She kept her eyes moving across the racks, and stopped, and turned so slow it made my stomach rub the inside of my apron, and buzzed to the other two, who kind of huddled against her for relief. (5)
The girls in bathing suits are definitely attracting some attention. In 1961, when this story was published, it was not OK to name certain body parts or talk about sex explicitly in magazines like The New Yorker. Here Sammy is trying to tell us that he becomes sexually excited from looking at Queenie.
"Oh Daddy," Stokesie said beside me. "I feel so faint." (7)
Stokes might be a married man, but he's not immune to the sight of girls in bathing suits. Do you think the girls would be flattered, offended, or both if they heard this conversation? Is it or is it not disrespectful to talk about women in this way?
The sheep pushing their carts down the aisle – the girls were walking against the usual traffic (not that we have one-way signs or anything) – were pretty hilarious. You could see them, when Queenie's white shoulders dawned on them, kind of jerk, or hop, or hiccup, but their eyes snapped back to their own baskets and on they pushed. (5)
Sammy has fun watching the regular customers react to the girls in bathing suits. He wants to see things stirred up in this town.
All that was left for us to see was old McMahon patting his mouth and looking after them sizing up their joints. Poor kids, I began to feel sorry for them, they couldn't help it. (11)
When Sammy sees McMahon looking at the girls like prey, he realizes that, while daring, the girls' appearance might actually be putting them in a dangerous or uncomfortable situation. This moment also marks a turning point in the story: afterward, things become more serious.
"That makes no difference," Lengel tells her, and I could see from the way his eyes went that he hadn't noticed she was wearing a two-piece before. "We want you decently dressed when you come in here." (17)
Lengel definitely does not approve of the girls' appearance and doesn't hesitate to make this known. Why do you think he feels the need to make his point so strongly? Why does he think bathing suits are indecent? Do you agree with him? Why or why not?
I forgot to say he thinks he's going to be manager some sunny day, maybe in 1990 when it's called the Great Alexandrov and Petrooshki Tea Company or something. (9)
Sammy is talking about Stokesie here, who aspires to Lengel's job. 1990 would have seemed like the distant future to the story's readers (Stokes would be in his 50s by then), so Sammy is kind of poking fun of the modesty of his friend's ambitions. A&P is short for Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company; the new Russian name reflects fears in circulation at the time that the Soviets were going to take over America.
Lengel comes in from haggling with a truck full of cabbages on the lot and is about to scuttle into that door marked MANAGER behind which he hides all day when the girls touch his eye. (11)
Lengel is the story's authority figure. He has the power to decide how people can and can't dress in the store.
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. (14)
In addition to being manager of the A&P, Lengel teaches Sunday school. These two positions give him power in his community. In the story, this is shown as the power to dictate what people wear and the power to be rude and get away with it.
Policy is what the kingpins want. What the others want is juvenile delinquency. (18)
A kingpin is the person in an organization with the most power. In the A&P that's Lengel. Sammy is suggesting that Lengel's no-bathing-suit policy is a way for him to maintain power and control in his store.
I started to say something that came out "Fiddle-de-doo." It's a saying of my grandmother's, and I know she would have been
"I don't think you know what you're saying," Lengel said.
"I know you don't," I said. "But I do." (28-30)
You can imagine what Sammy was starting to say here before he wisely changed it to "fiddle-de-doo." In addition to showing Sammy refusing to be intimidated by Lengel, this scene suggests that his grandmother has helped him gain strength of character.
"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. (31)
Lengel tries to exert power over Sammy by using threats and intimidation. But Sammy's anger over Lengel's use of that tactic on Queenie overrides any effectiveness the threat might have carried.
By the time I got her feathers smoothed and her goodies into a bag – she gives me a little snort in passing, if she'd been born at the right time they would have burned her over in Salem […] (2)
We can infer that Sammy believes that it's OK to think terrible things about people in the privacy of their own minds, but they should still be treated politely, even when they are rude to us. (With the Salem reference, he is comparing the customer to a witch.)
She was the queen. She kind of led them, the other two peeking around and making their shoulders round. She didn't look around, not this queen, she just walked straight on slowly, on these long white prima donna legs. (2)
Sammy is drawn to Queenie's self-confidence and pride. By daring to wear her bathing suit into the store instead of changing or putting something on over it, she is showing the courage of her convictions.
"We are decent," Queenie says suddenly […]. (18)
Queenie believes in standing up for herself, even when an authority figure is challenging her. She does this while maintaining her dignity.
"I said I quit." (24)
By quitting, Sammy is attempting to defend the girls' principles and define his own. His act requires courage and daring.
"You didn't have to embarrass them."
"It was they who were embarrassing us." (26-27)
This exchange between Sammy and Lengel shows their conflicting principles. Lengel sees the girls as being disrespectful and thinks they are purposely violating the established order just to make mischief. Sammy, however, doesn't think it's right to behave rudely.
You never know for sure how girls' minds work (do you really think it's a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar?) [...]. (2)
Comments like this one make Sammy seem like something of a macho guy who doesn't credit women with having brains. But Sammy's actions and some of his other thoughts show that he does in fact respect females, but he's only just beginning to understand what they are about.
She must have felt in the corner of her eye me and over my shoulder Stokesie in the second slot watching, but she didn't tip. Not this queen. (5)
Here Sammy is gaining respect for Queenie based on the way she carries herself. He admires her, but there's still something a tad condescending in his tone.
"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. (17)
Lengel, a man, is essentially claiming that he is more qualified than the girls to decide what is appropriate attire. He uses the plural "our" to suggest that he represents the perspective of the rest of the store, maybe even the community.
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. (22)
Updike describes this moment as an act of "feminist protest." Do you agree?
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. (22)
Some readers feel that Sammy's not-so-nice way of thinking about the girls undermines his act and casts doubt on his motivations. What do you think?
The sheep pushing their carts down the aisle – the girls were walking against the usual traffic (not that we have one-way signs or anything) – were pretty hilarious. (5)
Sammy sees most of the people in his world as passive followers – they even navigate the store in the same direction. Sammy dislikes this uniform, homogenized society and enjoys seeing its boring order disrupted.
What he meant was, our town is five miles from a beach, with a big summer colony out on the Point, but we're right in the middle of town, and the women generally put on a shirt or shorts or something before they get out of the car into the street. And anyway these are usually women with six children and varicose veins mapping their legs and nobody, including them, could care less. (10)
Sammy is suggesting that life in town is very different from life out at the beach. Nudity, it seems, is more acceptable the closer you get to the beach, and beachgoers have a very different social scene than those who live in town.
As I say, we're right in the middle of town, and if you stand at our front doors you can see two banks and the Congregational church and the newspaper store and three real-estate offices. (10)
This brief description of the neighborhood lets us know that the store is in a conservative area, where bathing suits in public are definitely frowned upon.
"My mother asked me to pick up a jar of herring snacks." Her voice kind of startled me, the way voices do when you see the people first, coming out so flat and dumb yet kind of tony, too, the way it ticked over "pick up" and "snacks." 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. (14)
Sammy constructs an elaborate fantasy of Queenie's life here. He sees her as rich, sophisticated, and used to the finer things in life. Her social status seems to be part of what makes her attractive to Sammy.
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 stenciled on. (15)
In contrast to Queenie, Sammy is from a working-class family that drinks beer, not fancy cocktails. The difference between his and Queenie's socioeconomic class makes for an interesting contrast. Without speaking, they work together to protest Lengel's conservatism, rudeness, and bullying. The story suggests that different classes can work together to promote greater freedoms for all.