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Analysis and Insights of John Updike's Short Story "A&P"

Summary:

John Updike's short story "A&P" explores themes of individuality, social conformity, and the consequences of impulsive actions. The protagonist, Sammy, experiences a moment of personal rebellion against societal norms when he quits his job in protest of the way his boss treats three young women. This act of defiance ultimately leads to a deeper understanding of the complexities and challenges of adult life.

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Who is the main character in John Updike's short story "A&P"?

The misguided young cashier in the John Updike short story, "A&P," hardly came up with a perfect answer when he announced "I quit" to his boss at the grocery store. However, it does seem to be a fitting answer for Sammy, considering his skewed outlook on work, customers and the opposite sex. The cashier was hoping to impress the three bathing suit clad girls who had come from the beach to purchase a jar of "herring snacks" for their parents' party. The girls were hassled by the manager for not covering their shoulders, and Sammy saw his chance to become their "unsuspecting hero" when he decided to turn in his apron. The "I quit" announcement had little effect on the girls, however, who had disappeared by the time the newly unemployed young man reached the parking lot.

By quitting, Sammy took a stand against his pedestrian gig, fully aware that life would be tougher for him in the future with no job and disappointed parents to answer to. Rebellious, maybe, but Sammy is no James Dean. Perhaps he had hoped to come up with a snappier response when he explained his actions to his boss.

     I started to say something that came out "Fiddle-de-doo." It's a saying of my grandmother's, and I know she would have been pleased.
     "I don't think you know what you're saying," Lengel said.

Truer words could not have been spoken.

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What influenced John Updike to write his short story, "A&P"?

All of Updike's writing deals with middle-class American values and their relationship to religion, sexuality, marriage, and divorce. In 1961, Updike said he got the idea for this story when driving by an A & P, and he wondered why no one had written about what goes on inside such a place, which is an important part of middle-class life. He had also seen some girls shopping in an A & P in bathing suits, and he thought they looked "naked" in their skimpy attire. He wondered what would happen if religious, middle-class Americans disapproved of shoppers dressed in such clothing, and the result was "A & P". He then created his protagonist who fights for the girls' rights to shop in their bathing suits. So Updike was inspired by driving around his home town of Ipswich, Massachusetts, proving that art reflects reality.

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What influenced John Updike to write his short story, "A&P"?

John Updike frequently wrote for "The New Yorker", a magazine that was read by many people who were culturally and artistically sophisticated. This often dictated HOW he composed his pieces--using a lot of symbolism and literary devices (such as irony, alliteration, allusion and the like).

John Updike was raised as a Lutheran, hence the many references to sheep in the story. His Lutheran background may also have something to do with the main character's desire to break free and rebel from social constraints.

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When was John Updike's "A&P" written?

Hi- Just for absolute clarity, A&P was written in 1961.

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Does John Updike's story "A&P" reflect events occurring when it was written?

This short story was published in 1961.  The 50s and early 60s in suburban America was a time period most known for its conservativism.  Conservative spending, conservative dress, conservative family values, etc.  This is a time when houses remained unlocked, neighbors were neighborly, and generally speaking, society followed an unwritten code for social behavior.  (Remember, this era directly precedes the rebellious hippy movement of the late 60s and early 70s).

Sammy represents an attitude that was coming, quickly, at this time, for many young Americans.  The girls in the A&P are embarrassed when reprimanded for their attire (they hardly seem to notice the stares and scowls from older onlookers) and Sammy is embarrassed as well.  In the moment that he quits, he is making a statement - taking a stand - socially, that he disagrees with the unwritten rules that society imposes.

Because the story is told from the perspective of America's youth, it obvious that the conflict is between the older generation and the younger one.  Clearly, Updike was writing about the oncoming shift in values as teens and twenty somethings were about to rise up and begin to create a voice for themselves - through music, in politics, in protest, and in simply ceasing to follow the unwritten code of decency.

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What are the consequences in John Updike's "A&P"?

John Updike’s short story "A&P" is about an idealistic adolescent boy named Sammy who learns about the realities of the adult world. Sammy works at A&P, and one day in the summer, three girls walk into the store wearing bathing suits. Sammy’s boss Lengel tells the girls they cannot shop in the store unless they are “decently dressed.” Sammy thinks that the girls are attractive and thinks that he will appear like a hero if he defends them.

