Analysis of the Symbolism and Characters in the Short Story A&P by John Updike

April 27, 2022 by Essay Writer

The short story “A&P” talks about the transition into adulthood of a nineteen-year-old boy named Sammy. In the story, Sammy ignorantly placed himself in a position that led to him having an epiphany at the end. Sammy had a dead-end job, but he felt as though he was meant for something bigger and working at the local grocery store “A&P” was a waste of his time.

In a gesture of unnoticed heroism, Sammy quit his job at the supermarket without thinking the consequences through because the manager Lengel embarrassed three girls that walked into the store in bathing suits”. After that incident, Sammy was left thinking about what his life was going to be like. This story “A&P” was written in the year 1961 by a National Medal of Art and National Humanities Medal winner, John Updike. In “A&P”, Updike develops the theme maturation with the Character Sammy.

John Updike, the author of this short story was born in Pennsylvania in the year 1932. In his teen years, “he devoted himself to writing and drawing, aspiring to make his mark as a cartoonist, for Walt Disney or perhaps The New Yorker, which he read enthusiastically after his aunt supplied a subscription for his family.” (Rodgers 18). Updike later attended “Harvard on scholarship where he studied English and contributed cartoons and articles to the Harvard Lampoon, which he edited his senior year.” (Rodgers 18).

After receiving his B.A in Harvard, Updike went on to Oxford University to study drawing and fine arts. In the 1950s, Updike’s dream came true. “He got a job at The New Yorker as a staff where he supplied them with stories, witty light verses and search reviews.” (Updike 18). After some time, he left to become a fulltime writer. Updike became a very good fiction writer and wrote over 50 books. During his career he won many awards such as National Medal of Art and National Humanities Medal. He later passed away in 2009.

John Updike’s story “A&P” took place in a grocery store named A & P on a Thursday afternoon. A & P apart from being used in this story is a real store that is located in New England. I believe the story took place on a Thursday afternoon because Sammy pointed it out saying, “The store’s pretty empty, it being a Thursday afternoon.” (Updike 21). Updike also paints a picture of the grocery store in our minds using details like, “checkerboard green-and-cream rubber-tile floor.” (Updike 20), “pushcart.” (Updike 20), “aisle.” (Updike 20), and “Check-out-slot.” (Updike 20). This helps the reader get more in tuned with the story since these are details, we see or notice in grocery stores around us.

The characters in the story played a huge role in developing the theme. To begin with, I believe the major characters were Sammy, Lengel, and Queenie while the minor characters were Stokesie and Queenie’s two friends.

Sammy was the main character and the narrator of the story. He was a nineteen-year-old boy who worked at A&P as a cashier. We could tell from his actions that he had a judgmental and disrespectful attitude. His judgmental attitude was often towards his customers and co-workers. An example was when he referred to the customers as “Sheep pushing their cart down the aisle.” (Updike 20). I believe he was insinuating that they were blindly following each other. At the end of the story, Sammy ended up quitting as an act of heroism because his boss Lengel chastised Queenie and her friends for coming into the store in bathing suits but sadly his act of heroism went unnoticed by the girls.

Lengel was the antagonist of the story in my opinion. Lengel was the manager of the store A&P and a Sunday school teacher. We could tell from the story that was strict and upright, but Sammy believed he was a prisoner of the system. Lengel was the one who chastised and embarrassed the girls because of how they dressed, which triggered Sammy to act the way he did.

Queenie was the leader of the girls who walked into the store in bathing suits. She was very attractive according to Sammy’s description. She aroused Sammy’s lustful desire the moment she walked into the store in a bathing suit. Sammy believed she was rich and sophisticated. She was also chastised by Lengel who saw it wrong for her to wear a bathing suit into the store.

This story was told in a first-person point-of -view or in other words it was told from Sammy’s perspective. Using the first-person point-of-view was very significant. This is because the story revolved around Sammy and there’s no one better to tell his own story than himself. Despite this, he is still considered an unreliable narrator. This is because his narration was biased and based off his emotions. An example of that was when he called some the customers sheep by saying, “The sheep pushing their carts down the aisle – the girls were walking against the usual traffic (not that we have one-way signs or anything) – were pretty hilarious.” (20).

Describing the customers in such a manner showed how unreliable he was. He wasn’t being precise in telling the reader what happened. Besides Sammy being an unreliable narrator, we could tell Sammy was a round and dynamic character. This is because he behaved realistically just like how any other adolescent or teenager would behave, and he also experienced an inner change or an epiphany. An instance where readers could tell Sammy was a round character was when the story began. At the beginning of the story, the disrespect Sammy showed towards the old woman who he was serving at the counter was a thing teenagers or adolescents in real life would do. This made his actions more realistic. He also experienced an epiphany right after he quit his job and walked out of the store as an act heroism and realized the girls weren’t even there. He then wondered if he made right decision and thought about what the world had instore for him next.

Also, Updike uses symbols such as “sheep” and “herring snacks” to illustrate how immature Sammy was. Sammy used the word sheep to describe the customers in the store. The use of the word “sheep” by Sammy symbolizes or insinuates that the customers were people just following the crowd blindly. Sammy also used the term “herring snacks” which symbolizes fancy and expensive stuff. To Sammy, customer’s purchases determined their social class in the society. He believed Queenie was rich and lived a fancy lifestyle because of what she was getting from the store.


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