Imagery and Symbolism in “A&P” by John Updike


In his short story, John Updike uses imagery and symbolism to convey the message of emotional intelligence and sound decision-making. The author focuses on the character Sammy and through the interactions in the store he works, establishes the detriment of hasty decision-making. Updike also uses descriptive language to place his character firmly in a society divided into economic classes and shows the constraints associated with such a system.

John Updike’s A&P Story

Sammy’s naiveté is readily apparent when the three girls walk into the A&P store. His mind distills their physical attributes, naming them Plaid and Big Tall Goony-Goony, and he defines two of the girls as chunky and chubby berry-faced. His assessment of the leader of the pack, who he dubs Queenie, is similarly indicative of his lust and immediate powerlessness towards the three girls. His attention is immediately drawn to their bare skin and feet and compares how their minds work to the buzz of a bee or the shuffling of sheep when they are pushing their cart (Updike par.2). The character is also vain and shallow, as depicted by the varicose veins he observes in middle-aged women who come to the store, which he is careful to point out is in the middle of town. Furthermore, Updike tries to create a vivid picture of Sammy’s exit after his resignation by comparing the current summer weather to a winter spike. The motions he went through are ore simplistic but have a long-lasting impact, which is essentially the message the author is attempting to convey. When Sammy steps out of the store, he encounters a gleaming sun on the pavement, a clear contrast to his inner turmoil at losing his job at the A&P store.

Updike utilizes symbolism throughout the story, most notably by contrasting the bathing suits donned by the girls to the rigid attire of the store manager. Lengel associates decency with proper attire and further insists on it when face-to-face with the three girls, revealing his stoic nature, whereas queenie is adamant and a free spirit (Updike par.7). Moreover, Sammy’s attitude and demeanor is lacking and marred as depicted by the fact that he is not as saddened at losing his job as his family is. The main character’s personality is symbolically represented by the empty store, with occasional moments of brief excitement. Additionally, when Sammy exits the store, he looks back, a symbolic action that reveals the face of Lengel and predicts the amount of hardship he would have to suffer from then on. In his speech, Sammy displays his vanity by mumbling under his breath instead of speaking up when questioned by Lengel. His lack of responsibility and wisdom are clearly brought out by his thoughts and, more succinctly through his actions.


In conclusion, Updike sensitizes on the need for rational decision-making, especially on consequential life choices. In A&P, Sammy disregards the familial ties Lengel has with his parents or the significance of the pay he brings home in favor of the opinion of three strangers. Furthermore, his adamancy to stick to his decision despite caution from his manager is a contributory factor to his further demise. Making decisions on surface-level attraction is often likely to end in failure, a scenario Lengel grudgingly tries to prevent by convincing Sammy to re-think his decision. It is essential to set priorities in life and fulfill them diligently.

Works Cited

Updike, John. A&P. Houghton Mifflin, 1961, pp. 1-3.

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