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Literary devices, symbols, metaphors, and irony in John Updike's "A&P"

Summary:

In John Updike's "A&P," notable literary devices include symbolism, such as the A&P store representing societal norms and conformity. Metaphors are used to compare the characters to elements of a consumer society, while irony highlights the protagonist's futile rebellion against the mundane. These devices collectively underscore themes of individualism and societal expectations.

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What symbols and metaphors are in "A&P" by John Updike?

This short story definitely contains solid examples of symbolism in it. The clothing worn by characters is a good place to start. For the most part, I would assume that the standard clothing worn by most of Sammy's customers identifies them as boring housewives. The three young girls that walk in immediately stand out to Sammy because they are not wearing the standard A&P clothing. They are wearing the complete opposite: they are wearing swimsuits to a grocery store that is not exactly right next to the beach. The bathing suits are symbolic of their youth and energy. They are exciting and fresh for Sammy and Stokesie alike. The clothing as a symbol is especially important when analyzing Sammy. He is an employee, so he is dressed like one. He wears his apron to be identified as a member of the establishment. That is why it is such a big deal that he takes it off.

I pull the bow at the back of my apron and start shrugging it off my shoulders. A couple customers that had been heading for my slot begin to knock against each other, like scared pigs in a chute.

He is quitting his job, and the act of taking off that article of clothing makes his actions quite concrete and visible. The act is so strong and symbolic that the customers in the store do not quite know what to do with themselves. They are once again compared to simple farm animals. Sammy repeatedly does this to the customers. He never once refers to them as any animals that would be classified as regal. It is always a dumb animal like a sheep, and that is symbolic of his attitude toward the customers.

A final symbol in the story is the herring snacks that Queenie buys. The snacks are symbolic of Queenie's wealth. She is rich and comes from a rich family. Updike could have had her buy anything in this entire grocery store, but she buys a fancy snack. Sammy picks up on that clue. He imagines being at a party with her surrounded by fancy rich people.

All of a sudden I slid right down her voice into her living room. Her father and the other men were standing around in ice-cream coats and bow ties and the women were in sandals picking up herring snacks on toothpicks off a big plate and they were all holding drinks the color of water with olives and sprigs of mint in them.

He contrasts this with his own family parties and tells readers that his family's idea of fancy is stenciled beer glasses.

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What symbols and metaphors are in "A&P" by John Updike?

One of the strongest symbols in “A & P” is the work apron Sammy wears.  Because the short story is considered a rite of passage or coming of age story, Sammy taking off the apron is a symbol for him growing up and maturing. The apron, which his mother washed the night before, is a symbol of his attachment to authority. By removing the apron, Sammy is figuratively “untying the apron strings” and growing up. He no longer cares about what people think (although he realizes his parents will be disappointed by his actions), and he decides to take a stand against those who control him like the store manager. 

Other figures of speech in the story involve the way the people in the store are described.  They are compared to sheep, house slaves, and pigs being loaded into a chute.  The girls also symbolically go against the normal “traffic flow” of the supermarket and break the rules of conformity by coming in the grocery story in their swimming suits.

All in all, the young characters in this story set in the 1960’s represent the rebellion against authority that expects them to conform to the rules and values of the older generation. 

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How does John Updike use symbolism in the short story "A & P"?

While Queenie and the other two girls walk through the aisles in their bathing suits, Sammy calls the other patrons of the A&P "sheep."  By this he means conformists—herd animals who do not think to question the status quo, which, in this case, consists of social mores about proper dress in public.

As the girls walk away from their brief conversation with McMahon at the meat counter, Sammy sees him sizing up the rear view of the girls. Here, Updike illustrates that the male gaze can legitimately be characterized as viewing women as pieces of meat.

The fact that Queenie is purchasing herring snacks and coolly addresses Lengel in a voice Sammy calls "tony" suggests that Queenie, with her regal bearing and entitled demeanor, sees herself above the working class Lengel and anyone else in the A&P who would venture to correct her.  There is an element of class at play in the episode with the girls; they are not ordinary teen rebels.

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How does John Updike use symbolism in the short story "A & P"?

