Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1586
John Updike has been accused of writing extremely well about matters of very little importance. His prose, sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, does read beautifully, perhaps more beautifully than anyone writing today. Erica Jong says, in an essay in Robert Luscher' s John Updike: A Study of the Short Fiction, that his detractors are "transparently envious'' of him. I agree with Jong. Updike's prose style is not separable from the content of his works, and that content is not trivial. The story we are examining here, "A & P," is a fine example, especially since many critics consider it a slight work describing an ultimately insignificant moment in a young man's small life.
A reader skating along the smooth ice of Updike's prose might be quite content to simply watch the approaching horizon, but the careful reader who looks below the surface will see all sorts of interesting, and sometimes frightening things lurking there. In "A & P," it seems that a grocery checkout clerk named Sammy quits his job to impress a pretty girl in a bathing suit. But just below the surface, we can see that Sammy has made a conscious choice to protest his manager's bad treatment of the girl. And if we get close and look even deeper, we can see that this story, informed by the social and cultural currents of the times, is an early harbinger of the youthful rebellion of the 1960s, which was in its embryonic stage at the time Updike wrote "A & P."
The 1950s were to some extent years of conformity, of marching in step, and also (it is said) years of sexual repression. Married couples portrayed on television and in the movies had to have twin beds. Censors dictated that bedroom scenes involving man and wife had to have at least one partner with a foot on the floor at all times. On the political front, a few influential people believed there were communists everywhere—or so it would seem from the headlines and speeches of the day. At times Hollywood seemed obsessed with communists and troubled teenagers, with films like I Married a Communist and Runaway Daughter. To be different in any significant way was to be suspect. In short, some Americans believed that there existed people "out there" who would seduce the nation's children, turn the country communist, and play rock and roll music all day in order to arouse the base, sexual longings of the populace. These people were more afraid of being labeled outsiders than they were afraid of the outsiders themselves.
Most people, of course, were not so dogmatic in their thinking. Most lived productive, normal lives, unrecognized and basically content. There were other people who spoke out in various ways against the uniformity of American society. But they were, by and large, on the periphery of the culture.
Among those who spoke out, the bi-coastal Beat Movement, centered around Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, and various friends, fans, and hangers-on, came to the fore in the mid-1950s with the publication of Kerouac's On the Road and Ginsberg's Howl. Although neither work might seem dangerous to us in the 1990s, they were roundly condemned by mainstream society at the time for being too sexually explicit, encouraging the mixing of the races, promoting drug use, and instigating a host of other immoral and illegal acts. Combining a fear of sex, race, drugs, communism, and freedom of dress and self-expression, society labeled the Beats "beatniks." In fact, anyone who challenged the status quo was labeled, humiliated, criticized, and denounced everywhere, from the Oval Office at the White House to the pulpit of the local Congregational Church, from the halls of Congress, to the halls of Shillington High School.
It is into this rigid world that John Updike sends three young girls wearing nothing but bathing suits.
Youth is significant in this story. Sammy is only nineteen, and the girls are younger than he. Lengel and the shoppers are, one assumes, much older. Stokesie, the other checkout clerk, has already crossed the great divide. He is twenty-two, an age at which it is legal to vote, to drink, to marry and to have children. He is vested in the system. It is only the young who have not been indoctrinated, who still have the freedom—and perhaps the courage—to make choices.
The choice the girls make is to walk into an A & P with nothing on but their bathing suits Make no mistake; this is a conscious decision They are young, but they are also sexual beings, proud, in that often confused way that teenagers are, of their sensuality. They are aware of Sammy watching them, and they are half self-conscious and half exhilarated by his attention.
The other shoppers nervously tend to their shopping as the girls pass them by. There is something amiss, something out of the ordinary and therefore frightening but, as Sammy notes, "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 and muttering 'Let me see, there was a third thing, began with A, asparagus, no, ah, yes, applesauce!' or whatever it is they do mutter." Sammy sees the dogmatic, rote way people lead their lives, alphabetizing their purchases, buying by the letter instead of by the food itself. What could be further apart in terms of taste and texture than asparagus and applesauce? Yet the shoppers force them together in their lists under the letter "A."
Sammy also knows that no matter what happens, these shoppers will not visibly react. They just want to get along, follow the cart in front of them up and down the aisles without incident. If dynamite were to go off, they would ignore it, go about their business as usual. It would have nothing to do with them. They want only to get their shopping done and get home. They do not want to stick out in a crowd. It is as if they are praying,"Get me through life without incident, Lord. Let me feel no pain and, if taking away feeling means I'll feel no joy, so be it." They have made their choices, and they are faced with the consequences of those choices.
