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.