English Literary Essay: On “A&P” by John Updike

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To fidget with words successfully is rare. John Updike, the author of short story “A&P,” speaks to the common man's soul in this very likeable tale. Perhaps this is the most difficult thing to do in English literature; however Updike seems to have mastered the talent. Creating a level of fictional short stories full of both satire and realism – on an amazing level – is what John Updike seems to do best. In his short story entitled “A&P” Updike strikes a chord that is familiar to everyone. Both profound and full of heartfelt humor, the story speaks to young and old. The goal of this essay marks a commentary about the main protagonist in the story, Sammy. Three central questions are what drive the discussion. The first question is: Who does Sammy seem to be at the beginning of the story? The second question is: And who is Sammy at the end? The third question simply ties it all together by asking: Does Sammy from “A&P” change? Obviously then, one final key in this introduction argues that Sammy does change – and does so in wise ways that almost mirrors a passage in a coming of age experience from boyhood to manhood.

To characterize Sammy’s starting point in his character, in the story “A&P” one needs to understand the fiction’s setting and circumstances. Updike set the scene in a neighborhood convenience-type grocery market called the A&P, which is and symbolizes the everyday kind of store most people go to on a routine basis. The action begins with Sammy’s observation of three customers entering the market, three young girls each of which is barefoot and clothed only in swimwear. You don’t know Sammy’s age in the first part of the story, but you can guess he is young by the fact that he is working as a clerk in a grocery store. Also, his initial reaction to the girls is not one of shock or disgust but rather simple observation.

In this observation Sammy is very intent on the details of what these young women represent. The first detail Sammy notes are the feature of the fat “chunky kid, with a good tan and a sweet broad, soft-looking can with those two crescents of white, just under it, where the sun never seems to hit, at the tops of the backs of her legs” (Updike 596). Sammy here in the opening part of the scene is checking out the young women, in very great and minute detail, pretty much in a nonchalant way. He is not too shocked or overly interested at first. You get the feeling Sammy is just a normal kid doing his job, passing the time as quickly as he can without getting mugged down with being bored. Yet? The initial reaction of the half-naked girls walking into the store – at that moment – grabs Sammy’s attention to the point of frozenly holding the box of Hi-Ho crackers in his hands that he is about to ring up on the cash register.

Sammy’s character at this point has strong qualities of obedience. You can tell this, because even when he is scornfully irritated by the older woman who is extremely pissed off when he rings up her purchase twice, is still engaged in doing right by the customer. This is true, regardless of Sammy’s private thoughts. Updike records what Sammy is really pondering about the grumpy older lady, when he thinks: “She’s one of these cashier-register-watchers, a witch about fifty with rouge on her cheekbones and no eyebrows … She’d been watching cash registers for fifty years and probably never seen a mistake before” (596). Hilarious, right? At the story’s outset one does not anticipate anything of a profound nature to be found in a typical setting such as this.

So, who is Sammy at the start of “A&P?” Sammy is the typical young man working for pennies because he wants to do right and comply with the rules of the world. His philosophy goes probably something like, it’s always best to go along to get along. Sammy is the type of young man who wants to do right in the world. He wants to, or at least is willing to, follow all the rules and abide by them. You can tell this is correct by Sammy’s other thoughts as the matronly lady leaves his counter, to exit the store. He doesn’t go off. He doesn’t yell or curse her out because he values his job above all, at this point. Sammy thinks to himself, “if she’d been born at the right time they would have hung her over in Salem” but as the woman leaves his attention is drawn back to the girls (596). Sammy notes the “queen” of the bunch, a long-legged fair maiden with noble gestures seeming to lead the little flock. A turning point, Sammy opens himself up to the possibility of a new perception.