Sammy tells Lengel he quits and hopes that the girls appreciate this. However, the girls do not care. Once the girls leave, Lengel tries to convince Sammy that he should not do this but Sammy sticks to his decision. Lengel says he will “feel this” for a long time. Sammy then leaves the store and begins to realize this decision will have consequences. He explains:

I look around for my girls, but they're gone, of course. 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. Looking back in the big windows, over the bags of peat moss and aluminum lawn furniture stacked on the pavement, I could see Lengel in my place in the slot, checking the sheep through. His face was dark gray and his back stiff, as if he'd just had an injection of iron, and my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.

Although Updike does not specify what the exact consequences of this decision will be for Sammy, this realization is quite telling. Sammy realizes that there is “nobody” waiting on the other side for him, nobody who cares about what he just did. Then he looks back at the store and realizes that he cannot go back to his life before. The world is “hard” and he cannot keep making foolish adolescent decisions to do something like impress girls. This is ultimately a coming-of-age story in which Sammy learns that the adult world is a difficult place.

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What is the climax of John Updike's "A&P"?

With climax being the point in a plot that creates the greates intensity, suspense, or interest, this point in John Updike's "A&P" is the action during which the conflict is resolved, or an attempt is made to resolve it.  For, in actuality, Sammy's rebellious action meant to impress the girls does not resolve anything. 

When Sammy tells Mr. Lengel that he quits, the employer essays to avert disaster for Sammy,  "I don't think you know what you're saying."  However, in his ego-centered rebellion, Sammy states that he believes that

once you begin a gesture it's fatal not to go through with it"

 and he walks out, anyway.  Once outside, he notices that the girls, for whom he acted so chivalorously, have departed.  Moreover, Sammy notices that Lengel is in his place with his back stiff and Sammy's stomach

kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.

While Sammy may have realized that the complex world of adult requires compromise, he is left in limbo between the two worlds himself, with no resolution to the conflict that he has sought to end.

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What is the climax of John Updike's "A&P"?

The climax of the story is when the protagonist gets quite upset at his A&P manager  for his treatment of Queenie and the rest of the bathing suit girls and quits his job in front of everyone.

This event is simple to explain: He is a teenager, he is smitten, and he wants to make an impression on the girls without thinking about the consequences. Plus, he is quite fed up already with his job, his manager, and everything around him. He is not happy anyways, but the girls may have been the excuse all teenagers need to explain impulsive behaviors.

Nothing was gained. Even the protagonist admits it. Yet, there is so much ego and risk involved that, for a teenager, this wouls have been a nightmare to explain. However, he (as a young man) did what he thought was best (albeit, idiotically) but he could still say he has a story to tell when he gets older.

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What is the climax of John Updike's "A&P"?

The climax of John Updike's short story, "A & P", comes when Sammy utters the words "I quit" to his store manager, Mr. Lengel. The beginning of the climax (and completion of the rising action) occurs when Lengel chastizes the girls for being improperly dressed in the grocery. Lengel reminds the girls twice that his store "isn't the beach," but when Queenie blushes and tries to explain, the manager tells her

"That makes no difference... We want you decently dressed when you come in here."

Queenie replies that "We are decent," but Lengel then hints that their bathing suits and bare shoulders borders on "juvenile delinquency." And with that, Sammy announced that he was quitting. When Lengel asked Sammy if he'd said something, Sammy told him again that "I quit," and he rang up a "No Sale" on the register and walked out, hoping that his gallant response to the situation would impress the girls. But they had already left, leaving Sammy to wonder if his decision was a wise one.

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What does "A&P" stand for in John Updike's short story?

In the setting of Updike's story, the late 1950s, the A & P grocery stores were THE grocery store of small town USA.  The name A & P came to be synonymous with "grocery store" in the way that Kleenex is synonymous with tissue.  In small towns, no other store could compete with the A & P and it was where "everyone went."  Thus, the A & P represented a part of Americana of the late 50s. 

When the girls enter the A & P inappropriately dressed for the times, the manager is appalled and speaks to the girls.  And, it is because of this store's iconclastic representation of the complacent American culture that the title has such significance.  For, when Sammy quits the A & P, he breaks from the culture of his era.  The manager, Lengel, whom Sammy describes as

thinking all these years the A & P was a great big dune and he was the head lifeguard,

concentrates "on giving the girls that sad Sunday-school-superintendent stare," and Sammy decides to defend the girls even when the punctilious manager says to Sammy,

Sammy, you don't want to do this to your Mom and Dad.

