Critical Overview

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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 titled "Irony and Innocence in John Updike's 'A & P'," Lawrence Jay Dessner lauded the story's "brevity and its outrageously naive yet morally ambitious teen-age hero," whom he called "boisterously inventive and rebellious." Walter Wells discussed the story as a modern interpretation of James Joyce's classic tale of adolescent initiation, "Araby." Calling Sammy's "the more ambivalent epiphany," Wells drew comparisons between the sudden realizations of the narrator of "Araby'' and that of Updike's story, and speculated that the author's purpose in updating Joyce's story was "to contrast the spiritual value-systems and the adolescent sexual folkways of Joyce's Dublin with those of suburban New England in the Atomic Age." Donald J. Greiner, in The Other John Updike: Poems, Short Stories, Prose, Plays, summarized the attraction many readers feel to Sammy:"The end of the story suggests that all is not self-righteousness and slang. Sammy has sympathy and a sense of outrage. However ironic, his sacrificial gesture is as refreshing as his colloquial candor....An observer of his social world, he resolves not just to record but also to act upon his impressions."

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“A&P” by John Updike


Essays and Criticism