A&P and Other Stories
Three Bikinis and a Pyramid of Diet Delight Peaches: An Analysis of the Six Basic Elements of Fiction in John Updike’s “A & P”
The literary genre of fiction is immense and staggeringly diverse, yet it is unified by six basic elements. The deconstruction and analysis of each of these components yields a richer appreciation for the work being explored. The basic elements of fiction are: plot, point of view, character, setting, symbol, and theme. John Updike expertly utilizes each of these aspects in his short story “A & P” in order to construct an utterly unified and complex work of fiction. “A & P” recounts the effect three girls have on the narrator, Sammy, when they walk into the downtown A & P and defy social norms by wearing nothing but bathing suits. Their bold display, when it is met with reproach and condemnation, inspires Sammy to follow their lead and reject his accepted place in society. Through analysis of the basic elements of fiction, the rich significance that abounds in Updike’s short story “A & P” is illuminated and clarified.
The author’s use of plot focuses the reader’s attention and provides a foundation for the remaining key aspects of fiction. Using the Freytag Pyramid, the plot can be deconstructed into the inciting force, exposition, complication, climax, reversal, and catastrophe. The inciting force is unquestionably the arrival of the three girls at the A & P, where the narrator works as a cashier, because their entrance initiates the rest of the action. Following this is a lengthy exposition in which Sammy gives a detailed physical description of each girl. His observations range from the “black hair that hadn’t quite frizzed right” (409) to the “long white prima-donna legs” and “bare feet” (410). Scattered throughout these meticulous renderings are bits of dialogue and small observations that provide the reader with a clearer understanding of the setting, point of view, and characterization. By slowing the pace and focusing on the girls, Updike heightens their importance in the eyes of the reader. This prepares the audience to see the girls as symbols in relation to the larger theme as well as sets up for the conflict to revolve around the girls’ physical appearance. Complication, the third step in the Freytag Pyramid, introduces the story’s conflict through the store’s negative reaction to the girls’ attire. Because it is considered inappropriate to wear bathing suits in the A & P, the girls are met with scandal from the customers, mockery from the employees, and rebuke from the manager, which causes them great embarrassment. These complications gradually build to the climax where Sammy quits his job in protest. Up to this point Sammy has been a passive observer of the girls’ rejection of social rules. By quitting his job he actively participates in the conflict for the first time making this the point of greatest action. The loss of job and place in society that Sammy endures is the reversal. The catastrophe occurs immediately afterwards when Sammy suddenly realizes “how hard the world was going to be to [him] hereafter” (414). This epiphany leaves readers with the somber understanding that Sammy’s decision to reject the standards of society will have dire consequences on him for the rest of his life.
Careful analysis of the girls and customers, both as characters and symbols, reveal this epiphany to be a statement of the story’s theme. Both the girls and shoppers are flat, static characters. They neither change nor exhibit any complexity. While Sammy sees the girls as beautiful, young, and independent, he describes the other customers as “houseslaves” (411) or “bums” (412). In one scene Sammy observes “sheep pushing their carts down the aisle” and the girls “walking against the usual traffic” (410). Sammy repeatedly uses “sheep” or “pigs” (413) as metaphors for the customers to illustrate their passivity and conformity. In contrast, the girls flaunt their individuality by walking the opposite direction and wearing clothing that cause the other shoppers to “kind of jerk, or hop, or hiccup” (410). By creating such a dramatic contrast between these two sets of static characters, Updike establishes the girls as foils to the rest of the shoppers. While the shoppers stand as symbols of society and passive submission to the status quo, the girls represent the genuine freedom and life that come with individual autonomy. Their treatment at the hands of the other characters depicts the theme realized by Sammy in his epiphany, that those who rebel against accepted social standards will be rejected by society.
Updike highlights the girls as symbols of oppressed individuality by setting them against a backdrop of patriarchal authority and mindless submission. Two aspects of the setting that represent these concepts are the Congregational church and the A & P itself. The A & P general store, around which the entire narrative revolves, represents corporate ambition and marketing as well as American culture as a whole. Sammy dismisses the merchandise of popular culture, such as the music of “the Caribbean Six or Tony Martin Sings,” as “gunk” (411) and is constantly losing sight of the girls among the vast quantities of inventory such as when he notices the girls “shuffle[ing] out of sight behind a pyramid of Diet Delight peaches” (411). These images illustrate the idea of losing one’s autonomy among a mass of advertisements and media. The church, in contrast, represents passive submission and is a cultural symbol of authority. It is later embodied in Lengel, the manager, who “teaches Sunday school and the rest” (412). While scolding them for their inappropriate attire, Lengel “concentrates on giving the girls that sad Sunday-school-superintendent stare” (412). The paternalistic ideas that he and the church represent are the very concepts that seek to confine and control the girls’ rebellion against accepted social values. The enforcement of these restrictive standards eventually succeeds in symbolically banishing the girls from society by chasing them from the store.
