John Updike’s short story ‘A & P’ was first published in ‘The New Yorker’ on July 22, 1961. Even now, fifty years on, it still, despite its brevity, or perhaps because of it, his most frequently anthologized short story and, one would assume, one of his most widely enjoyed and read. This essay will analyze the popular appeal of ‘A &P’ and reach a justified conclusion about why it carries on being read so widely and with such apparent gusto and interest. The ways in which Updike writes the story are important, as is Updike’s presentation of the characters through Sammy, but just important, in subtle ways, is the date of the story’s publication.
The story is all about the arrival of three scantily clad young women at the local supermarket, the A& P store where Sammy, the narrator and his near-contemporary, Stokesie, work. From the very start of the story Sammy takes an interested and highly appreciative interest in the sheer physical attractiveness of the girls, describing them and the bits of bare flesh that he can see in loving detail. One, the slightly fat one, is wearing a bikini and the most attractive and beautiful of them all, whom Sammy calls Queenie, has the straps of her bathing suit rolled down her arms and off her shoulders, so that above her breasts Sammy can see her bare skin and her flawless shoulders and neck, leading up to her face. It is clear from Sammy’s description that he finds Queenie’s appearance sexually arousing and alluring, especially as this is not a common sight in the A & P:
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 ogle and leer at the girls because they are so attractive and there is so much bare flesh visible. By the conventional standards of the era their dress is considered suitable for the beach, but not appropriate for the supermarket. We might feel that Sammy and Stokesie are being rather sexist at leering at the girls, but one of the other big strengths of this story is that, despite its brevity, it is a story in which the main character, Sammy, comes of age and reaches maturity: As Werlock (1) argues:
Initially Sammy joined Stokesie in leering at the girls; though his interest in Queenie’s flesh never wanes, he experiences a turning point when he observes the butcher sizing up the girls.
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. (Updike 4)
It takes the lustful looks of the middle-aged butcher to make Sammy realize that his leering over the girls is not a pleasant action and he starts to dell sympathy for them.
Sammy also admires Queenie of her confident carriage – which, in quitting, perhaps he attempts to emulate – as well as her social status. Queenie embodies a socioeconomic realm to which Sammy, the son of working class parents, desires access.
Sammy’s reaction to her voice shows he recognizes that she is from a different socioeconomic background and her voice conjures images in his mind:
Her father rand the other men were standing around in ice-cream coats and bow ties and the women were were is 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. (Updike)
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. (Updike 5)
Queenie is, therefore, not merely an object of lust for Sammy: she represents a life from which he feels excluded. This theme of class difference is perhaps another reason why the story continues to appeal.
Sammy’s description of his town is dismissive. He paints a critical portrait of small town America – which he presents as a place of limited hopes and ambitions, not just petty regulations about what you can wear in the supermarket. At one point he describes the position of the A& P store in the 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 the three real-estate offices and about twenty-seven free-loaders tearing up Central Street because the sewer broke again. It’s not as if we’re on the cape; we’re north of Boston and there’s people in this town haven’t seen the ocean for twenty years. (Updike 4)
“Haven’t seen the ocean for twenty years” – although we are also told they are only five miles from the nearest beach!
His attitude to the inhabitants of the town is equally critical and we can begin to understand the appeal of the visit of the three girls to the supermarket – it is not just the bare flesh that Sammy and Stokesie lust after, it is because they represent a different attitude to life, a different way of living, a life of wider possibilities than Sammy’s small town can offer. We can see Sammy’s attitude on the very first page when he describes the woman he is serving as the three girls enter:
She’s one of those cash-register-watchers, a witch about fifty with rouge on her cheekbones and no eyebrows, and I know it would make her day to trip me up. (Updike 1)
“If she’d been born at the right time, they would have burned he rover in Salem” (Updike 1) – Sammy comments. His attitude to the other shoppers also reveals a contempt – partly based on the conflict between generations – another theme which may account for the story’s popularity. The others shoppers obviously disapprove of the way the girls are dressed: Samm: “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) And the sight of the girls’ bare flesh, which excites Sammy and Stokesie, so much, has the opposite effect on the shoppers:
…there was no doubt, this jiggled them. A few house-slaves in pin curlers even looked around after pushing their carts past to make sure what they had seen was correct. (Updike 3)
And the “sheep” congregate expectantly at the end of the story to eavesdrop the conversation and confrontation that Lengel as with the girls. (Updike 6) Sammy lives in a narrow-minded town with conformist people and it is interesting at the end of this story that the girls have gone and
There wasn’t anybody but some young married screaming with her children about some candy they didn’t get by the door of a powder-blue Falcon station wagon. (Updike 7)
Perhaps this is the fate that Sammy is trying to avoid – conformity – fatherhood in this town. He is aware that Stokesie is already trapped:
Skokie’s married, with two babies chalked up on his fuselage already….he thinks he’s going to be manager some sunny day, maybe in 1990 when it’s called the Great Alexnadrov and Petrooshki Tea Company or something. (Updike 3)
Sammy, essentially, is rebelling against his fate, and, in doing so, he conforms to the patterns established in so much other American fiction written over the centuries:
The archetypal reaction of the rebel American protagonist faced with social conformity is to leave, to turn his back, to walk away, in an attempt to preserve his freedom and his integrity. (Zwinkler 123)
Therefore, Sammy’s decision to quit makes him a typical American hero. Stokesie, the “sheep”, the “house-slaves”, Lengel – all these represent the things that Sammy may become if he does not do something now.
