"A&P" ends in the parking lot. Sammy has just quit his job to take a stand against no-bathing-suit policies everywhere. The three girls didn't stick around to exchange numbers with their unsung hero, and the story ends on a kind of lonely note.
For one thing, Sammy is now outside the A&P, looking in. Even though he left the store of his own will, it probably feels lonely to be shut out of something he used to be a part of. He's also outside the society the girls are in, a society that might encourage daring acts like wearing a bathing suit in public. But we think what contributes most to the story's sad ending (in sharp contrast to the rather upbeat beginning), is Sammy's observation of Lengel in the last sentence:
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. (31)
This sentence leaves room for lots of different interpretations. We'll toss three of them at you to give you some options.
In an interview, Updike said that Sammy thinks life will be hard for him because he lives in a small town where everybody knows everything about everybody, and he might get a reputation as a "quitter." In the same interview Updike said that in the early 1960s "people by and large conformed and were expected to conform" (source). Sammy is, like the girls in bathing suits, refusing to conform.
Refusing to conform can be a tad intense, especially if you aren't used to it. It feels good, but you might be a little afraid of possible repercussions. Obviously, we don't know whether Sammy's dire prediction for himself will come true, but that isn't really the point.
The point is how Sammy feels. Anybody who has ever quit a job or wanted to can probably relate to this feeling, this chilling fear that such pleasure will surely have a great and long-term cost. Do you think Sammy quits for a good reason? Do you think it will hurt him in the future? How might it benefit him?
Sammy's fear of a hard life to come seems to have a lot to do with Lengel. Not only does Lengel explicitly warn him that his life will be hard if he quits, but he also shows him that a life of staying in the A&P is also hard. The confrontation with the girls, followed by the confrontation with Sammy, leaves Lengel as stiff as "iron" (31). That's pretty stiff, folks.
Another interesting thing about iron: it corrodes easily, meaning it's stiff, but it also breaks down. Nowadays we hear a lot about workplace stress and healthy work environments. The A&P doesn't seem like a terrible place to work or anything, but Lengel looks like he could be headed for a breakdown. Sammy might be thinking, if life is this hard for Lengel, who plays by the rules, how hard will it be for a guy like him who has just broken them?
Yes, Lengel is obviously has an iron rod stuck up his butt and seems pretty unhappy, but he's also probably gained some power in his store and in his community. Iron has a reputation for being strong and powerful, even though it can rust and break down easily.
By publicly humiliating the girls, Lengel (who is also, remember, a Sunday school teacher) saves face with his upstanding customers, who will probably complain to him about the scantily clad hotties. He can assure these good folks that no such shenanigans will happen on his watch. By humiliating the girls and threatening Sammy with a ruined life, Lengel is able to protect his position of power in his community.
This kind of power play is called a zero-sum game, or winner-take-all scenario. In other words, there is no compromise. Lengel can't find a way to maintain power without taking power away from the girls (humiliating them and telling them what to wear) and Sammy (essentially ridiculing his principles and threatening to hurt his chances for future jobs).
Now some readers might identify with Lengel's principles and feel that Sammy and the girls are in the wrong. After all, we still disagree over what's appropriate to wear when and where. The question here, though, is why does Sammy get that feeling of dread when he watches Lengel?
It might be because he knows that Lengel holds onto his power because he doesn't mind humiliating people who don't agree with him or with the norms and values of the community. Humiliating people goes against Sammy's principles. If he's not willing to humiliate people to gain or maintain power, he might be afraid it will be hard to keep power over his own destiny.
We love how short this story is. The ending is satisfying but still leaves us wanting just a little more. Well, there actually was more – three or four pages to be exact. When Updike submitted "A&P" to The New Yorker, his editor cut those pages, ending the story with Sammy watching Lengel through the window. In Updike's original, Sammy goes to the beach to look for the girls but doesn't find them. Updike admits that he likes the story better the way it is now.
Wondering what happened to those extra pages? Were they burned, shredded, archived? Actually, Updike turned them into another story called "Lifeguard." Like "A&P," "Lifeguard" is narrated by a young man (a lifeguard) watching girls. The narrator of this story is very different from Sammy, in part because he's a seminary student. But, if you're curious, check out "Lifeguard" in the collection Pigeon Feathers. We think you'll really like the punch line at the end.