Through the use of narration and point of view, Updike gathers each of the basic elements in “A & P” and binds them into a unified whole. Sammy, the narrator, acts as the single point of view from which the reader experiences the story. His distinctive, first-person voice pervades the narrative in the form of casual rhetoric and a strong sense of humor. The reader also views the rising action from Sammy’s “third checkout slot, with [his] back to the door” (409). The focus does not change until the reversal when Sammy symbolically forsakes his place in society by leaving the A & P. These consistencies in voice and focus provide the narrative with a collective harmony that also envelopes characterization. Beyond being just the narrator, Sammy is also the protagonist of the story. Unlike the other characters he is both round and dynamic, undergoing change as he develops from a passive onlooker to an active participator in the conflict against society. By delivering the story through the eyes of the dynamic protagonist, Updike allows the reader to participate in the journey from “sheep” to rebel. Through his transformation Sammy connects the foils and bridges the gap between them. In this way, Sammy’s character unites opposing forces and ultimately unifies the story.
Updike’s short story “A & P” is a complex web of basic fictional elements. When this web is deconstructed and analyzed a wealth of ideas can be uncovered that would otherwise have remained hidden. Each of the six key components are interrelated. The plot forms a frame around, which the other elements are structured, while the characters and setting also function as symbols that reveal the story’s theme. Finally, the complete narrative is held together through the narrator’s point of view. After analyzing these interrelationships between the key elements of fiction, “A & P” is revealed to be full of complexity and meaning, as well as consistency and unity.
Updike, John. “A&P.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. 10th ed. Ed. Alison Booth and Kelly J. Mays. Now York: Norton, 2011. 409-14.
Shopping for Principles at the A&P
It is of little coincidence that John Updike’s A&P occurs in one of America’s most well-known supermarket chains where, “sheep pushing their carts down the aisle” search for the best bargains, and customers give “hell” over a few pennies (Updike 187). Perhaps A&P illustrates the way in which capitalist societies push us to our limits, turning us into nothing more than factory workers. Such is the case for Sammy, who day by day goes “through the punches” of tedious cash register work, while the unappreciative bourgeoisie fail to realize his job is “more complicated than you think;” the strains of this slave-like life turn Sammy into a type of machine, who sadly hears songs in the beeps and chirps of his cash register (Updike 194). While some may believe Sammy’s heroic gesture of quitting is: “meaningless and . . . arises from selfish rather than unselfish impulses,” I believe his action was more of an awakening to the American class system, where people such as Queenie – who live up to our prima-donna images of women, are still ostracized by the establishment symbolized in Lengel (Uphaus qtd. in McFarland 97). While it is true that Sammy acts childishly, it is important to remember that this story is told from the perspective of a nineteen-year-old, whose outlook on life is still being formed. What I am suggesting is that Sammy quitting his job is partly representative of his teenage immaturity, but it is also partly the beginning of a revolution in his mind. A Marxist reading of A&P considers the story to be a refutation of mid-century American capitalist values.
A&P beautifully illustrates the way in which capitalism commodifies objects in our society. In a capitalist society beauty in itself is not enough to make a person successful. If Queenie had visibly come from a lower-class family, Sammy likely would not have shown interest in her. Capitalism has brainwashed Sammy’s mind, like the brainwashing of Jay Gatsby, in a way that forces him to pursue the ‘higher things;’ he never takes into account that Queenie could be an awful girl, with a horrible attitude, because he can only see the signs of wealth, which inherently make her beautiful in his capitalist attitude toward the world.
