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Marxist interpretation of conflict and theme in John Updike's "A&P"

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A Marxist interpretation of John Updike's "A&P" would focus on the class conflict between the working-class protagonist, Sammy, and the affluent customers he encounters. The story highlights themes of economic disparity and the struggle against capitalist oppression, as Sammy's act of quitting is a symbolic rejection of the exploitative economic system represented by his employer and the store's patrons.

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

In John Updike's short story "A&P," there is an external conflict and an internal conflict. Sammy, the narrator of the story, is merely an observer to the external conflict. This conflict occurs when three girls dressed only in their bathing suits come into the grocery store. People in the store are visibly shocked and Lengel, the manager, confronts the girls. He tells them that they must have their shoulders covered and be dressed decently when they come into the store. This "isn't the beach," he tells them more than once. The girl Sammy calls Queenie is embarrassed and blushes in shame. She and her friend try to explain that they were just running a quick errand for their mother, but Lengel is not interested in their reasons. He is more interested in the policy of the store and the expectations of the other customers. 

The internal conflict takes place in Sammy's mind. He is affected by Queenie's embarrassment. He does not like the fact that the store manager embarrassed the girls. He wants to be their protector and hero, so he decides to quit right then and there. The problem is that his parents are friends with the store manager and will be very disappointed in him. Lengel tells Sammy he will regret this action for years, and Sammy agrees that it is true. He knows his family will be upset. He is probably burning bridges in the community and destroying opportunities for securing a good position in the future. However, in that moment, even though he knows these things, he chooses to stick up for the girls. In the quote below, Sammy is answering a question his manager has asked him, but his mind is elsewhere. 

I thought and said "No" but it wasn't about that I was thinking. I go through the punches, 4, 9, GROC, TOT—it's more complicated than you think, and after you do it often enough, more complicated than you think, and after you do it often enough, it begins to make a lttle song, that you hear words to, in my case "Hello (bing) there, you (gung) hap-py pee-pul (splat)"-the splat being the drawer flying out. I uncrease the bill, tenderly as you may imagine, it just having come from between the two smoothest scoops of vanilla I had ever known were there, and pass a half and a penny into her narrow pink palm, and nestle the herrings in a bag and twist its neck and hand it over, all the time thinking. The girls, and who'd blame them, are in a hurry to get out, so I say "I quit" to Lengel quick enough for them to hear, hoping they'll stop and watch me, their unsuspected hero.

The action does not achieve the effect Sammy hoped it would. The girls do not even seem to notice that he quit and certainly do not think of it as a heroic action taken in defense of them. The quote below reveals the internal conflict that continues in Sammy's mind" 

I fold the apron, "Sammy" stitched in red on the pocket, and put it on the counter, and drop the bow tie on top of it. The bow tie is theirs, if you've ever wondered. "You'll feel this for the rest of your life," Lengel says, and I know that's true, too, but remembering how he made that pretty girl blush makes me so scrunchy inside I punch the No Sale tab and the machine whirs "pee-pul" and the drawer splats out.

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

There are three main conflicts in John Updike's "A & P": Man vs. Society, Man vs. Man, and Man vs. Self.

  • Man vs. Society

As Sammy, who narrates, checks out an older woman's groceries, he notices three girls who enter the store wearing "nothing but bathing suits." Because he becomes so distracted by these scantily-clad girls, Sammy rings up a box of HiHo crackers twice and the "witch about fifty with rouge on her cheekbones and no eyebrows" is able to catch him making an error. She complains to Sammy.
Further in the narrative, Sammy is critical of some of the customers, calling them names, such as "houseslaves in curlers." Then, he begins to feel defensive of the girls.

  • Man vs. Man 

Sammy comes into conflict with the store manager, Mr. Lengel, because he wants to defend the three girls that Lengel has accosted and told, "We want you decently dressed when you come in here." Lengel adds that they must have their shoulders covered, as it is "policy." 
All the time that Lengel talks with the girls, Sammy watches them until he becomes infatuated enough--"scrunchy inside"--to feel that he must defend them. He tells Mr. Lengel that he did not have to embarrass the girls, and in an act of bravado, he quits.