Like Holden Caulfield of "The Catcher in the Rye,"  Sammy refuses to be accepting of his social world and comprimise himself as the adults do:

But it seems to me that once you begin a gesture it's fatal not to go through with it. 

Rather, he acts upon his impressions, even if it is against a cultural icon, the A & P grocery store:

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What does "A&P" stand for in John Updike's short story?

When John Updike first published this story in 1961, A&P was the biggest grocery store chain in the United States.  It was, at the time, selling over $5 billion worth of groceries every year, more than $1 billion more than its nearest competitor.

The chain had been around a long time -- its first grocery store opened in 1912.  But before that, it had been a specialty shop for tea, coffee and spices.  Beginning in 1869, the shop started using the name "Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company."

It is from that name -- "Atlantic and Pacific" that the initials came.

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What is the exposition in John Updike's short story, A&P?

In a typical exposition, the author might give background information, events leading up to the beginning of the story, and/or descriptions of the setting and characters. In "A & P," Updike's narrator, Sammy, uses the exposition to give very detailed descriptions of the three girls entering the store. He briefly mentions an older patron as well. And although this is brief, it is important to understanding Sammy's mindset at this stage of his life. 

While he is captivated by the three girls, he makes a mistake and rings up a box of crackers twice. According to Sammy, the older woman gives him "hell" about it. He then notes that had she been born in Salem during the witch trials, she would have been burned. The old woman may in fact have overreacted to Sammy's mistake. But she also simply did not want to pay for something twice. Sammy's description of her as a witch, paralleled by his idealization of the girls shows a clear dichotomy. He is antagonistic toward older generations and idealizes youth. This perspective will play into his decision to stand up for the girls by quitting his job. 

Sammy's description of Queenie is quite detailed. It is mostly superficial and therefore an objectification. In the exposition, he briefly wonders about her personality and her thoughts: 

You never know for sure how girls' minds work (do you really think it's a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar?) but you got the idea she had talked the other two into coming here with her, and now she was showing them how to do it, walk slow and hold yourself straight. 

Sammy is mostly interested in how Queenie looks. Although his comparison of her mind with a bee buzzing could be considered a playful mockery, it is pretty misogynistic. Sammy is mainly taken by outward appearances. This shallow part of his thinking makes the act of quitting more complex. He does stand up for the girls out of principle. He is siding with the younger generation. He is opposing the older generation. He believes that with his quitting, there is something admirable about it but it is also going to make things difficult. Given that his infatuation with Queenie is largely superficial, his admirable action lacks real substance. He is not standing up against some huge injustice. His choice is more of an existential motivation. In other words, his rebellion, if we can call it that, is based on his own subjective concerns. These happen to be concerns of youth, desire, and pride. 

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What are some causes and effects in the story "A&P" by John Updike?

In Updike's "A & P" a number of situations cause the protagonist to leave his job.

First, the narrator sees his co-worker, Stoksie, who has been stuck in the same dead-end job at the supermarket for five long years. Stoksie is 22, "married, with two babies chalked up on his fuselage already." The narrator is 19. The effect is for the young man to feel the burden of passing time. He fears being stuck just like his friend, with obligations that he can no longer escape. This realization in part, causes him to make the decision to leave.

A second "cause" of the narrator's seemingly rash departure is his desire to impress Queenie and her friends. Belittled by his manager, and feeling beholden to his parents, the narrator defends the girls' actions and appearance by saying "I quit" to Lengel, quick enough for them to hear, hoping they'll stop and watch me, their unsuspected hero."

The effect of this action is to sail the teenager into unfamiliar waters: disappointing his parents, leaving a meager but steady income, and not knowing whether the girls know or even care about his heroic deed.

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What does John Updike reveal in the story "A & P"?

Through his authorial voice, John Updike tells about "A & P" by disclosing some important things about American society as it existed in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He discloses a society that is mostly founded in cheerfully kept standards. I say cheerfully kept because Sammy was mostly unbothered by the requirements of his role as a clerk at the A & P until the day the three ill-clad girls walked in and caused him to have ill-founded visions of moral chivalry.