Updike's A & P is rich in symbolism, but unless the reader is paying careful attention it is almost lost in the colloquial tone of the story. The story is not only about Sammy's "coming of age" and recognizing that his actions in the world will have consequences. Updike is critiquing not only the materialism of a consumer society, but the class structure needed to maintain it. All of the shoppers, except Queenie and her friends, are always collectively described as "the sheep". They wander mindlessly down the aisles, filling their carts it would seem, merely for the sake of filling them. Consider the passage when Sammy observes Queenie going against the flow down a aisle where each item is carefully enumerated. The "sheep" are startled by the girls' appearance and quickly look away. Remember, this isn't a seaside A&P, but a "town" store. As Sammy puts it, these are people who have lived less than 5 miles from the ocean and have never seen it. The girls are, in a sense, "slumming". Later, when he is ringing up the smoked herring, he reflects on how hearing her voice allows him to slide down her throat and into her world which is obviously very different from his. He even remarks that at his home, guests would never get smoked herring but be lucky to get a Schiltz in a juice glass. The emphasis on class and consumerism is Sammy's undoing: he wants to be part of world that he doesn't - that he can't - belong to.

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How does John Updike use symbolism in the short story "A & P"?

Updike's "A & P" is rich in symbolism and begins in the very first paragraph.  Sammy is eyeing the three bikini-clad girls who walk into his supermarket where he is a checker.  His reverie is interrupted, however, by a "witch" whose "feathers" Sammy has to smooth.  The older generation are typically symbolized in negative terms throughout the story, those women who cannot and will not understand youth.

Queenie, on the other hand, is symbolic of all that is alluring about women and life that might be possible for Sammy on the outside, a life that seems palatable yet unattainable to Sammy.

Stokesie, Sammy's older co-worker, is symbolic of the life Sammy may well be headed for:  married, tied down with children, and few options for another life. 

Lengel, the manger, is symbolic of those too-far-gone, the adults who, like the witches, could not care less about youthful ambition.

Finally, and perhaps most symbolically, is the supermarket itself.  It is symbolic of the consumer culture that has a definite heirarchy:  the "witches" by bland "HiHo" crackers while Queenie purchases "Fancy Herring Snacks." 

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What symbols and metaphors are in "A&P" by John Updike?

As the girls in bathing suits walk away from their interaction with McMahon, the clerk at the A&P's meat counter, Sammy, observes "old McMahon patting his mouth and looking after them sizing up their joints." The author may be suggesting, for argument's sake, that the girls have offered themselves up to the male gaze, choosing to appear in a grocery store in bathing suits. The fact that McMahon sees them as pieces of meat is symbolic, but in a sly sense. The scene may be intended to raise the question of the girls' complicity in their own objectification.

Sammy's description of Queenie purchasing herring snacks and the mental picture it suggests to him of stylishly dressed upper middle class adults drinking martinis contrasts with his description of his own family's "lemonade and if it's a real racy affair Schlitz in tall glasses with 'They'll Do It Every Time' cartoons stenciled on." The snack symbolically suggests another way Queenie might be out of Sammy's league, so to speak.

As Lengel tries to counsel Sammy into not quitting his job, Sammy punches "the No Sale tab" on his cash register. He is symbolically not buying Lengel's counsel. He has taken a stand on principle and must follow his own moral compass.

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What symbols and instances of irony are in John Updike's "A&P"?

Queenie is a symbol of Sam's desire for a better life. When she and her two girlfriends walk into his A&P in bathing suits to buy herrings, he is impressed with the confident way she holds her body and walks through the store. He is impressed too that she and her friends defy the store's dress code by shopping in bathing suits. Queenie even has the straps of hers turned down.

Queenie's dress and attitude also symbolize Sam's desire to defy authority and be his own person. She is not cowed by her surroundings as he is.

The A&P, in contrast, symbolizes the conformist, dead-end life that Sam is expected to lead in his small town, following the rules and accepting a dull but safe lot in life.

Ironically, Sam believes he is making a grand, defiant gesture by standing up for and defending the girls when he quits because of the way Lengel, the store manager, warns them to dress "decently" when they come into the A&P. However, the girls do not notice his gesture. As a further irony, Sam has simply projected his own desires onto Queenie and her friends. He has no way of knowing, in reality, what their economic situation is or if they even care about how they were spoken to by Lengel.

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What symbols and instances of irony are in John Updike's "A&P"?

The dramatic irony of Updike's story comes at the end: Sammy's grand gesture of defiance by quitting his job to protest Lengel's judgment of the girls falls short of any real resonance. The girls don't notice, and perhaps all that Sammy has accomplished is achieving unemployment. Lengel's admonition to the girls, "We want you decently dressed when you come in here," is not arguably not overly harsh or over-the-top, but perhaps Sammy's response to it is.