"Sammy, you don't want to do this to your Mom and Dad," he [Lengel] tells me. It's true, I don't. But it seems to me that once you begin a gesture it's fatal not to go through with it....

"You'll feel this for the rest of your life," Lengel says, and I know it's true.

  • Man vs. Self

Having acted against his better judgment, Sammy narrates that he keeps thinking of how Lengel made the pretty girl blush. After he has quit, Sammy searches for the girls, but they are gone. He looks through the window of the store, and realizes that he has defended the girls of his generation against the older generation only to find himself in some kind of limbo between the two. For, he does not know if he has acted as a fool or as a hero. Nevertheless, Sammy knows life will be harder: "I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter."

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

The main conflict in this story is the one between the main character, Sammy, and society, as represented, in part, by the rules and manager of the A&P, a man named Lengel.

As soon as Sammy sees the three girls in bathing suits walk in, he is very aware of them. They are dressed in a way that is extremely unusual for the grocery store because the store isn't located on the beach, but, rather, five miles in town, and he watches as all the customers react with surprise and judgment of the girls' appearance.

This conflict between Sammy, who is amused by the girls' appearance and demeanor, and everyone else, who is shocked by it, escalates when his store manager arrives on the scene. Lengel chastises the girls for wearing their bathing suits in the store, saying, "Girls, this isn't the beach." He explains that store policy says they must cover their shoulders.

As a result of Lengel's behavior and the store's policy, Sammy quits, saying, "You didn't have to embarrass them." Sammy routinely refers to other customers in the store as "sheep" or "pigs in a chute": he clearly thinks of most other people in society as followers rather than leaders, as mindless rather than thoughtful or critical. He even sees Lengel as "very patient and old and gray," noting that Lengel takes his place at the register when Sammy leaves.

In short, everyone except Sammy seems to play their part in this society of judgment and arbitrary rules, including Stokesie, his fellow at the checkout counter, who is only three years his senior but who aspires to be store manager. This helps to emphasize the idea that the main conflict of the story isn't just between Sammy and Lengel, but rather between Sammy and his entire society.

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

Although I agree with the previous answer that the internal conflict is significant in "A & P," I disagree with the characterization of Updike's portrayal of Sammy. Yes, as the story concludes, Sammy does think about "how hard the world was going to be to [him] hereafter," but is that necessarily a bad thing? While on the one hand, Sammy's decision to quit could be perceived as an impulsive and illogical decision, it could also represent Sammy's break from conformity and a realization that standing up for what one believes and going against societal norms is difficult.  Right now he's standing up for girls who come into a grocery store in bathing suits (in 1961 when everyday dress was nowhere near as casual as it is today), and he sees himself as the girls' "unsuspected hero."  But this small step could mean that he was always stand up for himself in the future and will no longer see the world as quite so black and white.

Much of the beauty in this story lies in the way it beckons us to think about what the future might hold for nineteen-year-old Sammy.  Walter Wells, in his critical essay, “John Updike’s ‘A & P’: A Return Visit to Araby" (available on e-notes) calls Sammy's epiphany "ambiguous."  Yes, Sammy does look forward to an uncertain future, and Wells also reminds us that Sammy's action was spurred by his libido (would he have been as chilvalrous if one of the girls other than Queenie was being reprimanded?), but it is nonetheless a decision that he thinks about and stands firm:  "But it seems to me that once you begin a gesture it's fatal not to follow through with it."

Just maybe that "hard" life Sammy thinks about with the lurching stomach might be one that is worth the challenge.  He has stood up for a principle, even if a slightly dubious one at this time.