In the same way that Sammy finds beauty in Queenie, we also see the other girls imitating her for the same reasons. For instance, Queenie is often portrayed as the leader of the group; she “walks, heavy-heeled and head high, with the haughty pride of the affluent, secularized American upper middle class” (Wells 129). Updike exemplifies our tendency to find beauty in things that are associated with upper class wealth in his portrayal of not only Queenie, but her companions as well. Both the “chunky kid, with a good tan” and the girl who “other girls think is very ‘striking’ and ‘attractive’ but never quite makes it” are designed in a way that makes them subservient to Queenie (Updike 188). Throughout the story we find these two girls following Queenie in strange aspiration, hoping to be like her; Queenie is “ . . . the Queen. She kind of led them [the other girls] . . . showing them how to do it;” and she is portrayed as wise, knowing exactly what she needs from this life, careful not to “look around . . . she just walked straight on slowly [through the isles] . . . [keeping] her eyes moving across the racks” (Updike 188-89). Queenie fits mold of a model consumer, scanning the shelves of A&P seeking out a bargain; meanwhile the “fat one . . . fumbled with the cookies, but on second thought she put the package down,” suggesting that the chunky girl is “fat” because she is a careless consumer, lacking the keen buying sense that makes Queenie physically attractive in the eyes of a capitalist society (Updike 190). The reader may begin to draw a subconscious parallel between two negative attributes – obesity and irrational consumption. Combined with the commodification of Queenie, whose body symbolizes what makes every female pop superstar or model a monetary success, the reader takes the ‘chunky’ girl’s weight problem, along with her buying habits and creates an image of Queenie that is highly superior to that of the ‘chunky’ girl. The irony of this commodification is that the ‘chunky’ girl probably comes from the same class as Queenie, but since obesity is not associated with success, the reader automatically places her into a class lower than that of Queenie. America is exposed as a society that value success, and financial success in particular, above all else.
Perhaps it is these contradictions in how we perceive class that frustrates Sammy so much, causing him to quit his job. In the same way Queenie and the ‘chunky’ girl are from the same class, Lengel and Queenie also share a similar class – a class where men are: “standing around in ice-cream coats and bow ties,” and the women are “in sandals picking up herring snacks on toothpicks” (Updike 193). Lengel persecutes Queenie not because of her skimpy clothing, but because of a more pressing reason – she is disturbing his customers and in effect causing him to lose money. Sammy begins to see the hypocrisy in Lengel, who portrays himself as the highly moral Sunday school teacher, but comes off more as a pitiful dictator – not concerned with morality at all, only money.
Queenie is the symbol of what being ‘hip’ is. She is on the cutting edge of fasion and pushing social limits while showing off her beauty. Since Lengel comes from a higher class, running a seemingly bourgeois business, his sole purpose is to serve his conservative working-class customers, even though he may believe that the girls’ skimpy clothing is perfectly acceptable. Similar to how some claim Sammy is merely trying to impress the girls by quitting, Lengel is attempting to impress his working-class customers by reprimanding the girls, so there is a contradiction between Lengel’s class and how he must act: the “supposedly elite upper class, is in fact, very casual, too casual, under the circumstances” for Lengel, and for a moment, he must lower himself to the class of his customers (McFarland 99).
The setting of this story is possibly one of the best Updike could have chose to spread the anti-capitalist message of A&P; a supermarket is “the common denominator of middle-class suburbia, an appropriate symbol for the mass ethic of a consumer-conditioned society,” where “crackers and herring snacks meet, and so do the proletarian . . . the bourgeois, and the patrician (Porter 1155, McFarland 99). For example, when the reader is first introduced to the girls it is somewhat tied into the imagery of the store: before even learning where the story takes place we are introduced to “three girls in nothing but bathing suits,” immediately making the reader focus on the commodification of the girls before the actual setting (Updike 187). Also, when we, as people who live within a capitalist society, think of women who dress in such attire, we do not think of their mental capacity, but we view them as sexual commodities, commodities that oftentimes are used to sell products in American advertising. We tend to view women who dress in this manner as “slutty” or “loose;” for the girls to enter into a supermarket it emphasizes the true American feeling towards women: they are not viewed as human beings at all, but viewed as products that can be browsed through like clothing on a rack. This commodification is yet another flaw in capitalist societies that cause us to put less value on the worth of individual human beings and to only see people as producers and consumers. Queenie is no longer a woman; she is just another product in the store, something that with the right amount of money, can be bought. Sammy likens fluorescent lights shining on the girls in the store to that of sun glaring on their bodies at the beach. In the same way that the florescent lights help people compare stacked products to buy at the store, their brightness exposes the apperances of the girls in an especially exposing artificial, here artificial, light that may dehumanize them.