The way Sammy exposes himself to thinking is by starting to view this leadership girl, or ‘queen’ as someone special, making his observations gradually more of a personalized nature of trying to get inside her head somehow. This is shown when Updike writes “as if she didn’t walk in her bare feet that much, putting her heels down and then letting the weight move … testing the floor with every step… 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?)” (597). Sammy begins to shift his interest by pondering what this girl might be thinking. In a normal everyday situation of going to the store, most clerks though they may be polite, simply go about their business of punching the cash register and going on to the next customer in a mundane way.

As this shift in Sammy’s imagination begins to occur he imagines that this queenie girl, as he sees her, might truly have some interest in him. Sammy felt she was aware of him and his co-worker Stokesie, but that she did not want to let on so “she didn’t tip…kept her eyes moving across the racks…buzzed to the other two…and then they all three of them went up the cat-and-dog-food-breakfast-cereal-macaroni-rice-raisins-seasonings-spreads-spaghetti-soft-drinks-crackers-and-cookies-aisle” (597). To this point Updike has described the queen girl as having the nerve to actually have her swimsuit top straps loosely fallen off her shoulders, and explains that this is not a beach town but some five miles away from the summer ocean colony – which makes their appearance in swimwear a bit odd, or at least unconventional.

Housewives and other regular married women with shopping carts at some point, enter the grocery market. They file their lines of carts in the same direction, but the girls apparently casually walk in the opposite direction against their traffic. Sammy of course notes this, “sheep pushing their carts down the aisle,” and “pretty hilarious…a few houseslaves in pin curlers even looked around after pushing their carts past to make sure what they had seen was correct” (598). Sammy is in transition at this point. Updike reflects this beautifully when he allows Sammy to label the regular customers as sheeple kinds of folk, mindless followers in society. His metaphor of housewives as ‘slaves’ alludes to Sammy’s beliefs. Updike’s use of the two powerful similes in the allusion to ‘slaves’ and ‘sheep’ says it all. Who is Sammy at the end of the story? He is someone very different.

Towards the end of the story as Sammy has shifted his perception from seeing the girls as just some unruly bunch of females, and not just routine (but uniquely dressed) customers he also has change in other ways. Sammy now views the store as different too, through new lenses. The manager chides the girls for coming into the store dressed that way. Sammy accepts the queen-girl’s payment noticing the beauty of her breast bulges as “the two smoothest scoops of vanilla” he’d ever seen. Sammy has overheard the store manager Lengel fuss at the girls, telling them about store policy. Sammy thinks to himself now “Policy is what kingpins want. What the others want is juvenile delinquency” (Updike 600). Quite disturbed by now, the girls go, and Sammy decides to quit his job on the spot – perhaps yearning to catch up to the young lady.

The store has become a mechanical drone of society. The “whole store was like a pinball machine” (Updike 601). Some researchers view the landscape of Updike’s A&P store as a wide space of consumption where people blindly shop, and that being consumers under capitalism is a taught behavior of obedience and that Sammy symbolizes an act of “consumer resistance in current consumer culture” (Stearns, Sandlin, and Burdick 394). Where then is citizenship? Sammy has now begun to question and challenge the rules of the game. He hopes to be able to hook up with the fair young lady who brazenly, yet nobly entered the store in a swimsuit – ultimately to no avail.

In the end, Sammy’s heart is broken. He is definitely changed by the end recognizing that decisions of stances do and must happen in life. He realizes that even if those decisions are painful and the reality of consequences include personal loss, they are nevertheless a reflection of real life. Sammy feels disappointed for disappointing his parents that he boldly walked out and quit his job, but now visualizes the real-world.

Works Cited

Stearns, Jennie, Jennifer A. Sandlin, and Jake Burdick. “Resistance on Aisle Three?: Exploring the Big Curriculum of Consumption and the (Im) Possibility of Resistance In John Updike’s ‘A&P.’” Curriculum Inquiry 41.3 (2001): 394-415. Academic Search Premier. Web. 22 Sept. 2013.

Updike, John. The early stories, 1953-1975. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Print.