Lengel, too, makes a choice. He is the manager, the person charged with enforcing policy, and so he chooses to chastise—and embarrass—the three girls. They are checking out when he sees them, so he could easily let them go, but he feels deeply his responsibilities as the representative of the Establishment. Managers, of large and small institutions alike, are there, in large part, to make sure that the social codes are enforced within that institution.
He brushes aside their argument that they aren't "doing any real shopping," but merely picking up one item "That makes no difference....We want you decently dressed when you come in here," Lengel says, and one can hear this voice spring from our youthful memories of teachers and parents and clergy and other grownups who knew so much about right and wrong. But Queenie does not address his comment directly, because he has addressed the wrong issue. "We are decent,'' she says. She knows the difference between appearances and a deeper truth. Dressing decently and being decent are different things. She knows she is a decent girl, and to judge her by her appearance is itself indecent.
Sammy, of course, makes the most drastic choice, a choice some critics have charged is charmingly romantic, but naive. But, as it foreshadows the choices an entire generation is about to make, I think it is of great importance. Sammy chooses to quit his job. He first says this to Lengel when the girls are still in the store, and one might be tempted to dismiss such a gesture as silly and romantic. But Lengel, perhaps wishing to give Sammy a chance to recant or even pretend he had said something else or nothing at all, asks, after the girls are gone, "Did you say something, Sammy?" This is what raises this story above the superficial; this simple interrogative sentence changes everything, for Sammy then says, "I said I quit."
Sammy had several alternatives, but he chose the straight and true one. He knew that he was quitting not to impress the girls now, but in protest over Lengel's action. He had an epiphany that it was an indecent thing to do to embarrass three young, vulnerable girls in public. He saw the unyielding "policy" of the "kingpins" as a doctrine that was cold and callous and amoral. He agrees with Lengel that he'll "feel this for the rest of [his] life," for he knows that he has just gone against "policy," too, and a world run by policy will not be easy on him.
By the end of the story, Updike has foretold of the coming revolution when sex will be sprung from its monastic cell, when the Establishment will have to justify each and every rule (and war), when appearances will not place one outside of society's gates. All the elements in American society that led to the free-spirited, often naive, romanticism of the 1960s are present in Updike's "A & P."
Source: Robert Peltier, for Short Stories for Students, Gale, 1998.
Peltier is an English instructor at Trinity College and has published works of both fiction and nonficlion.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2599
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 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," 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 fatale "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."
Once smitten, both young protagonists become distracted, agitated, disoriented. Joyce's turns impatient "with the serious work of life." 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, Sammy by the "long white prima-donna legs" 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'' 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.'' 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 value-systems 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 three 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 entered 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.
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.
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). "Girls, this isn't the beach," Lengel tells them, echoing the Devil's demand in Vanity Fair that the pilgrims account for "what they did there in such an unusual Garb." Queenie and her friends, like Bunyan's pilgrims, protest that they "weren't...shopping," 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." 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." Sammy looks ahead—into the life that lies before him, even perhaps (given that including 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.
Source: Walter Wells, "John Updike's 'A & P': A Return Visit to Araby," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol 30, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp 127-33.
Wells is Professor of English at California State University, Dominguez Hills. As a literary scholar, he is known primarily for his Tycoons and Locusts: Hollywood Fiction in the 1930s and Mark Twain's Guide to Backgrounds in American Literature.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1245
John Updike's short story "A & P" first published in The New Yorker and then in Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories (1962), has become something of a classic of college literature anthologies, and no doubt the story's brevity and its outrageously naive yet morally ambitious teen-age hero have much to do with that status. Part of the story's appeal, too, derives from the fact that the wild comedy of its boisterously inventive and rebellious narrator modulates at its end into a gentle but benign sobriety. Moments after Sammy dramatically surrenders his job at the cash register to protest the unchivalrous treatment of the three girls in swim suits who have broken the store's unwritten dress code, we may rejoice in the condescending yet charming irony of his naive conclusion:"I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter." Sammy surely overrates the harm he has done to his prospects. We chuckle at his groundless apprehension and at Updike's momentarily convincing if mischievous pretense that the world is benign. We are gladdened to have had our disbelief suspended.