Updike employs symbolism in creating a scene that captures the zeitgeist of early 1960s suburbia and the generation gap. In the opening scene, when Sammy is distracted by the girls in bathing suits, he mistakenly rings up the customer's HiHo crackers a second time. Sammy characterizes her reaction as "giving me hell," which symbolizes the conflict between teens and adults. The appearance in the store of the girls and their bathing suits—especially Queenie's, with the straps pushed down—is another symbolic act that demonstrates the perennial conflict between generations. It is the adults in the store who object to the girls' actions.

By setting the story in a grocery store, Updike is able, through symbolism, to observe the increasing consumerism of the age. As Sammy tracks the girls' movements through the store, he describes a lot of processed, packaged convenience foods and "light bulbs, records at discount of the Caribbean Six or Tony Martin Sings or some such gunk you wonder they waste the wax on, six packs of candy bars, and plastic toys done up in cellophane that faIl apart when a kid looks at them anyway."

And finally, when Sammy makes the symbolic gesture of removing his apron and bow tie, he pushes the "no sale" tab on the cash register. This act is meant to represent the idea that he is not buying into Lengel's idea that the grocery store has a dress code and that he is justified in publicly correcting the girls' behavior.

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What symbols and instances of irony are in John Updike's "A&P"?

The situational irony in John Updike's short story "A&P" takes place when Sammy defends the girls for wearing bathing suits into the store and defies his manager by quitting his job on the spot. Sammy has visions of Queenie and her friends praising him for defending them in the store, but he walks out to an empty parking lot. Sammy's moment of triumph and display of chivalry ironically goes unnoticed, and he experiences the cold reality of life for the first time. Sammy had believed that the girls would admire his valiant, noble actions, but he is left feeling upset and empty when they leave without saying anything.

In regards to symbolism, the girls' bathing suits represent their casual disdain for the town's rules and are a symbol of their independence and youth. Sammy's attire is also symbolic, and his bowtie and apron represent conformity. Once Sammy quits, he throws off these items as a sign of his independence. The Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream conjure thoughts of Queenie's mother's fancy party and symbolically represent the girls' upper-class social status. The shoppers that Sammy refers to as sheep symbolically represent the town's unthinking majority, who blindly conform to society's rules and regulations.

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What symbols and instances of irony are in John Updike's "A&P"?

The most ironic moment of this story is when Sammy resigns.  He is making a statement on behalf of the girls, being their hero.  The irony is - they do not hear him.  They are gone and out of the store before the moment of the resignation is even finalized. 

...so I say "I quit" to Lengel quick enough for them to hear, hoping they'll stop and watch me, their unsuspected hero. They keep right on going, into the electric eye; the door flies open and they flicker across the lot to their car, ...leaving me with Lengel and a kink in his eyebrow.

However, the importance of this irony is that it drives Sammy forward, forcing him into a moment of maturity.  He has an opportunity to take back his declaration, buy chooses not to.  He wants to stand up for what he believes to have been injustice.  This should be a moment of pride and celebration, but there lies the other irony - it isn't.  Instead, this moment of adulty is marked by struggle, not achievement:

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

The symbols of this story revolve around the depiction of the customers.  The girls are described as bees, the lead one being the queen, who have a certain power in the store as they buzz about it, making others nervous.  The other customers are sheep, who flock together nervously, reacting but not responding to any situation.  And certainly not thinking.

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What symbols and instances of irony are in John Updike's "A&P"?

In "A&P," Sammy's desire for a better life is stirred as he watches three bathing-suit clad girls from the Point, a nearby beach resort, come in for a can of creamed herring. Not only are the girls, especially Queenie, attractive and desirable to Sammy, they represent the life of confident ease and affluence he longs for.

When Lengel embarrasses the girls by telling them they can't come into the store again in bathing suits, Sammy's desire to impress them comes to the fore. After he rings up the herrings and notices that the girls are hurrying out, he says in a voice loud enough for them to hear, "I quit." He explains to the reader that he hopes they'd "stop and watch me, their unsuspected hero." Yet, ironically, they do not notice him or what he has done at all.

Sammy persists in quitting even after the girls have gotten into their car and driven away, even though he knows it will upset his parents. This suggests that his longing for something more than his humdrum life goes deeper than his defense of the girls. He says, that having begun, it would "fatal" not to go through with the "gesture" of quitting. Yet in an added irony, his realizes that though he aspires to the easy life that the girls represent, he has made the world harder for himself by quitting his job.

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What literary devices does John Updike use in "A&P"?

