Updike is a serious writer, who's known for tackling all sorts of tricky topics like religion, alcoholism, and spousal abuse, just to name a few. His trick is to delve headfirst into an issue, but to do so in a humorous manner.
In "A&P" the serious issue is conformity. Although we would argue that a certain humor is maintained throughout this brief tale, it's tinged with darkness. And despite Sammy's victory, it ends on a note of dread and isolation. This lends to the story's realism – after all, Sammy has just experienced a kind of trauma. He's angry from seeing the girls humiliated and also frightened about what his act of daring (which nobody seems to be patting him on the back for) means for his future.
"A&P" is the story of Sammy's coming of age. Quitting his job to stand up against conventional morality is a defining moment in his life. We think it makes him something of a hero. At the end of the story, he's afraid it will give him a bad reputation in his community and hurt his chances at getting ahead in life. However Sammy's life turns out, he's unlikely to ever forget that Thursday afternoon in the summer of 1961.
The story is also meant to be realistic, giving us a look inside the mind of a typical 19-year-old boy who's girl-watching while he works. And everything that happens in the story feels like it could happen in real life. There's no time travel, talking robots, vampires, or anything like that.
A&P, the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, is a real grocery store (and liquor) chain, founded in New York City in 1859. But why write a story about it?
Updike says that one day in 1961 he was, as usual, on the lookout for story ideas when he happened to drive past an A&P. He wondered why nobody had ever set a story in one. He combined this question with a personal experience he once had at a grocery store: yes, he ran into a bathing-suit-clad beauty. He was stunned by how different this was from seeing someone in a bathing suit at the beach. Updike says this "public nakedness" in a "commercial setting" was the beginning of his story (source).
Updike is known for this kind of thing – taking ordinary aspects of American life and showing us how they are actually extraordinary. He calls this technique "giving the mundane its beautiful due." (See "Writing Style" for more on this.) Updike transforms this seemingly ordinary locale, which most of us can relate to, into an intense battleground where the struggle for power and freedom plays out in the aisles. By calling the story "A&P," Updike emphasizes that this particular setting (the grocery store) holds an important place in American life – one that's worth observing and writing about.
How does Updike's description of the A&P compare with your local supermarket chain? Could this story have taken place there? What things, if any, would you have to change to make the story work? What would you have to wear in your store for somebody to actually make a comment?
"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 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.
The chain grocery story is now a fixture of American life. In the 2000s we have 24-hour stores, self checkouts, and vast arrays of basic and specialty items, from rice and beans to expensive patio furniture. The A&P grocery store chain was one of the pioneers in this industry, paving the way for the superstores we see today (source).
In Sammy's eyes, the A&P he works in reflects the conformist tendencies of his community. He sees the store patrons as "sheep," or followers, rather than independent thinkers. In an interview about the story, Updike says that in those days in America [the 1950s and '60s], "people by and large conformed and were expected to conform" (source). Sammy and the girls in bathing suits represent a rebellion against this conformism. In the interview, Updike refers to "voices of dissent" in the 1950s and '60s, like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and James Dean – people willing to risk embarrassment, quit their jobs, or otherwise take a stand for individual freedom.
"A&P" author John Updike is known for the idea that seemingly ordinary aspects of American life (like grocery shopping) are actually quite fascinating. He called this, famously, "giving the mundane its beautiful due" (source). Updike wanted readers to see the beauty and magic of life, so he tried to describe everyday things using the most clear but beautiful language possible. You can see this idea at work in his poetry and literary criticism as well.
In "A&P," part of the beauty comes from narrator Sammy's distinctive voice. For one thing, he skips back and forth between past and present tense. The novel's first sentence is, "In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits" (1). (Note the grammatical error, folks. If this were the SAT, you'd want to change "walks" to "walk," but the "mistake" helps establish a casual, realistic style.) This opening is present tense, as if Sammy is commenting on events as they happen. From that point on, though, he switches back and forth between present and past tense, again giving us a sense that we're reading his unedited thoughts and that he is as unsure of what's to come as the reader is.