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

There is also an internal conflict for Sammy in regards to being a teenager vs. entering adulthood.  Sammy is at the age that he will be considered an "adult" soon and until the episode at the store, he was very much still in "teenager" mode, meaning that he did not consider for a second the seriousness of quitting his job and the consequences that would come along with it.  He made a very poor, spur-of-the-moment decision for all of the wrong reasons.  He lets his "teenage boy" mentality get in the way of the fact that he, at his age, should be learning to think logically and with more restraint.  

Once he quits, he FINALLY realizes that he made a mistake and that he has officially been forced to enter the real world of adulthood and face the consequences of his actions!

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

There are several conflicts in the story "A&P". The major external conflict is between Sammy and the supermarket manager, Lengal. A corollary to that would be the conflict between what the girls think is appropriate clothing for the supermarket and what the manager thinks. Sammy is appalled that the Lengal reprimands the girls for their skimpy attire. Internally, Sammy is also conflicted, first by the appearance of the girls and secondly by what is reaction should be in light of Lengal's treatment of the girls. Finally, after he quits his job and the girls do not respond to his 'heroic" actions, he realizes "how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter''.

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How does a Marxist lens interpret conflict in John Updike's A&P?

John Updike’s short story A&P is about a 19-year-old boy-transitioning-to-man, Sammy, ambivalently employed at a small town market in Massachusetts, “north of Boston,” whose attempt at chivalry – he impetuously quits his job as a cashier at the market in protest of the store manager’s treatment of three scantily-clad girls from the “better” part of town who wander in – and the seeming emptiness of this futile gesture.  Applying “Marxist literary criticism” to Updike’s story requires no great stretch of imagination.  A&P is all about class and social distinctions, whether it’s the hierarchical structure of the store – Lengel, the manager, presiding over the lower rungs of the ladder occupied by Sammy and Stokesie – or the upper-class status enjoyed by the three female interlopers, with even this small sample of humanity divided by Sammy’s perception of hierarchy (“. . .the third one, that wasn't quite so tall. She was the queen. She kind of led them, the other two . . .”), or the interjection of arbitrarily-derived rules of social conduct exemplified by Lengel’s reference, in chastising the three hapless girls regarding their inappropriate attire (“’Girls, I don’t want to argue with you. After this come in here with your shoulders covered. It’s our policy.’ He turns his back. That’s policy for you. Policy is what the kingpins want”). Marxist criticism views literature through the prisms of class conflict and social constructs that emphasize the inequalities inherent in non-Marxist cultures. 

A&P, of course, is told through the first-person, specifically, through the eyes of Sammy. Updike’s penchant for wry observations of mainstream America were known for the sense of ennui experienced by his main protagonists, as in his hugely-successful “Rabbit” series of novels.  Sammy’s observations of his surroundings, his running commentary on the environment in which he functions, serve as the author’s somewhat ambivalent indictment of the monotonous constipating lives of his characters.  He was a little more generous in an interview with Life magazine referenced in the New York Times obituary following his death:

“My subject is the American Protestant small-town middle class,” Mr. Updike told Jane Howard in a 1966 interview for Life magazine. “I like middles,” he continued. “It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.”

Sammy’s observations of the world he inhabits, however, are more direct, and more attuned to the proletarian perspective and its critical take on middle-class life, as when he compares the store’s customers to the proverbial “sheep,” mindlessly “pushing their carts down the aisle the girls were walking against the usual traffic (not that we have one-way signs or anything).” The use of the “sheep” analogy is no accident, as Updike brought a very theological perspective to his writing and the condescending approach to congregants embodied in that phrase has to be viewed through the Marxist prism whether intended by the author or not.  Nor can it be accidental that Updike has his protagonist, a 19-year-old small town supermarket cashier, suggest that his coworker, the aforementioned Skokesie, envisions himself as the future proprietor of an establishment with a regal, czarist theme, as in the following quote from A&P: “I forgot to say he thinks heʼs going to be a manager some sunny day, maybe in 1990 when itʼs called the Great Alexandrov and Petrooshki Tea Company or something.”  The futility of Sammy’s noble gesture – his announcement that he is quitting his job on the spot in protest of Lengel’s treatment of the three girls – is emphasized by the failure of the target of his chivalry, the girls, to even notice this grand gesture made on their behalf:

“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, Queenie and Plaid and Big Tall Goony-Goony (not that as raw material she was so bad), leaving me with Lengel and a kink in his eyebrow.”