What on earth has this got to do with the story’s continued popularity and appeal? Pletier argues that the story’s publication 1961 is a foreshadowing of the enormous social, moral and sexual changes that were about to transform society in the 1960s, and, therefore, much of its appeal is its depiction (albeit critical) of a more innocent world in which the manager Lengel reprimands the girls for the way they are dressed, but it also acts as a reminder for the reader of how much American social values have changed over the last fifty years. There is an almost touching, if petty and trivial, innocence about the reactions of the other shoppers and the manager, Lengel, to the girls when we consider what is now seen as acceptable dress and conduct in public places. The context of a work of art involves not only the period in which it was written, but the context in which we now read it. Therefore, from the perspective of 2011, the story has an innocence and a nostalgic appeal; it is also ironic that Lengel reprimands the girls in the light of the enormous changes in public morality since 1961.
One of the most enduring and appealing aspects of ‘A & P’, and one which shows Updike’s writer’s skill his use of vernacular, colloquial language in Sammy’s first–person narration which is neatly established in the opening sentence – “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits.” (Updike 1) The use of the present tense (“walks”) and the misuse of the demonstrative pronoun (“these”) immediately capture Sammy’s voice. The chatty, colloquial style is said to be typical of much American fiction, according to Zwinkler (189)
In American fiction, far more than in its British counterpart, the first-person narrative holds swat. British writers of fiction seem to prefer to exercise control as an omniscient narrator; American writers, by contrast, generally prefer to give a voice to their protagonist – thus ensuring a sense of authenticity and also o enshrining in their style the key them of individualism fighting against the conformity imposed by society.
This relaxed and sexually playful exchange is in complete contrast to Lengel’s angrily petty and narrowly conformist reaction to the girls.
However, it is also in the ending of the story that its continued appeal and popularity can be located. Sammy is so hurt and upset by Lengel’s petty treatment of and rudeness to the girls, and his contemptuous, critical tone of voice that he immediately quits his job, removes his apron and bow tie, and saunters out of the shop. He feels so strongly that the manager has embarrassed and upset the girls for such a tiny thing, and that such public humiliation of them was unnecessary, cruel 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 A & P the girls have gone, but his act of quitting still demonstrates integrity, honesty, a rebellion against conformity and a standing up for principles that the “sheep”, the “house-slaves”, the conformists, in the A & P will never understand. As Werlock (1) puts it:
Sammy’s quitting may be motivated by a combination of lust, admiration of Queenie's social status and sentimental romanticism, but his gesture does not lack principle and quickly assumes more serious overtones.
And so this story becomes, from very trivial and ordinary beginnings in an A & P supermarket, a tale of choice, honesty, rebellion and moral integrity, and a withering, scathing attack on the hypocritical and petty conformity of the society of “sheep.” Poirier (5) said of the American writer
The classic American writes try through style temporarily to free the the hero (and the reader) from systems, to free them from the pressures of time, biology, economics, and from the social forces which are the ultimate undoing of American heroes.
In ‘A & P’ Poirier’s social forces are represented by Lengel and the “sheep” – small town conformity. Sammy’s quitting does have serious overtones: at the end of the story he comments that he realizes “how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.” (Updike 7) and earlier Sammy tells us that his family thinks of the whole quitting incident as “sad.” (Updike 4) Interestingly, Sammy does not think it is sad and at the end of the story as he realizes the girls have gone and not acknowledged his noble action of support for him there is no self-pity in his tone. He has simply decided to stand up for what is right and turn his back on conventional society. As Zwinkler (29) argues, this quality makes Sammy a typical American hero and may also account for the story’s continued appeal:
For the typical American hero the ultimate goal is to free himself from the constraining forces of society which are inimical to the personal integrity And freedom of the individual. So many American texts – short stories, novels and plays – end with the male protagonist simply walking away or turning his back on the social restrictions which he has found to be stifling and hostile to his sense of self.
In conclusion, we can see that there are many aspects of ‘A &P’ which contribute to the story’s continued popularity. There is Sammy’s rebellious voice, telling us the story and rebelling against small town narrow-mindedness: there is his status as a typical American hero, turning his back and rejecting the norms of society; there is the negative portrayal of Sammy’s home town and its inhabitants; there are the universal themes of conflict between the generations, and Sammy’s unfulfilled ream of a better life. Finally, given social attitudes now in 2011, there is the touchingly naïve and innocent portrait of a time before the huge social changes of the 1960s.
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.
Poirier, Richard. A World Elsewhere. 1966. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Print.
Updike, John, ‘A & P.’ The New Yorker, July 22, 1961. Web.
Werlock, James P. (2010). The Facts on File: Companion to the American Short Story, Volume Two. 2010. New York: Infobase Publishing. Print.
Zwinkler, Martin. The American Rebellion: Lone Voices against Conformity. 2004. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.