Sammy narrates this story in the first person. His voice is colloquial and intimate. His speech is informal, a factor that highlights his individuality and propensity to question authority. His use of slang, like describing a dollar bill that had “just come from between the two smoothest scoops of vanilla I had ever known” characterize him as a fairly typical teenage boy. Using the present tense to make the story seem immediate, he speaks as if to a friend-“I uncrease the bill, tenderly as you may imagine”-drawing the reader immediately to his side. Everything that happens, the reader sees through his eyes. When the girls in bathing suits disappear from his view, they disappear from the reader’s view, as well.
Sammy’s diction indicates that he is probably not a well-educated person. “In walks these three girls,” he says at the very beginning of the story. He also uses a kind of wisecracking slang when talking to Stokesie. Yet, because of the immediacy of his voice, he seems to be a reliable narrator, telling the truth even when it does not flatter him.
“A & P” is rich in symbolism. The HiHo crackers Sammy is ringing up at the beginning of the story are an exclamation. When he rings them up the second time, he is saying “Heigh-ho! Something out of the ordinary is happening!” And the older woman takes him to task for it. The other shoppers are described as “sheep” who follow blindly up and down the aisles, finally entering the chutes where they will check out. Near the end of the story, they bunch up in Stokesie’s chute, crowding together like the nervous sheep they are.
The girls themselves are associated with bees, from the moment that Sammy notices one of them is the “queen,” leading the others around the store. Shortly after that, he wonders what goes on in their minds, if it is “just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar.” Like buzzing bees, they make everyone just a little bit nervous. They are the catalyst in the story, stirring things up as they buzz around the store. Of course the girls, especially Queenie with her shoulder straps hanging loosely, symbolize sexual freedom. It is a sexual freedom that is bottled up rather quickly when Lengel arrives. At the end, Lengel tries to talk Sammy into staying, but Sammy cannot get the picture of the girls’ embarrassment out of his mind, so he rings up “No Sale” on the cash register. He is not buying.
In literary terms, an epiphany is an instance of sudden truth brought about by a mundane event. What began for Sammy as an ordinary day results in the realization of an important truth: “I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.” This final statement of “A & P” is the culmination of the fairly minor event of witnessing three inappropriately dressed girls reprimanded for their appearance. In presenting this epiphany, Updike illustrates how average people grow and change. Prosaic events become significant as people examine their motives and reasons for their decisions and behavior. At nineteen, Sammy is ripe for experiences that will define who he is going to be. He discovers, as “his stomach kind of fell,” that he prefers not to be a sheep who blindly follows the dictates of society. Like the protagonist in James Joyce’s “Araby,” in which an adolescent realizes the futility of romantic quests, Sammy learns, in the words of Walter Wells, that “the whole chivalric world view [is], in modern times, counterproductive.”