Once he failed his job by quitting and the girls failed him by vanishing and not lauding him for his courage, intervention and heroism, Sammy had no choice but scream in horror at his unthinking mistake and run back to beg for his job back--which he didn't do--or learn to rail against the rules of society. And the girls gave no sign of acting rebelliously; they only gave signs of acting unthinkingly, as unthinkingly as Sammy. Updike presents all these details in his authorial voice to tell us about "A & P" and the American society it represents.

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What does John Updike reveal in the story "A & P"?

I assume that you mean "exposition" for the rather curious usage of the word "initiation" and so I have edited the question accordingly. Let us remember that when we think of the plot structure of works of literature, we can define the exposition, which is the first element of the plot structure, as the part that introduces the main characters and the conflicts that exist, either internal or external. Thus, when we think about this excellent short story by John Updike, it is clear that the central conflict is introduced by the very first line of the story:

In walks these three girls in nothing by bathing suits.

Clearly, during the conservative times in which the story is set, this was a major shock in terms of what is acceptable behaviour, and so this introduces the conflict as we see what will happen to these three daring girls. Likewise the first paragraph introduces us to the narrator, who tells the story, and who clearly shows his cynical approach to his work by referring to the customer he is serving as a "cash-register-watcher" and a "witch" who delights in giving him "hell" because he rang up an item twice.

This then is the exposition of this story. How the conflict will be resolved is shown towards the end of this tale.

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How does John Updike's "A&P" provide insight into an unusual character?

“I look around for my girls, but they’re gone.”

John Updike’s protagonist in “A & P” wants to be a hero, but Sammy falls short.  Sammy serves as the narrator of the story which provides a little slice of his life that leaves him with a bleak future.

Sammy, a typical boy of nineteen, most likely comes from a middle-class home. At first Sammy seems to be a typical boy, but, his banter is droll and clever. Sammy applies his sarcastic and rude attitude toward some of his customers.  He has an epithet for everyone: Queenie, witch, cash register watcher, and house slaves. The boy has an “attitude.”

The story takes place in a grocery store in the 1960s.  This was a time when people still dressed up to go to church, work, and even the grocery store.  People were judged by how they dressed. The two main employees are the cashier/checkers Sammy and his married friend Stoksie. 

Three girls in bathing suits come into the grocery store.  Sammy zones into the girls quickly and is enthralled by the one he calls Queenie.  She is attractive and probably is aware of it. The other girls seem to follow Queenie around. He picked out her name because she is the queen bee with the other girls circling around her.  Sammy realizes that the girls are dressed for the beach, not for the grocery store.  

The girls were searching the store for a can of herring snacks in sour cream. When Queenie is ready to pay, she pulls her dollar out of her bra.  Sammy feels weak in the knees. Then, something happens that ruins everything.  Lengel, the manager,  notices the girls.

Lengel comes in from haggling with a truck full of cabbages on the lot...Lengel's pretty dreary, but he doesn't miss much.  He comes over to them and says: 'Girls, this isn't the beach.'

Queenie blushes and tries to defend herself by saying that she was on an errand for her mother.

Lengel does not let up: ‘That’s all right. But this isn’t the beach.’ He adds on that they need to be dressed decently when they come into the grocery store.  Queenie says that they are decent. All of the customers watch the scene. Sammy rings up their purchase, and the girls hurry out. 

On the spur of the moment, Sammy makes a heroic gesture and quits his job, probably for a couple of reasons.  He does not like how the girls were treated by the manager and he hopes that he could impress the girls. 

Lengel tries to get Sammy to listen to reason. The manager is a friend of Sammy’s parents. Sammy had made up his mind and takes off his apron and turns it in.  He adds to the scene by making the cash register drawer pop out with a loud noise.    

Sammy hurries to the exit, but the girls are gone.  They probably did not even know what he had done on their behalf.  After he looks back in the store, Sammy realizes that he may have made a mistake.

Quitting to protest the treatment and humiliation that the girls experienced was done with almost wholesome reasons.  He felt incensed by the rudeness and mishandling of the situation.  Sammy does feel sympathy for the girls. Demonstrating his sincerity by his spontaneous gesture, Sammy actions may not turn out as nobly for him.           

Sammy seemed to enjoy his job and his ability to make fun of the customers [not to their faces]. Would Sammy have quit if the three people in question were boys in bathing suits? It is doubtful.  Sammy liked those girls more than he wanted to be a hero.

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