But in the middle of the story, Sammy tells us, "Now here comes the sad part of the story, at least my family says it's sad, but I don't think it's so sad myself" (11). Aha – so Sammy does know how the story ends, and he's telling it, thinking it, or writing it sometime after.
Nowhere in "A&P" are we told whether Sammy has written his story down. The deviations from traditional rules of grammar and the shifting back and forth between past and present tense make the story feel like it could be (a) a stream-of-conscious narrative, where we are meant to be inside a character's mind, reading his or her thoughts, and/or (b) a story that Sammy has been telling out loud.
But take this great sentence:
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. (20)
There is a polish in this sentence that makes this sound written down, like it's been edited and worked over into an understated perfection. Ultimately "A&P" uses a variety of stylistic techniques to highlight Sammy's desire to break free from what seem like inescapable traditions in his community.
Sammy refers to both the shoppers in the A&P and the two girls with Queenie as followers, or "sheep." Sheep, for Sammy, symbolize people who just follow the flock, unthinkingly doing what everybody else does. Sheep are symbols of the ultimate, most blind conformity. But it's really boring when everybody acts and dresses the same way – Sammy craves difference.
In an interview, Updike spells out what Sammy hints at in the story: that Queenie is a rich girl. Sammy has learned to tell people's social and economic class in part from what they buy at the store. The herring snacks are a fancy, expensive item. He contrasts that with his own family, where fancy means beer glasses.
Why hello. We thought you might come sniffing around here for some thoughts on bathing suits, or even clothes in general. If you want to read our thoughts on that, check out "Character Clues." See you there.
A&P is narrated by Sammy, a 19-year-old cashier at the A&P. Like many first-person narrators, Sammy seems to be telling us the truth as he sees it, but he's unreliable because his point of view is limited. Like many teenage narrators (think Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye), he sees most adults as "sheep" or followers, all indistinguishable from one another. The people in this story are not meant to represent fully fleshed out human beings, but rather to symbolize the spirit of conformity Updike saw among many Americans in the early 1960s.
While Sammy's limited perspective might make him unreliable, it also paves the way for some pretty major growth on his part. It also shows us that he's willing to think and act differently than the people around him.
We think the fact that Sammy's point of view changes over the course of the story is more important than his reliability as a narrator. At the beginning of the story he's simply whining and complaining (in his mind) about the conformity, uniformity, and dullness of his community. Queenie and the other two girls show him a simple way of mocking this conformity. By wearing their bathing suits into the store, they mix things up a little. Sammy follows suit by removing his A&P bow tie and apron when he quits, expressing solidarity with the girls and using his clothing, like them, as a form of activism. Over the course of the story, he goes from complaining about what he sees as a problem to actually doing something about it. That's a lot of growth in just a few pages.
The place: an A&P grocery store in a small Massachusetts town. The time: a Thursday afternoon in the early 1960s. Sammy, the 19-year-old narrator of "A&P," notices three bathing-suit-clad girls enter his store, which is otherwise mostly populated with middle-aged housewives.
Yes, the conflict is just an extension of the initial situation. People just didn't wear bathing suits in indoor public places. Sammy observes regular A&P customers shocked by the girls' choice of dress.
Things were going OK until Lengel the manager showed up. The girls are in Sammy's checkout lane preparing to pay and be on their way. But Lengel feels the need to tell them they aren't dressed right for the A&P
Sammy doesn't like the way Lengel treats the girls, so, after ringing them up, he quits his job. This is certainly a climactic moment in Sammy's life – the first time he's ever quit a job, and the story's big emotional moment.
"A&P" isn't really long enough to build much suspense, but there is a moment when we wonder whether Lengel will call Sammy's bluff and Sammy will stay at the A&P.
Sammy quits, leaving his A&P gear on the counter.
The story ends with Sammy alone outside in the parking lot. As he watches his ex boss through the windows doing his old job, Sammy feels a sense of dread, a feeling that quitting his job really will make things harder for him in the future.