Sammy possesses a great eye for quality, not only in women but in products: “[Sammy] speaks disdainfully . . . of such products in the store as ‘records at discount of the Caribbean Six or Tony Martin Sings or some such gunk you wonder they waste the wax on . . . and plastic toys done up in cellophane that fall apart when a kid looks at them anyway” (Updike qtd. in Porter 1155-6). Associations between people and products is common practice, and Sammy possesses a tendency to associate himself with HiHo crackers (a middle class product), rather than more expensive Ritz crackers (possibly viewed as a snack of the high class). Queenie, presumably upper class, is associated with “Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks,” a brand name that “not only fits the imperial Queenie, but also suggests the social class . . . to which she belongs” (McFarland 97).
What we may want to ask ourselves is: What does Sammy see in Queenie? Is Sammy truly thinking for himself or is he just like the “witch about fifty with rouge on her cheekbones,” or the people who “would by and large keep reaching and checking oatmeal off their lists” even if a bomb exploded in the store? (Updike 187, 190) At one point in the story, Sammy does indeed fall into the trap of capitalist ideology, not thinking logically, and the setting of the store only draws him deeper into error. However, when Sammy says: “Poor kids, I began to feel sorry for them [the girls]” we begin to see the change in Sammy’s understanding. Queenie becomes more than a beautiful girl that Sammy fanaticizes about, and he begins to see her as a victim [of an invasive brand of capitalism] (Updike 191). She becomes a victim of capitalism because of the way that Lengel abuses her and also in the way that she is commodified by the other customers in the store . Not only does Queenie become a victim, but Sammy begins to see himself as a victim when he symbolically “punches the ‘No Sale tab’ and walks outside where, ‘the sunshine is skating around on the asphalt” (Updike qtd. in Porter 1157).
Even at the beginning of the story we see that Sammy is vaguely familiar with the flaws of capitalism and often sees the store as an artificial atmosphere, viewing the “fluorescent lights” and “green-and-cream rubber tile floor” as generic. He ridicules customers such as the “witch about fifty,” describing them as cattle who merely roam the isles looking for a good bargain (Porter 1156, Updike 187). The sunshine that falls on Sammy upon his exit is a deep contrast to the artificial fluorescent lights he works under in the A&P. The sunlight, a representation of sincerity, perhaps illuminates the truth of things, shedding a humanist natural light on people. The flawed capitalist ideology, by which people are viewed by how much money they make, is put aside, and Sammy begins to realize “how hard the world was going to be on [him] hereafter;” upon leaving his job Sammy feels relief, even though he realizes the decision he has made is a difficult one (Updike 196). In contrast to the pathetic musical tones Sammy hears from his cash register earlier, the story ends with a loud “pee-pul . . . [as the] drawer splats out,” symbolizing Sammy breaking free from capitalist ideology (Updike 196). Perhaps it is not even obvious to Sammy himself why he has acted in the way that he does. In fact, maybe it is this uncertainty in Sammy’s future that adds so much intrigue to the story, as if now Sammy has the potential to create his own, enlightened, genuine future. Walter Wells describes the ending as a look “ahead—into the life that lies before [Sammy] . . . And he sees nothing very clearly, only indefiniteness” (132). A&P is the typical tale of a teenager who begins to awaken to the faults of the world around him, and like many people who begin to understand life for the first time. Sammy’s quitting may seem childish or stupid, but it is actually the first step in a rebellion against the crooked ideals around him. If it is true that Sammy does not realize what he is rebelling against, it emphasizes that capitalism is an unnatural way of life, and it would be natural that human beings lash out against it, even if they do not realize why exactly they are doing it. Sammy symbolizes the frustration of a person who simply cannot understand the monetized, hyper-capitalist world around him and therefore, chooses to no longer participate, at least not in the same way, at least not at the same store.
McFarland, Ronald E. “Updike and the Critics: Reflections on ‘A & P’.” Studies-in-Short-Fiction 20.2-3 (1983) : 95-100.
Porter, M. Gilbert. “John Updike’s ‘A & P’: The Establishment and an Emersonian Cashier.” The English-Journal 61 (1972) : 1155-58.
Wells, Walter. “John Updike’s ‘A & P’: A Return Visit to Araby.” Studies-in-Short-Fiction 30.2 (1993) : 127-33.
Updike, John. “A&P.” Pigeon Feathers, and Other Stories. New York: Knopf, 1962.