But this analysis of the tonal satisfactions of the ending overlooks its deeper irony and the story's more considerable structural design on which that irony depends. The running theme which links the bulk of the story's incidents repeatedly demonstrates Sammy's inability to imagine himself personally at risk. The expectation this motif awakens in us is that Sammy will continue to underrate the world's dangers. At the story's end, however, he surprises us by overrating them—although with ludicrous and touching selectivity
The first of these dangers to present itself to Sammy is either penury or a neurotic meanness of spirit The middle-aged customer who gives Sammy "hell'' for ringing up her box of crackers twice is in Sammy's quick calculation, "aboutfifty," and a "witch'' of the sort he's learned once flourished in nearby Salem. He notices the "rouge on her cheekbones and no eyebrows'' but nothing else that might stir him in the direction of sympathy. That the malicious intent he silently accuses her of, and the "sheep"-like behavior, "like scared pigs in a chute," of the other "houseslaves in pin curlers" who draw his sarcastic ire, might have sources in something other than the one's motiveless malignity and the others' dullness of character, does not occur to Sammy. He calls the "pigs'' "scared'' as if he himself had never known fear, as if no one ever had, as if "scared'' were a term of opprobrium. He blames the customers of his A & P for being "houseslaves" without any sensitivity to the misfortunes of literal or metaphoric slavery the epithet points to. The thought that his mother, or his wife to be, might herself deserve something more generous than loathing for having "varicose veins [like those] mapping [the shoppers'] legs" does not break the shell of the boy's innocence.
Nor does he know, or care about, the circumstances that might lead one—himself for instance—to a career as a laborer in the city's Department of Streets and Sewers. The men who have come to such employment are to him nothing more than "old freeloaders." Similarly, the "old party in baggy gray pants who stumbles up [to his checkout lane] with four giant cans of pineapple juice" evokes in Sammy nothing more than the thoroughly self-satisfied question, "what do these bums do with all that pineapple juice? I've often asked myself." There is no malice in that "bums," merely the guileless narcissism of youth. We laugh with Sammy more than we laugh at him. How grand it must be to know nothing at all about marginal employment or implacable constipation!
Sammy sneers at the store manager for "haggling with a truck full of cabbages"—and by extension sneers at all those who grow, transport, even eat, such mundane stuff. He is entranced and made enviously defensive by his notion that the underclad younger shoppers inhabit a higher social station than his own. His reflections on this topic permit him a kindly smirk not only at his own family's lower middle-class predilections but also at their better's sartorial usages. "Ice-cream coats" is his mocking name for their formal summer attire. Of his own eventual settling into or battling to gain or retain a standing in the social hierarchy, he is merrily unaware.
Sammy shamelessly ogles the three girls and reports on his sudden bodily weakness when one of them hands him a dollar bill taken from her bodice, but when McMahon, who works behind "the meat counter," follows them with his eyes while "patting his mouth" in the embarrassed simulation of yawning boredom, Sammy watches without an iota of masculine fellow feeling. McMahon is what Sammy doesn't realize he may someday consider himself fortunate to have become: McMahon is "old." To Sammy his ogling the girls is absurd, ludicrous, grotesque, even distasteful, a response Sammy neatly expresses when he says that McMahon, the butcher, is "sizing up their joints."
Sammy's tenure at the check-out counter at the A & P has exposed him to a fair sampling of the ordinary range of insult and indignity with which adults are forced to compromise. The fact that his observations, so marvelously acute and so precisely and delightfully expressed, have not led him to the slightest insight into his own membership in the family of the sons of Adam culminates in the surprising double irony of the story's conclusion. While enormously overrating the world's subsequent interest in his own employment history, Sammy enormously underrates the range and reach of the adult world's terrors, those necessities which do indeed lie in wait for him, the exhibition of which has comprised the essential bulk of his narrative.
Sammy renounces his allegiance to the A & P for their sake, but the girls are gone when he seeks them on the street; and when he looks back through the store's "big windows," he "could see Lengel," the offending store manager, standing in for him at the cash register. "His face was dark gray and his back stiff," says Sammy, "as if he'd just had an injection of iron...." We know that Lengel had "been a friend of [Sammy's] parents for years'' and that he had asked Sammy to reconsider quitting for their sakes. Surely the "dark gray" of his face is the sign of something other than the proud obstinacy Sammy believes it to be. But from the story's beginning to here at its very end, Sammy gets it wrong. The payoff of this theme ought to be Sammy's lack of concern for the consequences of his precipitous renunciation of his job. The irony turns in on itself when he doesn't even get that right. Our chuckles at his overestimation of the trials which await him are seasoned with a soupcon of kindly concern for him that has been prompted by his underestimation of all those ordeals of which his narrative has so forcefully and comically reminded us—but not him. Sammy, like the frightened child in Philip Levine's poem "To a Child Trapped in Barber Shop," thinks that his "life is over." The poem's narrator, like our story's, reminds his protagonist with wistful affection that "it's just begun."
Source: Lawrence Jay Dessner, "Irony and Innocence m John Updike's 'A &P'," in Studies m Short Fiction, Vol. 25, No. 3, Summer, 1988, pp 315-17.
