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John Updike A&P Essay Outline

"A & P" Updike, John (Hoyer)

The following entry presents discussion of Updike's short story "A & P."

Often depicting middle-class, Protestant America, Updike's short fiction focuses on the feelings of loneliness and isolation that lead the "common man" to seek some form of higher truth or ultimate meaning. "A & P" represents one of Updike's most successful coming-of-age narratives; the story articulates a teenaged boy's sudden awareness of the split between his inner feelings and society's values. Like much of Updike's fiction, "A & P" first appeared in The New Yorker before being published in the collection Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories (1962).

Plot and Major Characters

"A & P" is narrated by Sammy, a nineteen-year-old boy who is a cashier at a local A & P grocery in a conservative New England town during the summer tourist season. When three adolescent girls enter the store wearing only their bathing suits, Sammy is mesmerized. He describes the appearance and actions of the girls with elaborate detail, observing that something about their demeanor suggests a remote, upper-class lifestyle that contrasts with his own. As the girls prepare to make their purchase, the store manager reprimands them for what he perceives as their indecent appearance. Hoping the girls will notice his chivalrous gesture, Sammy abruptly quits his job in protest. Realizing that he might later regret his impulsive action, Sammy nevertheless follows through with his decision to quit, and walks off the job. By the time he walks outside into the parking lot, however, the girls are already gone. The story ends on a melancholy note as Sammy reflects upon "how hard the world was going to be for me hereafter."

Major Themes

"A & P" concisely sets up oppositions between several motifs: the individual versus the collective, conservatism versus liberalism, the working class versus the upper class, women versus men, and consumerism versus Romanticism. Interpretations of "A & P" depend to some degree upon the reader's understanding of the reason for Sammy's hasty decision to quit his job: some argue that he is truly rebelling against the disparagement of the young women by the Puritanical manager, while others feel that he quits due to misguided self-interest, in hopes that the girls will notice him. Critics have often viewed Sammy's gesture as quixotically romantic, since he gains nothing through his decision except the loss of his job.

Critical Reception

"A & P" is one of Updike's most anthologized and most popular stories. While the narrative style of the story has been widely acclaimed, critical opinion is split between those who declare the piece a work of genius and those who find it devoid of profound content. Much critical discussion has focused on the significance of Sammy's actions: while many reviewers interpret his behavior as admirably honest and authentic, some argue that his inappropriate judgement of his town's standards leads to his isolation and loss at the conclusion. Commentators have found possible literary sources for the story in Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," Joyce's "Araby," and Emerson's "Self Reliance."

The nineteen fifties marked the era of differences between the parents and their children. Not until the nineteen sixties was there turning point in the nation. The generation gaps are the differences amongst the younger generation and their elders, and mainly amongst children and their parents. Generation gap still occurs today, in thing varying from behavior, to genres of music, and even in usage of language. The new generations try to express themselves as something different from the old, embracing new slang, trying to form a separation between themselves and the previous generation. In John Updike’s “A &P”, a teenage boy named Sammy works at a local store called A&P. Sammy is a young casher, that stands up to his boss and he stands up for three girls who are dressed in bathing suits. Sammy lives in a small town, where nothing really happens.

There is a struggle within every teenager. Sammy doesn’t like his job at the store or the store itself, and he finds the customers to be like sheep. “All this while, the customers had been showing up with their carts, you know, sheep, seeing a scene, they had all bunched up on Stokesie…”(Updike 1170). The girls were like a pinball and the store is like the pinball machine, because Sammy could only see the girl’s heads as they went through the aisles, “ the whole store was like a pinball machine and I didn’t know which tunnel they’d come out of”(Updike1169). Lengel is like a kingpin, because he is the manager of the store. Sammy’s observations on the people in the store build up on his internal conflict. According to Joseph Lostracco’s “Analyzing Short Stories”, Sammy shows an internal conflict between his limitation due to social class and the need to be admired (Lostracco 99). This conflict becomes apparent when Sammy struggles between wanting to stand up for Queenie and her friends and the desire to be liked by others by not saying anything to Lengel.

The other ‘market dwellers’ were shocked, with Queenie and her friends for walking into the store wearing bathing suits and no shoes. Sammy’s conflict occurs when his manager Lengel was telling the girls they couldn’t wear swimsuits out in public. Lengel found it to be inappropriate for women to be in swimsuits in public places, Lengel tells the girls “Girls this isn’t the beach” (Updike 1169). Updike states “Its one thing to have a girl in a bathing suit down on the beach, where what with the glare nobody can look at each other much anyway, and another thing in the cool of the A&P….”(Updike 1168). According to Lostracco, Sammy’s conflict becomes an external one between him and the grocery store manger. Sammy feels that if he comes to the girls’ rescue he will win their favor (Lostracco 99). Sammy feels like he can impress the girls, but the girls left before he quit. There is a conflict for approval in every culture. There were generation gaps going on during the nineteen fifties and nineteen sixties, the young people wanting different things from their parents. But the big turning point in culture was not during the nineteen fifties, but in the nineteen sixties.