Aristocrats & Patriarchy: Analyzing John Updike’s A&P Through Marxist and Feminist Lenses
In his short story, “A&P,” writer John Updike presents readers with a seemingly banal reality. Through a first-person narration style, we are introduced to the protagonist, Sammy, a run-of-the-mill young man employed at a run-of-the-mill supermarket, where a run-of-the-mill conflict emerges. While Sammy is assisting customers, irritated and bored with his life, three teenage girls enter the store wearing nothing but bathing suits. Here, Sammy engages with his fellow employees, commenting on their appearances in a fashion reminiscent of the way average boys would describe women. He ogles them, dissecting their looks until his focus lands on the apparent leader, who he refers to as Queenie. The girls peruse the aisles, up and down each one like a maze until they reach their goal: Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream. They bring the jar to Sammy to cash-out, and Lengel, the dreary manager, reprimands them for their indecent attire. The story culminates in the girls finishing up and exiting the store, and in an act of heroic prowess, Sammy quits his job. He attempts to catch up with them, but as he walks out, he realizes they are gone. His fair maiden, Queenie, and his opportunity for a better life, have slipped through his fingertips.
The rather basic plotline of “A&P” makes it a story that could have taken place anywhere. The events are not monumental. The characters are not exceptional people. There aren’t any immediately discernible lessons to be shared, or grand, sweeping statements about the human condition. In spite of these things, this story strikes a chord thanks to countless subtle nuances, detectable through theoretical analysis. Because of the simplicity of the story, we can apply both Marxist and feminist critical approaches, and come out with new meanings that asses the position of marginalized communities in American culture; here, the proletariat class, and women, respectively. By analyzing the narrative through both theoretical lenses, we can detect a significant shift in Sammy as a character. By the end of the story, Sammy seems to have awakened to a Marxist truth, that under a capitalist regime, he will never be able to get ahead, and those around him are being fooled into thinking they will. In spite of this realization, at the end, Sammy as a character retains a problematic attitude toward women; even though the girls at the heart of the story are of a higher class bracket, he views himself as superior to them, and to all women.
In a Marxist breakdown of “A&P,” it is easy to point to the obvious presence of a consumer culture weaving its way through the story. Speckled throughout the text, readers will find specifically branded food items such as “HiHo Crackers” and “Diet Delight Peaches.” The way Sammy includes these brand names in recounting mundane events suggests that they are an integral part of his daily life, that the aspects of the corporation are so ingrained in him that they become inseparable from the story. Take, for example, the scene where he rings out the box of crackers: “I stood there I stood there with my hand on a box of HiHo crackers trying to remember if I rang it up or not. I ring it up again and the customer starts giving me hell” (231). In a literal sense, the meaning of this passage would not change should “HiHo” have been omitted. In spite of this, the inclusion of “HiHo” speaks volumes about the culture these characters are living in. Additionally, we can detect a message in the branding of Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream. Notice the word choices in this product: “Kingfish,” “Fancy,” and “Pure,” are all rather regal descriptors, suggesting a product of a higher caliber, made to be bought and consumed by those of a high society, bourgeois background. That three young women purchased this product implies they are of an upper-class upbringing, which, in a Marxist framework, makes them more socially powerful than the A&P employees.
Although a Marxist reading suggests that the girls have more social currency than the working-class employees of the supermarket, a feminist reading suggests otherwise. When the girls enter the A&P in their bathing suits, it is obvious they enjoy the attention they receive as a result of their scant clothing. It makes them feel powerful. Sammy tunes in to this immediately, as he says, “She didn’t look around…just walked straight on slowly, on these long white primadonna legs” (230-231). Even though it is clear the girls are walking deliberately, as if they are better than other patrons, the way the men in the store objectify them makes their scandalous venture seem petty, in a broader setting. In an exchange with his co-worker Stokesie, Sammy pokes fun at the three girls. “Oh Daddy,’ Stokesie said beside me,’I feel so faint.’ ‘Darling,’ I said. ‘Hold me tight” (232). If it is not immediately obvious to readers that the girls are in over their heads, this scene confirms that they are. Laughter takes the power out of any situation, making it seem trivial, stupid. While the girls may feel strong, the way the men joke about this scene undermines this. In addition to the light-hearted fun Sammy and Stokesie have at the expense of the young women, they are also objectified, in a more serious way, at the deli counter. “All that was left for us to see was old McMahon patting his mouth and looking after them sizing up their joints” (232). From the way the girls are described, we can assume they are high-school aged, post-puberty, but not yet old enough to have an awareness of their place in the world. Though they are oblivious to it, the man behind the counter, McMahon, watches the girls in a predatory way. The power dynamic here is completely in line with that of an ordinary patriarchal structure. The girls sexualize their bodies on purpose, hoping to gain traction in a world that has not given them liberty to express themselves, yet fall victim to the ever-present eye of the male gaze.
