At a Glance

  • John Updike's "A&P" is a story about consequences. Each character in the story makes a choice that results in a negative consequence. Queenie and the other girls, for instance, choose to enter the A&P wearing nothing but their bathing suits. Sammy then decides to quit his job to defend their honor.

  • Another important theme in "A&P" is power. There are many different kinds of power in the story: Lengel's power as the A&P's manager, Queenie's power as the perceived leader of her group, and the girls' power to inspire desire in the men around them.

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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1,358 words.)