“A&P” is essentially a coming-of-age story in which Sammy tries to be a hero, only to realize that heroes don’t get very far in the modern world.
Sammy’s narrative voice is full of humor, sarcasm, wit, and, later, disappointment. Sammy is an opinionated young man who doesn’t hide his disdain for his older coworkers and isn’t ashamed of his romantic interest in Queenie.
Sammy might best be described as an individual. He is bored with life in his small Massachusetts town and longs to break free of the trappings of society.
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Style is meaning in “A&P.” The story opens abruptly—“In walks these three girls”—and maintains that vernacular, conversational, ungrammatical voice throughout its 250 lines. The point of view is strictly Sammy’s and, although tense shifts occasionally from past to historical present (as it would in such a retelling), Sammy’s voice has an authenticity and immediacy that is matched in very few twentieth-century stories. That voice can be both pedestrian (“I thought that was so cute”) and poetic (as when Sammy describes Queenie’s bare upper chest as “a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light”).
Sammy’s voice is also explicitly humorous. When he first sees the girls, he cannot remember whether he has rung up the box of HiHo crackers under his hand. “I ring it up again and the customer starts giving me hell. She’s one of these cash-register watchers, a witch about fifty with rouge on her cheekbones and no eyebrows, and I know it made her day to trip me up. She’s been watching cash registers for fifty years and probably never seen a mistake before.”
When Lengel tells the girls, “this isn’t the beach,” it strikes Sammy as humorous, as if the thought had just occurred to Lengel, “and he had been thinking all these years the A&P was a great big dune and he was the head lifeguard.”
All the characters, in Sammy’s language, become animals: Lengel is about to “scuttle” crablike into his office when he first sees the girls; the other customers group like “sheep” and “pigs in a chute” when they see the trouble at the front register; the three girls “buzz” to one another, like a queen bee and her two drones. Sammy’s voice, his humor, and his detailed descriptions of the supermarket setting undercut the implicitly romantic and sentimental situation of the story.
What Updike has achieved in “A&P” is a story of richness and ambiguity. The girls and Lengel argue the meaning of “decent,” for example, and the word reverberates with socioeconomic import; Sammy jumps to the defense of the girls, but he has earlier shown that his attitude toward the dress code is similar to Lengel’s (“You know, it’s one thing to have a girl in a bathing suit down on the beach”).
“A&P” works well as a story because the tone, the language, and the point of view are so appropriate to and consistent with the subject. Updike, in writing a seriocomic story on the common theme of initiation, has achieved a small masterpiece through a rich, supple prose that conveys the story’s comic tragedy through its very language and imagery.
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No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service
Today it is common for businesses to post signs stating the rules of their premises, “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service,” or for movie theaters to constantly remind people not to talk during a film. Society has become so informal that reminders of basic decency and courtesy are commonplace. This is in sharp contrast to a generation or two ago, when standards of appearance and behavior were more rigid and more accepted. Women were required to wear hats in church, and men were required to take theirs off. In the office, rules were largely unwritten, but rarely broken. Women wore dresses, nylons, and girdles. Men wore gray, blue, or black suits and never left home without a tie.
This era was the 1950s and early 1960s, when conservative dress mirrored conservative social values. Conformity was the measure of popularity as well as a measure of moral lightness. Most people, particularly members of the middle class, wanted to fit in with their neighbors. Suburbs were constructed of identical houses, and the American dream was to have a family, a car, and the other modern conveniences that would make them equal to others of their social standing. Those who bucked the trends were frequently labeled eccentric or bohemian. The rebellion of many young people from the mid-1960s onward stemmed from what they perceived as the oppression of the staunch rules their parents imposed upon them. Sammy is a good example of this. He knows what the rules are, but he does not admire the “sheep” who so willingly follow them. When he quits his job at the grocery store, he has upset the status quo, an event that Sammy’s parents deem “sad.” In refusing to smooth over his behavior and return to his job, Sammy takes a stand that makes him aware of “how hard the world was going to be . . . hereafter.” In such a rigid society, he knows he may be relegated to the status of an outsider or troublemaker for disagreeing with the unwritten code of acceptable behavior.