Dessner is Professor of English at the University of Toledo, He specializes in Victorian literature and creative writing.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2160
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." He did not mention "A & P." J. M. Edelstem, who made a passing comment on "A & P" butfocused on "Lifeguard," found Updike's work "rewarding,'' but also "terribly frustrating." Along with the stones' "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. Only the unsigned reviewer for Time, who began, "John Updike is a brilliant writer who has so far failed to write a brilliant book," 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, R. V. Cassill characterizes Sammy as "a good-natured, 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." Hailing "A & P" as "one of the brilliant pieces" in Pigeon Feathers, Robert Detweiler finds 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." 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 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 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: 49 cents." (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, 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 in 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 arm 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 antitype 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" 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: "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.
Source: Ronald E. McFarland, "Updike and the Critics. Reflections on' A & P'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 20, Nos 2-3, Spring-Summer, 1983, pp 95-100.
McFarland is Professor of English at the University of Idaho.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 862
"A & P" is one of Updike's most popular and anthologized tales. Told in the first person from Sammy's point of view, the story calls attention not to the tone of nostalgia but the brashness of his colloquialism. The first sentences suggest his confidence: "In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits. I'm in the third check-out slot, with my back to the door, so I don't see them until they're over by the bread. The one that caught my eye first was the one in the plaid green two-piece." Sammy's sympathy with the teeny boppers is established immediately by the contrast between the girls and the typical cash-register watcher, "a witch about fifty with rouge on her cheekbones and no eyebrows" who gives him a hard time for ringing up a box of HiHo crackers twice. Admiring the three girls for daring to enter the grocery store dressed in bathing suits, he especially likes the one who wears her straps down and her head high. He also enjoys the shock on the faces of the housewives in pin curlers who do a double take to corroborate this breach in decorum: "these are usually women with six children and varicose veins mapping their legs...there's people in this town haven't seen the ocean for twenty years."
The sketch turns on the offhand comment that his parents think the outcome sad. We know then that despite the colloquial immediacy of the tale, "A & P" is the record of an incident which Sammy has already lived through but not forgotten. His response to the situation has made an impact upon him which he continues to ponder. When Lengel, the store manager who teaches Sunday school, criticizes the three girls with the comment, "this isn't the beach," Sammy's sense of heroism is aroused. Lengel utters his sarcasm as if the A & P were a great sand dune and he the head lifeguard, but no one is saved. Like a hero in a story by J. D. Salinger performing a quixotic gesture, Sammy accepts the role of the girls' unsuspected hero and announces to Lengel that he quits.
He does not agree with his parents that the outcome is sad. Someone must stand up for embarrassed teen-agers in bathing suits with straps down. But this quixotic gesture does him no good. The girls never hear him declare himself their protector, and they do not wait for him in the parking lot with favors and thanks. Indeed, when he steps outside, he is in the ugly world of harried housewives with varicose veins: "There wasn't anybody but some young married screaming with her children about some candy they didn' t get by the door of a powder-blue Falcon station wagon." Sammy does not want to quit his job, but he believes that he must go through with the gesture. His protest throws him out of the artificially ordered world of the A & P, where the third checkout slot looks directly up the row to the meat counter, and into the parking lot where mothers yell at children while pretty girls in bathing suits do not notice small acts of heroism. Worse, they do not care.
Sammy's brash slang covers his sentimental act which neither the teen-agers nor the world accepts. His sacrificial action is incongruous but nevertheless mildly moving. The irony is that the girls never need his help. They stand up well under the Victorianism of Lengel and the stares of the other shoppers. As one of the girls retorts, "We are decent." Sammy learns that no one welcomes or even tolerates idle idealism. Rather than insist on a principle, he has merely shown off: "My stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter."
In both "A & P" and "Lifeguard," the first-person narrators are defined largely by their tones and vocabularies. No one else supplies background information or details to round out character. Updike experiments with opposite extremes of voice, for Sammy is casual and colloquial while the lifeguard is pompous and pedantic. Sammy initially seems so confident that he may irritate some readers. Surveying the three girls as they wander the aisles, he assumes that his perspective and judgment are naturally correct. When he describes the girls, we wonder if his lyrical flights of language expose the inadequacy of his slang as he stretches to show why these teen-agers deserve his sacrifice: Breasts, for example, become two smooth scoops of vanilla. We can see him longing to ring up the purchase of that ice cream. Yet 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. We finish the story sensing that he is more than just another A & P employee with an eye for cute behinds. An observer of his social world, he resolves not just to record but also to act upon his impressions.
Source: Donald J. Greiner, in his The Other John Updike. Poems, Short Stones, Prose, Plays, Ohio University Press, 1981,297 p