Often, Marxist critics will point to the relationship among the three employees in order to highlight the fissure between capitalist and communist ideologies. “A&P” is set in a Cold War-era, consumer-based America, and the first subtle nod to this comes in a clever joke made by Sammy. In discussing Stokesie’s career aspirations he says, “He thinks he’s going to be manager some sunny day, maybe in 1990 when it’s called the Great Alexandrov and Petrooshki Tea Company or something” (232). This nod to Russia, with inclusion of the names “Alexandrov” and “Petrooshki,” is so slight that a reader might not detect the reference, but it illustrates the attitudes people of the time had toward communist world powers. The idea that a communist government would infiltrate capitalist America and disrupt the liberties of civilians was a prominent ideology, and capitalist America exploited this. Basic Marxism states that business owners, the bourgeoisie, fool the working class, the proletariat, into thinking they have mutual business interests. Essentially, it is in the best interest of the owners to convince the workers they share a common goal, so that they may elicit greater labor for a lesser pay. We can see this brought to light in the relationship the workers have to A&P. Stokesie believes in the notion that he will be able to rise through the ranks as an employee at the store, but Sammy sees through this. Besides Stokeskie, we are also given Lengel, the store manager who blindly follows orders. Under a Marxist analysis, Lengel’s response after Sammy says he embarrassed the girls carries significant weight. Lengel replies smoothly, “It was they who were embarrassing us” (234). His use of the collective, “us,” is a unique word choice. It does not seem that Sammy, nor Stokesie, nor McMahon were embarrassed; rather, they seemed to enjoy the presence of the girls, albeit, in a misogynist way. It appears Lengel uses “us” to refer to himself and the A&P; he, the individual, chooses not to separate himself from the A&P, the corporation. It is not in the best interest of the business to have three girls roaming the store in their bathing suits, so it must not be in the best interest of Lengel. The way Lengel defines himself by his position, by his company, is characteristic of the capitalist brainwashing Marxism warns against. Sammy sees this in his superior, and instead of resigning himself to a similar fate, takes his chances, and quits.
While there is certainly a clash between capitalism and the rights of the working class in A&P, maybe a more overt dichotomy can be viewed in the rift between men and women. Nowhere in this narrative do we see women being portrayed in a positive light, unless they are being objectified, or praised for the way they look. By focusing on the minor female characters, those besides the three girls, we can discern a pattern in Sammy’s opinion of women. First, we encounter the old woman. “She’s one of these cash-register-watchers, a witch about fifty with rouge on her cheekbones and no eyebrows…if she’d been born at the right time they would have burned her over in Salem” (230). The allusion to Salem Sammy presents here suggests a deep-rooted hatred of any woman who does not conform to his ideal “Queenie” archetype. The old woman is loud and unattractive, and challenges him when he double-scans her item. Though it would be easy to pass this encounter off as a cranky old woman, angry at the world and thereby angry at Sammy, the way he describes the tired mother-type customer suggests something different. “And anyway these are usually women with six children and varicose veins mapping their legs and nobody, including them, could care less” (232). Here, Sammy discusses the type of woman who would usually enter the store in a bathing suit. She is exhausted. With the piercing imagery of the varicose veins we get the sense she too is unattractive, possibly working-class, the presence of veins suggesting a woman who is overworked. Because this type of woman is not beautiful, Sammy does not notice her. He “could care less.” She is invisible to him, and because she is not the ideal image of beauty, she holds no relevance to Sammy. She is worthless. In spite of this, it appears Updike’s inclusion of this minor character serves to highlight the contrast between Queenie and the world around her. While Sammy seems disgusted by any woman who does not maintain an ideal standard of beauty, he seems to treasure Queenie, wishing to protect her like a China doll. This almost pseudo-paternal relationship Sammy invents with her culminates in his quitting the A&P, in the most climactic moment of the story.