There was little positive incentive for Sammy to act as he did. In the late 1950s, the culture had its iconoclasts, but they were never sanctioned by the mainstream. In Nicholas Ray’s 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause, a teenager’s quest for love and warmth, played by James Dean, in a cold and loveless world turns to tragedy. All movies were subject to censorship from the Hayes Office before the current rating system was devised in the late 1960s. Not only was sex, obscene language, and violence strictly curtailed, but characters of low morals were required to suffer negative consequences of their actions within the course of the film. Jack Kerouac’s seminal novel On the Road, published in 1957, tells of beatnik outcasts Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, who drive across the United States listening to jazz and smoking marijuana while trying to find something authentic in American culture. It was also during this era that Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl was published. In it, Ginsberg condemns a conformist culture for crushing the creative spirit of artists: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.” Such strong language was not received warmly by mainstream society. The poem became the subject of a landmark obscenity trial, and the poem’s publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Books, was jailed by the San Francisco Police Department and charged with obscenity.
Rock’n’roll music got its start in the 1950s. At best, it was dismissed as a fad; at worst, it was considered the devil’s work. The new music was filled with a sensuality that middle America vehemently condemned, if only because it was causing young people to swoon with emotions previously kept largely in check. Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry were considered suspicious for their wild movements and flashy clothes, and for beguiling American youth away from the path of safe, decent, sexually modest entertainment. This is the world into which Updike introduces the three teenage girls in bathing suits in “A&P.”
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The action of “A&P” takes place in a grocery store in a town north of Boston that is five miles from the nearest beach. Updike told Short Stories for Students that he wrote “A&P” “in 1961, when I was living in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Driving past the local A&P, I asked myself, ‘Why are there no short stories that take place inside an A&P?’ I proceeded to write one, based on a glimpse I had had of some girls in bathing suits shopping in the aisles. They looked strikingly naked.” Updike added: “Originally the story went on, past the ending it now has: Sammy goes down to the beach to find the girls, and never does find them. But the story’s editor at the New Yorker thought that the story ended where it now does, and I agreed with him.”
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On its simplest level, “A&P” is a humorous adventure story, in which a young protagonist acts in the name of romantic love—and pays the price. The optimistic reader may feel that a sensitive hero has been freed from a dead-end job and a restrictive moral code, but a more realistic response will also recognize that Sammy’s act has left him in a kind of limbo: He now belongs neither to the world of Lengel and his parents (because he has quit the job they hoped he would keep) nor to the world the girls represent and to which, through his romantic gesture, he aspires. Like Sarty in William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” (another story about a young boy acting against his parents), Sammy’s act takes him not from one world to another but to a place in between—and nowhere.
Like so many short stories, both European and American, “A&P” is primarily a story of initiation, as a young boy moves from innocence (and ignorance) to experience (and knowledge). Like the young boy in James Joyce’s “Araby,” perhaps the quintessential initiation story, Sammy has gained some knowledge (through what Joyce called an “epiphany” or revelation), both of himself and of adulthood, but he has also discovered “how hard the world was going to be” to those who cling to their romantic notions about life. Lacking as yet the maturity to accept compromise or to live with the world’s injustices, this noble and still uncorrupted youth has acted rashly and lost everything, except perhaps himself. The reader implicitly feels that Sammy’s initiation into the adult world will continue long after this short story is over.
Short as it is, the story has a number of classical overtones. Like the hero in an Arthurian legend, Sammy is on a romantic quest: In the name of chivalry, he acts to save the “queen” (and her two consorts) from the ogre Lengel. At the same time, Sammy is tempted by the three Sirens from “the Point” and rejects his mentor (or older guide), Lengel, to follow them; from this perspective, Sammy’s initiation comes when he recognizes the futility of this quest and returns to Lengel, who presents him with the truth. Such mythical possibilities point up the richness of John Updike’s prose.
There are also sociopsychological implications in this initiation story. Although Sammy defends the three girls against the provincial morality of Lengel and the town (“Poor kids, I began to feel sorry for them, they couldn’t help it”), it is only Sammy who holds to the outmoded romantic code; the three girls ignore him. Sammy, in other words, is a working-class “hero” defending a privileged upper class that does not even acknowledge his existence. In the medieval romance, all the characters were aristocratic. Here Sammy loses his job because of romantic notions to which only working-class characters, apparently, still subscribe.
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Point of View and Narration
Sammy, a checkout clerk, narrates this story in the first person. His voice is colloquial and intimate. His speech is informal, a factor that highlights his individuality and propensity to question authority. Terms of slang, like describing a dollar bill that had “just come from between the two smoothest scoops of vanilla I had ever known” characterize him as a fairly typical teenage boy. Using the present tense to make the story seem immediate, he speaks as if to a friend—“I uncrease the bill, tenderly as you may imagine”—drawing the reader immediately to his side. Everything that happens, the reader sees through his eyes. When the girls in bathing suits disappear from his view, they disappear from the reader’s view, as well.