John Updike uses many literary devices in the short story "A&P." First, Updike uses diction to develop the character of Sammy. The story is told from his point of view, and Updike draws us into the story with Sammy's use of diction and colloquialisms. Diction is a style of writing determined by the words an author uses. Colloquialisms are defined as the use of informal words or slang. Here is an example:

Now here comes the sad part of the story, at least my family says it's sad but I don't think it's sad myself. The store's pretty empty, it being Thursday afternoon, so there was nothing much to do except lean on the register and wait for the girls to show up again. The whole store was like a pinball machine and I didn't know which tunnel they'd come out of. After a while they come around out of the far aisle, around the light bulbs, records at discount of the Caribbean Six or Tony Martin Sings or some such gunk you wonder they waste the wax on, sixpacks of candy bars, and plastic toys done up in cellophane that faIl apart when a kid looks at them anyway.

Notice the words "gunk" and "wax," which are a reference to vinyl records, and the conversational tone taken by the narrator. Wax and gunk are colloquialisms. The effect created on the reader is to transport us back to the 1950s as we see the world through Sammy's eyes.

Updike also makes frequent use of simile, metaphor, and alliteration in this story. Sammy compares a customer in the grocery store to a witch, continuing the metaphor with the sentiment that she would have been burned in Salem. Sammy compares the leader of the three girls to a queen without using "like" or "as"—another metaphor. Another metaphor Sammy uses is to compare the customers at the grocery store to sheep.

In several places throughout this story, Updike makes use of alliteration—two or more words that begin with the same consonant sound. One of the longest examples of alliteration is this: "He didn't like my smiling—as I say he doesn't miss much—but he concentrates on giving the girls that sad Sunday school superintendent stare." Notice the repetition of the "s" sound.

The following quote is an example of imagery, metaphor, and idiom:

All of a sudden I slid right down her voice into her living room. Her father and the other men were standing around in ice-cream coats and bow ties and the women were in sandals picking up herring snacks on toothpicks off a big plate and they were all holding drinks the color of water with olives and sprigs of mint in them. When my parents have somebody over they get lemonade and if it's a real racy affair Schlitz in tall glasses with "They'll Do It Every Time" cartoons stencilled on.

Notice the sight imagery in the "ice cream coats" and "drinks the color of water." The metaphor is the comparison of the "queen's" voice to a slide. It is an idiom because it has to be taken figuratively. One could not extract meaning from the literal definition of the words themselves in the sentence "All of a sudden I slid right down her voice into her living room."

There are quite a few similes in the story. Here is one example: "A couple customers that had been heading for my slot begin to knock against each other, like scared pigs in a chute."

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What literary devices does John Updike use in "A&P"?

"A&P", a short story by the late American author John Updike is a quirky coming-of-age story. It narrates the day when the main character, Sammy, a grocery clerk at the local A&P, offers a noble gesture in the face of petty injustice, but for which he receives no recognition. Along the way his character shifts away from the smart-aleck teen we meet in the first paragraphs of the story. For the authenticity of this shift, Updike depends on three literary devices: colloquial language, attention to detail, and symbolism. The story, told from the first person point of view, engages the reader with a breezy, colloquial tone from the first sentence: "In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits". As Sammy wise-crackingly relates their controversial progress through the grocery aisles, the reader is adopted into the position of friend and confidant. The reader is thus immediately sympathetic, and more than ready to take Sammy's side when he fruitlessly steps out to defend the honour of the girls. Sammy is a keen observer of humanity, dwelling detail by detail on the girls and their disquieting effect on the customers. To be sure, his fascination with the novelty of three underclad teenage girls in a 1950's era grocery store is likely driven by surging testosterone. But the cumulative effect of so much detail is to make the girls presence exotic and glamorous, and a suitable object of Sammy's new found romantic impulse. They are the colourful foreground to the grocery store's drab background. In fact, Updike effectively uses colour symbolism to reinforce the original twist in Sammy's thinking, and to illustrate his perspective on the town: Queenie, the lead girl and the one for whom Sammy has fallen completely, holds "a little gray jar in her hand"; "Stokesie, his fellow cashier "with his usual luck draws an old party in baggy gray pants"; and Lengel, the store manager, as he accuses the girls of indecency "sighs and begins to look very patient and old and gray". The symbolism of the customers, like sheep, mindlessly marching in one direction adds to author's purpose. The vivacious teenage visitation to the dreary routine of the grocery store performs the function of a counterpoint, one that Sammy wants to embrace, albeit in a futile gesture.  

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