Sammy recognizes the essential meaninglessness of his spontaneous uprising against injustice, but notes, in closing, that to not follow through on his announcement would be “fatal.”  He may, as Marx suggested, have nothing to lose but his chains, but Updike was sufficiently erudite to recognize himself that Sammy’s gesture has more serious consequences than a metaphorical liberation from proletarian strictures.  His family will now suffer economically from this sudden drop in income, and the supermarket will continue to operate with or without him. Exhortations to the masses to sacrifice their economic security, tenuous though it may be, is easy for a philosopher sitting in a library contemplating grand gestures.  

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What would a Marxist critic say is the theme of John Updike's A&P?

Discussions of John Updike's short story "A & P" often center on the coming-of-age theme as it plays out in Sammy's reaction to three girls in bikinis who walk into the A & P and his struggle with the store's manager, Lengel, over their treatment.  Your interesting question shifts the focus from the coming-of-age theme to a Marxist reading of the power struggle between Sammy, a teenager on the cusp of adulthood, and Lengel, the unsympathetic, autocratic, and self-righteous manager of the A & P.

Because Marxist critics take their guidance from Karl Marx and his theories of the economic, political, and social repression of the working class by the middle and upper classes, a Marxist reading of "A & P" would most likely focus on two elements within the story: 1) the implicit and explicit repression of Sammy and the girls by Lengel and the authority he represents (including Sammy's parents) and 2) Sammy's own assumptions about class and power with respect to the leader of the three girls, Queenie.  A Marxist critic would, therefore, ignore the coming-of-age theme as relatively unimportant when weighed against the struggle against explicit repression and implicit, but incorrect, assumptions about class.

When Lengel finally notices the girls as they attempt to check out, he chastises them for coming into the store dressed indecently (in his view), to which Queenie replies:

"We are decent" . . . [Sammy's interpretation begins] her lower lip pushing, getting sore now that she remembers her place, a place from which the crowd that runs the A & P must look pretty crummy.

Sammy is, of course, imagining that her reaction is caused by her sense of superiority, and a Marxist critic would note that Sammy's response here results from the unconscious repression of Sammy by Queenie and her class.  Sammy implicitly includes himself in the "crummy" class that runs the "A & P," indicating his belief that he and Queenie are separated by unspoken, but powerful, class lines.  More important, however, is that Lengel, in confronting Queenie and the other two girls as indecently dressed, has exercised authoritarian repression--he perceives the girls as indecent because they have flouted his arbitrary rules of decent attire for the store's patrons.  The girls, through Queenie as spokesperson, view themselves as decent, that is, morally decent, a vastly different interpretation of what constitutes decency.  A Marxist literary critic would see this as a classic example of the repressive class defining morality in terms of appearance rather than one's moral or spiritual makeup.

In a gesture of solidarity with the girls, Sammy finally tells Lengel that he quits, and Lengel's response is another repressive appeal to Sammy's sense of rightly-constituted authority:

. . . you don't want to do this to your Mom and Dad. . . . You'll feel this for the rest of your life.

Lengel, using a subtle form of repression, reminds Sammy that he has a familial obligation to his parents, who will be horrified by Sammy's act of anti-authoritarianism.  An astute Marxist critic would likely point out at this point that Sammy, in an unexpected way, is now the least repressed individual in this story in that he has, for good reasons (sympathy for the girls and disgust at Lengel's arbitrary use of power) or for bad reasons (a case of raging teenager hormones), exercised complete freedom from repression.

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