‘A & P’ is a story about a checkout boy whose name is Sammy. The boy gives up his job following his boss’ unsympathetic speech to some three teenage girls. A keen analysis of the story reveals that in this work, John Updike, the author, portrays a contrast of two worldviews – the individualistic, non-conformist, and free-spirited views of the three teenage girls against the conventional, stoic, and conservative views of Mr. Lengel, Sammy’s manager. In this work, I have keenly analyzed the interpretations of two critics, Toni Saldivar and Walter Wells. To start with, I have given my own analysis and the critical appraisal of Updike’s short story.
As much as the author would want us to believe that this is a real story, I believe that it is a total fiction on the feelings of isolation and loneliness of an ordinary man. It portrays the divide between the societal values and the inner feelings of teenagers. The story is told by a nineteen year old Sammy, who is working at A & P grocery as a cashier during the summer season. Sammy is fascinated when three teenage girls — wearing the bathing suits only – enter the grocery store. Sammy’s description of the three girls depicts that their behavior suggests a high-class lifestyle that is not in agreement with his lifestyle. Before the girls make their purchase, they are rebuked by the store manager, an action that makes Sammy to abruptly quit his job hoping that the girls would notice him. To his dismay, the girls are long gone when he walks out. He is left wondering how the world would be hard for him thereafter. The author is not clear on the reasons that made Sammy give up his job even though he displays it as authentic and admirably honest. I think Sammy has a misguided self interest, just as stated above, even though the author depicts it as a rebellion against the Puritanical manager. Sammy has portrayed a fictitious quixotic behavior which makes him lose his job.
Saldivar, in his criticism, believes that John Updike’s short story “A & P,” gives the audience a great degree of cultural and literary knowledge. He tells that the author applies illusions to pass the dramatic irony to the reader as the story’s popularity vests on its ironic ambiguities. At the same time, Saldivar argues that a reader who perceives the illusions of Updike to art develops great pleasures in the entire plot. Such a reader views the narrator as a winner and a loser resulting from the protagonist’s triumphant feeling and the sad feeling. For the audience to fully understand the narrator and develop the meaning of his actions, the listener or the reader must be sympathetic indeed! Again, the reader of the story should look deep beyond the narrator’s character in order to respond to his behavior. The aesthetic pleasures in the story lie on the reader’s ability to sense the irony. The narrator’s words only gain meaning after a keen artistic analysis of the context of the fictive character, which the reader may be unaware of. In the metaphors used by Sammy, Saldivar believes that the author is greatly talented in his subjective impression. The description of the girl’s attire is an evidence of this (189).
Saldivar tells that the reader can only derive some romantic sensibility through enjoying the Botticelli’s illusions and the aestheticism of Peter, and see the modernity in the whole issue after reaching a certain degree of consciousness. In the modern times, an artist clearly knows that human desires, for both perfection and completion, including those for love and social justice, cannot, and will never be fulfilled by any aspect of a narrative other than that of an art, just like illusion. The reality is that, persons exist, but not as compared to illusions. Since love is enabled only through a person, then the person, just like the love, always go beyond the narrative and the design art. As portrayed in the short story, a sign of refusal to the official demands can commit modern artists to the solitary expressions of self desire as revealed by Sammy in his gestures.
Walter Wells also acknowledges that this short story reveals the great fiction in John Updike’s work. Wells also takes us through the most favorite reference that Updike uses — James Joyce work. Wells argue that the author of this short story greatly transformed Joyce’s work into a simpler and richly ironical story with the setting for late adolescent’s sad story — the story of a modern retail shop or a supermarket. The title of this work metrically and significantly echoes Joyce’s work “Araby.”
As many critics would consider the three teenage girl’s attires as modernization, Wells believe that the girls engaged in a cunningly seductive posturing which made the narrator to develop the craving sensation – a feeling that made the stomach of Sammy to “rub the inside of (his) apron” (189). Walter Wells further confirms the seductive nature of the three girls by the actions of Queenie, the prettiest of the trio. We are told that she “bows to no one, except the ‘clear bare plane of the top of her chest . . . like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light’” (189).
The story holds secular materialism for the comparison with the Christian religion i.e. the Irish Catholicism and the Protestant evangelism. In Updike’s fiction, the most important issue is that of the religious faith, just as other American non-Catholic writers. By making the three teenage girls stroll within the aisles of the store in their inappropriate attire, the author reveals the skepticism against the destiny of Christianity in America. Here, Sammy has been used to represent the rift between the American world and the Christian faith. From him, it is clear that this “world” is full of material values rather than principles. As Queenie is wronged, Sammy is seen to be on her side, a real sign of principles. Wells however warns that before we perceive Sammy’s action as pure principle, we need to figure out if we could do the same had we been in his position. Wells doubts this. The girls disappear and Sammy’s promise is all in vain. Instead of admitting, Sammy is stuck with the promise as he says, “once you begin a gesture, it’s fatal not to go through with it” (196).
The use of “hereafter” (196) in concluding Sammy’s experience is oddly formal. Wells wonders whether the author meant to hint the intimations of immortality in the narrator’s epiphany. As the story ends, the narrator pictures his future life but sees indefiniteness. He however comes to the realization that his romantic gestures are futile and not productive at all in the modern times.
Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim’s Progress. London: Oxford UP, 1904.
Dessner, Lawrence Jay. “Irony and Innocence in John Updike’s |A & P.'” Studies in Short Fiction 25 (1988): 315-17.
Emmett, Paul J. “A Slip That Shows: Updike’s |A & P.'” Notes on Contemporary Literature 15.2 (March 1985): 9-11.
Gross, Marjorie Hill. “Widening Perceptions in Updike’s |A & P.'” Notes on Contemporary Literature 14.5 (November 1984): 8.
McFarland, Ronald E. “Updike and the Critics: Reflections on `A & P’.” Studies in Short Fiction 20 (1983): 94-100.
Porter, M. Gilbert. “John Updike’s `A &P’: The Establishment and an Emersonian Cashier.” English Journal 61 (1972): 1155-58.
Saldivar, Toni. The Art of John Updike’s “A & P.” “Experiencing the dramatic irony of Sammy’s narrative by enjoying Updike’s allusions to Botticelli’s art and to Pater’s aestheticism enables the reader to see a romantic sensibility becoming modern by arriving at a certain form of consciousness.” Studies in Short Fiction, Spring 1997 http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2455/is_2_34/ai_57564372/pg_6/?tag=mantle_skin;content
Updike, John. “A & P.” Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories. New York: Knopf, 1962. 187-96.
Updike, John. “You’ll Never Know, Dear, How Much I Love You.” Olinger Stories. New York: Vintage, 1964.
Wells, Walter. John Updike’s “A & P”: a return visit to Araby. Author contends that Updike’s “A & P” was influenced by James Joyce’s “Araby.” Studies in Short Fiction, Spring, 1993 http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2455/is_n2_v30/ai_14081343/pg_3/?tag=mantle_skin;content