As the three girls exit the A&P supermarket, embarrassed by Lengel’s scolding, Sammy is faced with a decision which will greatly affect his future: does he stay on at the A&P, maintaining a steady life with a steady job in the company of other steady people, or does he take a leap toward a better future and quit, an effort to gain traction on the same social plane as Queenie? Ultimately, Sammy hands in his apron, a valiant rebellion against the oppressive bourgeoisie. While his annoyance with his menial position in society seems to have been bubbling below the surface for some time, it seems his true awakening to his insignificant place in the world comes upon hearing Queenie speak. He says, “All of a sudden I slid right down her voice…Her father and the other men were standing around…picking up herring snacks on toothpicks off a big plate…all holding drinks the color of water…When my parents have somebody over they get lemonade and if it’s a real racy affair Schlitz in tall glasses” (233). Notice his contrast in diction in describing both events. In recounting Queenie’s (imagined) background, the sentences are long, overflowing with beautiful language and rich imagery. Rather than simply saying the members of Queenie’s family drink dry martinis, saying that their drinks were “the color of water,” maintains a mystical element. This suggests a certain ambiguity, heightening the sense of the unknown. Sammy can visualize the drinks, but due to his upbringing, does not have the knowledge to articulate exactly what they are. In contrast, the way he describes his own family gatherings is very blunt, familiar. His incorporation of the branded beer, Schlitz, suggests a comfortability with the drink. It also denotes class. While the notion of a dry martini seems out of reach for Sammy, a cheap beer served in a tall glass is accessible, as it is the only world he knows. When he quits his job, he seems to be reaching toward this upper-class lifestyle, assuming that the girls will welcome him into their gated community with open arms as their savior; however, things are not so simple. The oppressive capitalist structure keeps the working-class down, and by attempting to rebel against this, Sammy is punished with an ambivalent future, making the road ahead even more difficult.
While a Marxist reading seems to make Sammy out to be some type of tragic hero, taking his future into his own hands only to be struck down by an exploitative enterprise, a feminist reading suggests something entirely different. When analyzing “A&P” within a feminist context, it becomes immediately clear that Sammy views himself as some type of white knight, a substitute father figure for the girls. If the leader of the pack is Queenie, then Sammy is King. Even the cutesy add-on of “ie” to “Queen” infantilizes her, making her seem helpless, childish, less-than. Much of what happens in the final scene of the story suggests Sammy believes he holds ownership over the girls, and maybe the most prominent example of this is also the simplest, when he refers to the young women as “my girls.” He says,”I look around for my girls, but they’re gone, of course” (235). When he quits his job, he seems to view himself as a type of martyr for the cause, throwing himself under the bus to save three damsels in distress. Naturally, he should receive some type of compensation for this act. He appears irritated with their disappearance, puzzled as to why they did not wait around to congratulate him on his heroic act. With the way the girls are sexualized throughout the course of the entire story, we can infer that Sammy expects some type of sexual reward for his deed, thus cementing his ownership over them, in particular, Queenie, the true object of his affection. Sammy feels entitled to the young women, to their bodies, their affections, their lifestyle. When he doesn’t receive the outcome he was expecting, he feels cheated. He went out of his way to quit his job, and when no one is there to reward him for it he is annoyed. He concludes the narrative lamenting the struggles that he, as a nice guy, will have to face from here on out.
By analyzing John Updike’s short story “A&P” theoretically, we can break down some of its core ideas to reveal a story about more than an average kid who quits his job. From a Marxist perspective, we can view Sammy as a type of folk hero, an everyman, who, after spending too long groveling at the feet of an exploitative company, decides to fight back. A Marxist interpretation paints a decidedly positive portrait of Sammy. Just like his coworkers, he has fallen victim to the evils of capitalism, and he views the three girls as his ticket out of his proletariat circumstances. In contrast to this reading, a feminist analysis suggests that Sammy is a hopeless misogynist, a young man experiencing life in a male-dominated America, who views women as little more than sub-human specimens for examination. Despite the negative aspects of the feminist viewpoint, perhaps this is what makes “A&P” such a classic story. When we combine the positive aspects of the Marxist interpretation with the more problematic components of a feminist critique, we are left with an incredibly rounded character. Sammy is young and dumb. He acts on instinct rather than carefully considering his options. He jokes with his co-workers, complains about customers, just as any nineteen-year-old would. This story retains a place in the literary canon because Sammy is imperfect and average, not in spite of it. Through Sammy, readers can relate to the struggle of being a lost young adult, and may reevaluate the social injustices they remain passive toward. In “A&P,” Updike creates a story that is so mundane, it becomes profound.