Sammy’s diction indicates that he is probably not a well-educated person. “In walks these three girls,” he says at the very beginning of the story. He also uses a kind of wisecracking slang when talking to Stokesie. Yet, because of the immediacy of his voice, he seems to be a reliable narrator, telling the truth even when it does not flatter him.
“A&P” is rich in symbolism. The HiHo crackers Sammy is ringing up are an exclamation. When he rings them up the second time, he is saying “Heigh-ho! Something out of the ordinary is happening!” And the older woman takes him to task for it. The other shoppers are “sheep” who follow blindly up and down the aisles, finally entering the chutes where they will check out. Near the end of the story, they bunch up in Stokesie’s chute, crowding together like the nervous sheep they are. The girls themselves are associated with bees, from the moment that Sammy notices one of them is the “Queen,” leading the others around the store. Shortly after that, he wonders what goes on in their minds, if it is “just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar.” Like buzzing bees, they make everyone just a little bit nervous. They are the catalyst in the story, stirring things up as they buzz around the store. Of course the girls, especially Queenie with her shoulder straps hanging loosely, symbolize sexual freedom as they walk around the store. It is a sexual freedom that is bottled up rather quickly when Lengel arrives. At the end, Lengel tries to talk Sammy into staying, but Sammy cannot get the picture of the girls’ embarrassment out of his mind, so he rings up No Sale on the cash register. He is not buying.
An epiphany is an instance of sudden truth brought about by a mundane event. What began for Sammy as an ordinary day results in a the realization of an important truth: “I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.” This final statement of “A&P” is the culmination of the fairly minor event of witnessing three inappropriately dressed girls reprimanded for their appearance. In presenting this epiphany, Updike illustrates how average people grow and change. Ordinary events become pivotal as people examine their motives and reasons for their decisions and behavior. At nineteen, Sammy is ripe for experiences that will start to define who he is going to be. He discovers, as “his stomach kind of fell,” that he prefers not to be a sheep who blindly follows the dictates of society.
Another well-known literary instance of epiphany occurs in James Joyce’s story “Araby.” A boy realizes shamefully that he has been idolizing a friend’s sister after embarking on a quest to a church carnival to bring her a present, a token of his affection. Once he realizes that the carnival is nothing but an excuse to sell people cheap trinkets, and that his friend’s sister is merely an ordinary girl with no special interest in him, his eyes “burned with anguish and anger.” The similarity between the epiphany in “Araby,” in which an adolescent realizes the futility of romantic quests, and the one in “A&P” is explored by Walter Wells in his essay “John Updike’s ‘A&P’: A Return Visit to Araby.” He notes that both protagonists become “smitten . . . distracted, agitated, disoriented” by pretty, unattainable girls. Furthermore, “both protagonists have come to realize that romantic gestures—in fact, that the whole chivalric world view—are, in modern times, counterproductive.”
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1959: Although only ten percent of all grocery stores are large enough to be considered supermarkets, they account for almost seventy percent of all food sold in the United States. (The A&P, a long-standing concern originally called the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, is one of these supermarkets.) This statistic mirrors the trend toward suburbanization, since most supermarkets are located in fast-growing suburbs.
1993: Sears Roebuck stops publishing the Sears Catalogue, which for almost a hundred years has enabled people to mail order everything from groceries to prefabricated houses. In addition, Sears closes over a hundred stores nationwide The decision is impacted by the rising popularity of so-called “category killer” stores, huge warehouse-like structures that specialize in certain niche markets, like housewares, and can offer the public deep discounts because of bulk buying.
1961: FCC chairman Newton Minow declares television “a vast wasteland” filled with “blood and thunder . . . mayhem, violence, sadism, murder . . . more violence, and cartoons . . . and, endlessly, commercials—many screaming, cajoling, and offending.”
1997: Bowing to pressure from parents concerned about the effects of violence and sex on their children, television networks agree to a system of ratings for television programs, which will allow parents to gauge whether or not a program’s content is suitable for their children.
1960s: According to Alfred Kinsey’s study of female sexuality, one-third of all twenty-five-year-old unmarried women are sexually active. Other studies claim that seventy-five percent of young unmarried women are virgins. An estimated forty percent of unmarried men are virgins.
