The story ‘A & P’ by John Updike was first published in The New Yorker on July 22, 1961. Even now, fifty years on, it remains, for all its brevity, his most widely anthologized short story and, because of that, one of his most widely read. This paper will attempt to analyze the appeal of ‘A &P’ and reach a conclusion about why it continues to be read with such interest and so widely. Aspects of the way the story is written are important, but equally important, as we shall see, is the date of publication.
The story revolves around a visit of three scantily clad young women to the A& P store where the narrator, Sammy, and his contemporary, Stokesie, work. From the very beginning of the story Sammy takes an appreciative interest in the physical attractive ness of the girls, describing them in detail. One, the slightly chubby one, is wearing a two-piece bathing suit and the most attractive of them all, whom Sammy dubs Queenie, has the straps of her bathing suit rolled down so that above her breasts you can see simply her bare skin and her shoulders and neck, leading up to her face. It is obvious from Sammy’s description that he finds Queenie’s appearance sexually alluring:
With the straps pushed off, there was nothing between the top of the suit and the top of her head except just her, this clear bare plane of the top of her chest down from the shoulder bones like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light. I mean, it was more than pretty. (Updike 2)
Stokesie and Sammy cannot tear their eyes away from the girls because they are attractive, but also because by the standards of the time their dress is considered acceptable for the beach, but not suitable for the supermarket. The others shoppers clearly disapprove of the girls’ appearance: Sammy describes the reaction of the other shoppers: “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 they pushed on.” (Updike 3) What has this got to do with the story’s continued appeal? Pletier argues that the story’s publication 1961 foreshadows all the immense social and sexual changes that were about to take place in the 1960s, and so part of its appeal is its recreation of a more innocent world in which the manager Lengel rebukes the girls for their dress sense, but it also serves as a reminder of how much American society had changed in the last fifty years.
There is an almost touching innocence about the reactions of the other shoppers and the manager, Lengel, given what is now seen as acceptable conduct in public.
One of the most appealing aspects of ‘A & P’, and one which reveals Updike’s skill as a writer is his use of colloquial language in Sammy’s first–person narration (according to Griener) which is neatly established in the opening sentence – “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits.” (Updike 1) The chatty, colloquial style is often said to be reminiscent of Salinger’s creation of Holden Caulfield’s voice in The Catcher in the Rye. By using the first person the readers come to understand and empathize with Sammy’s views and opinions, and, because Updike captures his tone and vocabulary so well, there is an added authenticity to what he says. Readers are manipulated by the narrative – it is hard not to see Lengel as being petty and unreasonable in his comments, and it is difficult not to regard the attitudes of the other shoppers as narrow-minded and petty, because Sammy’s voice is so intimate and engaging. He is also only 19, so the story may well still continue to appeal to young students. Sammy and Stokesie are portrayed with humor. Look how Updike shows their jocular, exaggerated reactions as they gaze at the three girls:
“Oh Daddy,” Stokesie said beside me. “I feel so faint”
“Darling,” I said. “Hold me tight.” (Updike 3)
This relaxed and humorous exchange is in complete contrast to Lengel’s petty rather peeved reaction to the girls.
However, it is in the ending that the story’s continued appeal and popularity lie. Sammy is so upset by Lengel’s treatment of the girls and his contemptuous, carping tone that he simply quits his job on the spot, carefully removing his apron and folding it on the counter before placing his bow tie on top of it. He feels strongly that the manager has embarrassed the girls and that such embarrassment was unnecessary and unkind. The other customers – whom Sammy contemptuously calls “sheep” (Updike 6) - have sensed that a controversial confrontation is close, and have gathered to witness it. Very publically Sammy quits. Part of this seems to be an act to impress the girls, to whom he is undoubtedly attracted:
… so I say “I quit” to Lengel quick enough for them to hear, hoping they’ll stop and watch me, their, unsuspecting hero. They keep right on going…. (Updike 6)
When Sammy finally leaves the store the girls have driven off, but his act of quitting still demonstrates an integrity, an honesty and a standing up for principles that the “sheep”, the conformists, in the supermarket could not and would not do – still less understand. And so this story becomes, from very trivial beginnings in an A & P store, a tale of choice and moral integrity, and an attack on the hypocritical conformity of the society of “sheep.”
Greiner, Donald J. "A & P: Sammy's Colloquial Voice in "A & P"." Short Stories for Students. Ed. Marie Rose Napierkowski. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale, 1998. Print.
McFarland, Ronald E. "A & P: Updike and the Critics: Reflections on "A & P"." Short Stories for Students. Ed. Marie Rose Napierkowski. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale, 1998. Print.
Peltier, Robert. "A & P: Presaging the Youthful Rebellion of the 1960s."Short Stories for Students. Ed. Marie Rose Napierkowski. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale, 1998. Print.
Updike, John, ‘A & P.’ The New Yorker, july 22, 1961. Eeb.