Among numerous short stories by American writer, poet, and novelist John Updike, one of the most popular and best-known ones is A&P. A&P was first published in The New Yorker in 1961 and later became a part of a short story collection named Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories. The reader sees the world of A&P through the eyes of the first-person narrator, 19-year-old Sammy. On an ordinary day, he works at a cash register in a local store named A&P when three girls walk inside, wearing only bathing suits. While the plot seems fairly inelaborate, it develops into a metaphor of rebellion against the conformist society that was America in the 1960s.
The Meaning of the A&P Story by John Updike
Sammy, the story’s protagonist, is a teenager who does not fit into the world he lives in, and he speaks about it accordingly. He, like many other young people of his age, is dismissive of those around him. A&P’s customers are “sheep pushing their carts down the aisle” and “house-slaves in pin curlers”, and Stokesie, Sammy’s coworker, is presented as a boring layabout (Updike 248). However, he is still just a man who is sexually attracted to women, which is evident by his reaction to the three girls entering the store. He evaluates their appearance from the point of view of beauty standards and ‘objectifies’ the prettiest one, whom he nicknames Queenie. Still, there is more to Sammy’s evaluation than simply ogling: he is observant and uses this skill to make deductions about the lives of those whom he observes. Granted, Sammy speaks rather disparagingly of Queenie and her friends, to the point where he would be called a sexist today – but it is important to remember in what times the story is set.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the movement for equal rights had not yet grown to the current global scale and made men see women as their equals. Back then, it would not have been as outrageous to assume that inside a woman’s head, there might be “just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar” (Updike 247). These were more conservative times in general, and people were expected to blend in with the crowd. In this sense, the girls entering the store looking as they do is an act of rebellion because they need to be “decently dressed when [they] come in here” (Updike 250). Sammy is as much of a rebel, but he simply expresses it differently than the girls do, and the story’s main conflict is ‘man vs. society’.
The story’s antagonist is Sammy’s manager, Lengel, who represents the conformist propensities of society at the time. In Sammy’s opinion, Lengel embarrasses the girls in front of people by saying that customers are to come to the store with their shoulders covered. Somehow, this becomes the final straw for Sammy, the reason for him to finally show how much he despises the system by ostentatiously quitting his job at once. However, he wants more than that: Sammy wants the girls to notice this grand gesture and, thus, distinguish him from the crowd. They do not, and, suddenly, it is as if this spontaneous decision makes less sense for Sammy and leaves him feeling “how hard the world was going to be.
To [him] hereafter” (Updike 252). What starts as a simple desire for a beautiful woman becomes a desire to escape the world of conformity.
In conclusion, A&P is a story with more to it than meets the eye. Behind the protagonist, Sammy’s disdain, sarcasm, and sexual desires lie his desire to stop being a part of the world that demands compliance and rejects individuality. However, once this desire is realized, he seems less certain about his decision, but there is no way back. In this sense, A&P is a teenager’s coming-of-age story in America in the 1960s.
Updike, John. Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories. Alfred A. Knopf, 1962.