John Updike’s “A&P”: Themes & Conflicts Analysis Essay

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Dec 23rd, 2019


This essay analyzes the main themes of A&P by John Updike, a short story written in 1961. The main message of the story is the choice made by the main character. He rebels against the society that is consumer-conditioned and chooses to live honestly and meaningfully. The nature of this rebellion is what J.Updike wanted to show in his A&P short story.

The Background of the Conflict in A&P

To understand all the peculiarities of the author’s message and to analyze the ideas and themes of A&P appropriately, it is always necessary to pay much attention to the historical context of the work. The main character of the story is Sammy, a teenager who tries to rebel against the system and structure of social norms represented in the text in the form of rules and standards typical for the A&P stores. His rebellion is a local reflection of those ideas, ideologies, and cultural changes that existed in the society of the USA in the 1960s.

The time period of the 1960s in the USA was full of confrontations on all the levels of political, economic, social, and cultural life. The country experienced the effects of the postwar period, which could be interpreted as prosperity. Society required further development, which could also be associated with various social and cultural aspects.

That is why the character of Sammy can be considered as one of the first representations or embodies of the critics, which are directed toward the specific aspects of social life and peculiarities of social limitations and boundaries in the public’s minds, which were supported by the consumers’ ideology.

Sammy is a young cashier at the A and P store, the main setting of the story. He is not afraid to act against the system in the market and the whole social system as it can be discussed with references to the historical context of the story. That is why it is possible to analyze the peculiarities of the dilemma between obedience and rebellion, which is the main conflict in “A&P” by John Updike.

In this ironic story, which is given from the first narrator, the conflict of the mass’s visions of the rules and morality, which depend on the principles of consumerism, develops in connection with the new opinions on freedom from the prejudices.

Nevertheless, Sammy’s cynical romanticism is only the result of his young age. In their book, Miller and Nash discuss the character of Icarus as the most typical character in the art, which is inclined to act impulsively and rebel against the conventionalities because of his youth and immaturity.

Sammy rebels not against the idea, he rebels against the possibility to become such a person who can be dependent on the standards, conditions, and rules which are not pleasant and unnecessary for him. It was typical for the rebelling movements of the 1960s to be developed against the system, which does not exist for people and their needs, but only requires the constant obedience to its norms.

Thus, there are several critical points in the story that accentuate the social aspects typical for the time period of the 1960s. Although this story was published in 1961, the details of it can be considered as definite predictions.

The most impressive symbol which can be analyzed as the forecast of the Cold War in the story is the result of Sammy’s imagination when he thinks about the A&P, the role of Russia and the USA in the development of the system of consumerism, “I forgot to say he thinks he’s going to be manager some sunny day, maybe in 1990 when it’s called the Great Alexandrov and Petrovski Tea Company or something” (Updike 1205).

Moreover, Sammy’s opposition to the authority of Lengel can also be considered as the reflection of the further conflicts between the youth’s visions and authorities in the 1960s.

However, the topic of obedience and rebellion in the story does not depend merely on Sammy’s actions. It is three girls who draw the public’s attention and break the norms. Their behavior is considered as challengeable by the consumers in the store and by the manager.

However, they only have inappropriate dresses for the situation and accentuate this fact. What becomes usual for the late 1960s is a real challenge for 1961. Nevertheless, Sammy’s reactions are slightly different from those presented by the consumers and the manager. The girls and their freedom inspire him.

The author ironically emphasizes the meaning of the norms provided by the society, which can easily restrict the public and be broken by that public as well. In this situation, the bathing suits are the challenge, but the society is ready to discuss it. This part of free youth people is presented in the character of Sammy, who does not want to think like Stokesie and to look like Lengel. It is not his choice.

Sammy is opposite to “sheep” and “house slaves” whom he can observe every day at work (Updike 1206). The author uses these ironical names in order to emphasize the attitude of Sammy toward the audience, which he can observe every day and express his opposition to them. “The sheep [people] 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” (Updike 1206).

To be free from such conventionalities and prejudices means to rebel against them and not to depend on them. The conflict in John Updike’s A&P evolutes in the society of the 1960s in the form of the hippy movement and different conceptions about freedom.

It is the conflict between generations, which is common for many periods, but it was extremely vivid and influential for the historical, cultural, and social development of the country during that period. These girls are not afraid to represent their uniqueness, which can be expressed in such a provocative way. Analyzing the reactions of the public and the sense of this provocation, Sammy understands that the manner of living and acting he follows now is not the way to his better life.

The problem is in the fact that Sammy, as many young people in the 1960s, does not want to obey and prefer to rebel against the structure and system, which is not pleasant for him. However, because of his indefiniteness, he does not know what he wants.

Is it a real desire or an attempt to prove his confidence and personal freedom? To rebel, the system, the main character of the story, is inclined to lose his job. It is the act that supports the girls’ actions and “decency,” but it is not his real intention, which is meaningful or significant for him. However, he states, “it seems that once you begin a gesture, it is fatal not to go through with it” (Updike 1206).

That inner monologue of Sammy, which the readers can observe while reading the short story, can be considered as typical for many young persons of that period who wanted to find themselves and become real individuals and strong personalities.

The author presents vivid and emphatic Sammy’s considerations about the principles of the social system, the importance of the social status and with the help of offering Sammy’s dreams and beliefs he focuses on those aspects which are significant for the majority of young people when they start their life as adults.

The ignorance of the rules, the devotion to the contradictions and rebellions are not all the features characterized by the youth not only in the 1960s but also during various historical periods.


This essay aimed to analyze the main messages and themes of John Updike’s A&P, a short story written in 1961. In summary, A&P presents the Updike’s vision of the problem with the help of Sammy’s thoughts’ depiction. Even though his ideas and actions, the intentions to quit the job can be considered as immature, John Updike uses this situation in the social and historical context only for the expression of the total immaturity of the youth when they put all their forces for rebelling.

The historical context is rather significant for this analysis, because the main ideas and themes of Updike’s A&P reflect the peculiarities of the social and cultural life in the USA of the 1960s. It is necessary to discuss the questions of personal rebellion with references to the ideology of social rebellion against the outdated norms and principles.

Works Cited

Updike, John. “A&P”. Connections: Literature for Composition. Ed. Quentin Miller and Julie Nash. USA: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. 1204-1210. Print.

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