduring popularity was due in part to the ambiguity of the narrator's actions. This sentiment was first proposed by Suzanne Uphaus, who stated in her book, John Updike, that Sammy's behavior is an attempt by Updike to reflect on his conviction that "the heroic gesture is often meaningless and usually arises from selfish rather than unselfish impulses.''

Other critics are similarly interested in the character of Sammy. In an essay...

(The entire section is 563 words.)