This story is narrated by Sammy, a young cashier at the supermarket A & P. One day, three girls in bathing suits stop in to buy some snacks. Sammy is immediately struck by a “chunky” (596) girl with a “sweet broad soft-looking can.” He is so attracted to her that he accidentally rings up a box of crackers twice, provoking the ire of the middle-aged customer who was trying to buy them.
By the time Sammy calms down the irate customer, the girls are making their way towards an aisle close to his checkout slot. He notices that the girls are barefoot. None of them are particularly beautiful; he characterizes the first as chunky and “pale” and the second as “the kind of girl that other girls think is very ‘striking’ and ‘attractive’ but never quite makes it.” However, he quickly identifies the third as their leader, noticing that she walks slightly ahead of her friends and almost seems to be showing them how to command attention. He infers that it was her idea to come to A & P in the first place. He calls her the "queen" or, later, "Queenie."
Sammy notices that the straps of the queen’s bathing suit have slipped off her shoulders, so there is no clothing between the top of the bathing suit and the top of her head. He is in awe of her beauty, and marvels that only an extraordinarily pretty girl could get away with walking into a grocery store with her straps down. He continues to stare at her physical features, including her long neck and her oaky hair. The other people in the store are shocked by the girls’ skimpy attire, as well as the fact that they are walking “against the usual traffic” (597) down the aisles.
Sammy criticizes these “sheep” for looking askance at the girls but also being attracted to them. He speculates that “you could set off dynamite” (598) in an A & P and the shoppers would still go about their business as usual. Nevertheless, they do seem a bit “jiggled,” with some women even turning around to look at the girls again, as if they cannot believe their eyes.
Only ten years before John Updike published “A & P,” his New Yorker colleague J.D. Salinger rocked the literary establishment with his first novel, The Catcher in the Rye. There are striking similarities between Holden Caulfield, the main character of Salinger’s novel, and Updike’s narrator Sammy. Both hold a deep-seated contempt for authority and hypocrisy. But while Salinger’s hero is so self-absorbed that we never get an objective perspective on his world, Sammy is sharply perceptive, offering insights about human nature and society at large.
The main action of “A & P” unfolds not in the grocery store but in Sammy’s mind. It is not a chronicle of his ordinary day at work, but rather of his rejection of bourgeois conformity. Some critics trace Sammy’s heritage not to Holden Caulfield but to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who advocated for non-conformity and moral self-reliance (Porter 1155). In the early pages of “A & P,” Sammy establishes his contempt for conformity and consumerism, insinuating that the people who shop at A & P are “sheep” (597) who can never be roused out of their daily routines.
This critique is cemented by his detailed description of the store. Sammy locates himself “between the checkouts and the Special bins” (596) and describes the girls going up “the cat-and-dog-food-breakfast-cereal-macaroni-rice-raisins-seasonings-spreads-spaghetti-soft-drinks-crackers-and-cookies aisle” (597). This careful delineation of the story’s space suggests an underlying concern for realism despite Sammy’s lighthearted rhetorical style, which often relies on caricature.
Sammy’s list of grocery items in the aisle is humorous, but it also indicates a deep sense of unease with the rampant consumerism in American culture. None of the foods Sammy lists are nutritious. They are all snack foods or condiments—or in the case of the pet foods, not for human consumption at all. Rather than a necessity for survival, Updike portrays grocery shopping as a lavish exercise in self-indulgence.
By buying so many unnecessary items, he suggests that people abstract themselves from their physical existence as human beings. Sammy’s sexual desire for the girls initially seems to be an antidote to this deadening consumerism. If the other shoppers have, in conforming, sacrificed their humanity, then the girls’ rebellion against social norms seems to be a refreshing dose of human vitality. This interpretation is reinforced by their nakedness; by forgoing regular clothing and the conformity that comes with it, they embrace their fundamental human nature, and the beauty of this spectacle is stunning to all who witness it.
However, there is an alternate interpretation of the girls’ nudity. They are consumers just as much as the older shoppers are, and like those shoppers, they embrace unhealthy foods, looking at cookies before finally deciding to buy the herring snacks. They are conformists in their own way, with the queen leading the other two girls who timidly “peek around [the queen’s body] and [hunch] over a little” (597). Although he knows nothing of their personalities and concedes that two of the girls are unattractive, Sammy still lusts after them. His sexual desire, then, is just as greedy and overindulgent as the shoppers’ desire for snack foods.
Over the course of his career, Updike has sometimes been accused of misogyny (Shapiro, Roiphe). Based on his descriptions of the women in the story, Sammy certainly seems to have a misogynist worldview. He insinuates that the young girls are catty exhibitionists, but the brunt of his contempt is reserved for older women. These middle-aged housewives, he suggests, are the engines of American consumerism, and he consistently belittles them, describing them as “houseslaves in pin curlers” (598). His account of the middle-aged woman at the beginning of “A & P” is dehumanizing; he calls her a witch and compares her to a bird, calming her down by “[getting] her feathers smoothed and her goodies into a bag” (596). Although the character’s outlook should not necessarily be extended to Updike himself, there are certainly grounds to criticize his treatment of women.
"A & P" Updike, John (Hoyer)
The following entry presents discussion of Updike's short story "A & P."
Often depicting middle-class, Protestant America, Updike's short fiction focuses on the feelings of loneliness and isolation that lead the "common man" to seek some form of higher truth or ultimate meaning. "A & P" represents one of Updike's most successful coming-of-age narratives; the story articulates a teenaged boy's sudden awareness of the split between his inner feelings and society's values. Like much of Updike's fiction, "A & P" first appeared in The New Yorker before being published in the collection Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories (1962).
Plot and Major Characters
"A & P" is narrated by Sammy, a nineteen-year-old boy who is a cashier at a local A & P grocery in a conservative New England town during the summer tourist season. When three adolescent girls enter the store wearing only their bathing suits, Sammy is mesmerized. He describes the appearance and actions of the girls with elaborate detail, observing that something about their demeanor suggests a remote, upper-class lifestyle that contrasts with his own. As the girls prepare to make their purchase, the store manager reprimands them for what he perceives as their indecent appearance. Hoping the girls will notice his chivalrous gesture, Sammy abruptly quits his job in protest. Realizing that he might later regret his impulsive action, Sammy nevertheless follows through with his decision to quit, and walks off the job. By the time he walks outside into the parking lot, however, the girls are already gone. The story ends on a melancholy note as Sammy reflects upon "how hard the world was going to be for me hereafter."
Major Themes"A & P" concisely sets up oppositions between several motifs: the individual versus the collective, conservatism versus liberalism, the working class versus the upper class, women versus men, and consumerism versus Romanticism. Interpretations of "A & P" depend to some degree upon the reader's understanding of the reason for Sammy's hasty decision to quit his job: some argue that he is truly rebelling against the disparagement of the young women by the Puritanical manager, while others feel that he quits due to misguided self-interest, in hopes that the girls will notice him. Critics have often viewed Sammy's gesture as quixotically romantic, since he gains nothing through his decision except the loss of his job.
"A & P" is one of Updike's most anthologized and most popular stories. While the narrative style of the story has been widely acclaimed, critical opinion is split between those who declare the piece a work of genius and those who find it devoid of profound content. Much critical discussion has focused on the significance of Sammy's actions: while many reviewers interpret his behavior as admirably honest and authentic, some argue that his inappropriate judgement of his town's standards leads to his isolation and loss at the conclusion. Commentators have found possible literary sources for the story in Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," Joyce's "Araby," and Emerson's "Self Reliance."