Consumerism in the 1960s in “A&P” by John Updike Essay

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Jan 29th, 2021


John Updike touched on a very important issue in his short story “A&P.” The story was written in 1961 when the American economy was booming, and the consumerist society was in its blossom. The author uses a very conspicuous setting, an average store, for his story. He also shows the way people responded to the opportunities and challenges of the new times. Updike depicts different generations to show the way new trends affected people. It is possible to trace different attitudes towards consumerism when observing the reactions of Sammy, Queenie, Lengel, and Stokesie.

Consumerism in the 1960s

In the 1960s, the USA was living through significant economic development. The war, as well as international treaties after WWII, enabled the US economy to boom. Americans did not want to think about wars or the horrors of economic constraints of the 1930s. They focused on the abundance of products and associated advertising. Americans enjoyed a wide range of products they could buy at affordable prices.

Updike reveals this trend by depicting the store with its arrays of products. The author stresses that everything could be found in a small American store, as there were plenty of “the cat-and-dog-food-breakfast-cereal-macaroni-rice-raisins-seasonings-spreads-spaghetti-soft-drinks-crackers-and-cookies” aisles (Updike 94). It is also important to note that the products were not the focus of the people around even though they were shopping. At least, the author does not give any reactions to the shoppers concerning the goods. It seems people simply choose the necessary products, but it is also clear that they take this abundance for granted. They do not think that availability of products may have any negative effect on them. Nonetheless, it did have a negative impact on people, as they became slaves of the system.

Rebel Against the System

Rebel of Girls Who Are a Part of the Consumerist Society

As has been mentioned above, different people or rather generations responded differently to conventions of the new time. Thus, Lengel is representative of the older generation. Sammy thinks he is a prisoner of the system as he is concerned with authority, rules, and sales. However, Lengel appears to be the least dependent on the abundance of products, as he simply manages a store, and sales are salary for him. He is rather a part of the system, one of those who are its guards. He is ready to protect some rules created by society and makes girls ashamed of their looks. The way he acts at the counter suggests that he likes the system, as he feels comfortable. Stokesie is also the one who supports the system, and he is glad to be its part.

There are also rebels, of course. The girls seem to rebel against the system and conventions of the society, as they dare come into the store in their swimsuits. Their appearance is shocking as they are young, attractive and they are in the city center where all respectable people go shopping. However, this rebel is quite artificial. Girls (especially Queenie) are deceiving themselves. For instance, Queenie seems to be ignorant of the existence of the rest of the world, paying no attention to the shoppers. However, in reality, she follows people’s reactions, and she acknowledges the power she has over men. She loves this power, and it is clear that she is also a part of the system. It is clear that she feels comfortable among aisles, and she prefers buying certain products for some occasions.

The author may use the girl as a personification of advertising as the girl shows off her body as she wants to ‘sell’ her looks as expensive as possible. The price is astonished glances of men and their fascination with her. Men buy that and are ready to show their fascination. More so, Sammy is ready to do unreasonable things in order to impress the girl and buy a bit of her attention. Likewise, advertisers show off the best features of the product to sell them at the best price. Hence, it is possible to note that Queenie is not simply a part of the system, she is a symbolic representation of its features (such as advertising, showing off, seducing, selling, buying).

Rebel of Sammy Who is at the Crossroads

Nonetheless, one of the biggest surprises is the narrator, Sammy. He seems to be the greatest rebel as he mocks at the aisles of products. He thinks it is quite ridiculous to strive for a career within the system. He thinks that the manager is too strict and does not understand what freedom really is. He thinks that the girls are rebels of the system as they dare break some conventions. He also stands up to the manager and tries to seem a hero for the girls. These facts suggest that he is a real rebel against the system of consumerism. However, he is one of the brightest representatives of the consumerist society. One episode proves that. Sammy imagines the life of the girl when he sees the product she is buying. Hence, he judges the girl and her family by herring she buys. Clearly, products play an important role for him. He does not think they are simply used to satisfy basic needs, but he thinks that certain products reveal people’s status, habits, and so on. Sammy is one of the most conspicuous slaves of the system.

At the end of the story, he quits his job. He leaves the store and covertly hopes girls are there to applaud and call him a hero. However, he is alone in the street with the store behind him. The author gives him a chance to get out of the system and to focus on really meaningful things. Sammy finds himself at the crossroads. Nevertheless, he is likely to remain a prisoner of the system as he felt “how hard the world was going to be… hereafter” (Updike 97). He does not see any options, and his future is rather obscure and sad.


On balance, it is possible to note that Updike unveiled some of the wrongs of the consumerist society. The author showed that people were starting to take an abundance of goods for granted, and they started judging people buy things they had or bought. Interestingly, contemporary society is highly consumerist, and the trends that were only developing in the 1960s are now in their bloom. Many people have become obsessed with products and pay less attention to really meaningful things. Younger generations should read the story and speculate on it to be aware of the hazards of the consumerist society. Young people will learn that, first, everything seems a harmless desire to meet one’s needs, and within a second, people see nothing but products and feel nothing but the desire to buy and consume more.

Works Cited

Updike, John. “A&P.” Fiction: Reading, Reacting, Writing. Ed. Laurie G. Kirszner, Stephen R. Mandell. Fort Worth: Paulinas, 1993. 93-97. Print.

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