The Young people wanted to feel free, and be their own people. Queenie wanting to be part of the movement and Sammy is stuck between the two generations. Lengel claims that the girls are embarrassing themselves, where as Sammy states that “You didn’t have to embarrass them”(Updike 1170). Even if society is able to determine its own moral code and culture, it doesn’t fulfill everyone’s needs. According to Lostracco the tone achieved in “A&P” is based on humor at the expense of growing up. Updike handily illustrates the impulsivity of youth who yearn to be accepted (Lostracco 100). The three girls gets Sammy’s attention when they walked into the grocery store, wearing only their bathing suits. Sammy describes each of the girls in great detail, but goes in more detail with Queenie then with her friends. Queenie is the leader of her group, she’s confident. Sammy thinks that Queenie is ideal but not perfect, “She has sort of okay hair that the sun and salt had bleached done up in a bun”(Updike 1168). Sammy likes the girls and he thinks about them a lot- how they interact, and what they wear and goes into great detail of how they look. Sammy describes Lengel is strict, uptight and is you’re stereotypical boss.

Lengel is a hard worker who is misunderstood and he takes Sammy’s place when Sammy quits his job. Sammy also sees Lengel as someone who doesn’t miss much-“Sunday school superintendent.” Lengel hides in his office all day. Lengel tries to explain to Sammy when he quits that he is hurting his parents, and that Lengel has known Sammy’s parents for years, “ Sammy, you don’t want to do this to your mom and Dad”(Updike 1171). Sammy realizes that he doesn’t want to do this to his parents, but Sammy is his own person. Sammy rebels against the store, because how Lengel treated the three girls. Lengel criticizes the girls because they are wearing bathing suits. The bathing suits symbolize the girls’ neglect of the social rules of their small town. For Sammy the bathing suits symbolize freedom and a getaway from the world that he is stuck in. Coming from two different generations Sammy and Lengel sees the girls wearing the bathing suits from different sides. Lengel criticizing the girls symbolizing Sammy trying to find out who he wants to be. Sammy is a hero, because he stood up not only for Queenie and her friends, but also for something he thought was ok. The nineteen sixties had transformed the nation. The nineteen sixties was the turning point for the United States. According to Rennay Craats people demonstrated for the end of the war and racial discrimination (Craats 4).

The nineteen sixties were full of huge protests, some of which turned violent. People protested racism, the war in Vietnam, and the government. The Civil rights movement had spread across the nation, as many young Americans protested to get the nations attention about the civil rights. Sammy was stuck between wanting to be his own person and wanting to make his parents happy. According to Lostracco, Sammy’s rebellion can see as a reaction to the basic morality he faces in his hometown, a very ordinary and uneventful small town (Lostracco 100). Queenie was ‘the leader’ of the group. Sammy realized how hard life was going to be for him after he quit his job, “My stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter”(Updike 1171). Sammy knew that he did what he thought was best for him, even though it might mean people being upset with him. Today the gaps are getting bigger due to the massive amounts of technology the younger generations use. During the nineteen sixties Americans took part took part in the social revolution.

Taking part in peace, and social justice. Women were looking for equality, the younger generation looking to be different. Queenie and her friends wanted to be able to walk into the grocery store in the swimming suits and with no shoes, and having it be a problem. Today it is more acceptable for women to walk into grocery stores with shorts and a swimsuit on then it was in the nineteen sixties. Sammy had a reason to stand up to his boss Lengel and be his own person, because of how Lengel was criticizing the three girls. Generation gaps have been going gone for years. Sammy was trying to ‘find himself’, during the story. Sammy stood up for what he thought was right, and helped out the three girls. John Updike uses first person to describe the experience of the three girls in the store, and Sammy’s experience of working there. John Updike shows in A&P just because people believe in something doesn’t mean you have to believe in the same thing. There is a conflict that occurs in not just in teenagers but also the adults every day.

Work cited
Craats, Rennay. “History of 1960’s”. Weigl Publishers Inc., 2002. http://books.google.com/books?id=1tm_44Ln4EUC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false. November 14, 2012 Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Young Goodman Brown.” Fiction 100 an anthology of short fiction. Thirteenth edition. New Jersey,2012. Lostracco, Joseph. “Analyzing Short Stories.” Seventh edition. Revised printing. 1992.

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