1990s: According to most surveys, a majority of females are sexually active by the age of seventeen. Thirty percent of all children in the United States are born out of wedlock. Eighty percent of all teenage mothers are unmarried, and eighty percent of them go on welfare to support their babies.
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“A&P” is read by the author on the audiocassette Couples and Pigeon Feathers, published by Caedmon Audio Cassette. The cassette also includes the other stories from both collections.
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Butscher, Edward. “John Updike: Overview.” In Reference Guide to Short Fiction, 1st ed. Edited by Noelle Watson. Detroit: St. James Press, 1994. An overview of Updike’s career.
Dessner, Lawrence Jay. “Irony and Innocence in John Updike’s A&P.” Studies in Short Fiction (Summer 1988): 315–17. Dessner examines the character of Sammy, theorizing that he focuses on minor problems and neglects the major issues that will impact his life.
Greiner, Donald J. In The Other John Updike: Poems, Short Stories, Prose, Plays. Ohio University Press, 1981, p. 297. A critical overview of Updike’s works.
Kellner, Bruce. “ ‘A&P’: Overview.” Reference Guide to Short Fiction, 1st ed. Edited by Noelle Watson. Detroit: St. James Press, 1994. Kellner provides an overview of Updike’s “highly entertaining moral tale,” focusing in particular on the evolution of Sammy.
McFarland, Ronald E. “Updike and the Critics: Reflections on A&P.” Studies in Short Fiction 20 (Spring–Summer 1983): 95–100. Reprinted in Short Story Criticism, vol. 27. Edited by Anna J. Sheets. Detroit: Gale, 1998, pp. 319–330. McFarland considers criticism of Updike’s work and debates why “A&P” is his best-known story.
Saldivar, Toni. “The Art of John Updike’s A&P.” Studies in Short Fiction (Spring A&P 9 1997): 215. Saldivar relates the detailed description of the three teenage girls in “A&P” to Sandro Botticelli’s painting “Birth of Venus.”
Shaw, Patrick W. “Checking Out Faith and Lust: Hawthorne’s ‘Young Goodman Brown’ and Updike’s A&P.” Studies in Short Fiction (Summer 1986): 321–23. Shaw examines the themes of rebellion and eroticism in “A&P” and argues that Sammy is an allusion to Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown.
Uphaus, Suzanne Henning. Some Short Stories. Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1980, pp. 121–30. Uphaus concentrates on the ironic nature of the story while providing a general overview of the plot and characters.
Wells, Walter. “John Updike’s ‘A&P’: A Return Visit to Araby.” Studies in Short Fiction (Spring 1993): 127–33. Wells compares “A&P” to Joyce’s “Araby.”
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Uphaus, Suzanne, John Updike, Ungar, 1980, pp. 125–26.
Detweiler, Robert. John Updike, Twayne, 1972, p. 68.
Luscher, Robert M. John Updike. A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne, 1993.
Mizener, Arthur. “Behind the Dazzle Is a Knowing Eye,” in the New York Times Book Review, March 18, 1962.
Porter, M. Gilbert “John Updike’s ‘A&P’ The Establishment and the Emersonian Cashier,” in English Journal, Vol 61, November, 1972, p. 1157.
A review of Pigeon Feathers in the Times Literary Supplement, February 1, 1963, p. 73.
A review of Pigeon Feathers, in Time, March 16, 1962, p. 86.
Macnaughton, William R. Critical Essays on John Updike, G. K. Hall, 1982.
A longer collection of essays and criticism. Authors include fellow fiction writers as well as Updike scholars.
Javna, John and Gordon Javna, 60s’, St. Martin’s, 1988.
A catalogue of 1960s popular culture, from toys to television shows. It also includes a look at some ’60s fads that have made a comeback.
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Bloom, Harold, ed. John Updike: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
Boswell, Marshall. John Updike’s Rabbit Tetralogy: Mastered Irony in Motion. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000.
Greiner, Donald. John Updike’s Novels. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1984.
Luscher, Robert M. John Updike: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993.
Miller, D. Quentin. John Updike and the Cold War: Drawing the Iron Curtain.
Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001.
Newman, Judie. John Updike. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.
Schiff, James A. John Updike Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1998.
Updike, John. Self-Consciousness: Memoirs. New York: Knopf, 1989.
Uphaus, Suzanne Henning. John Updike. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980.