“A & P” was first published in the July 22, 1961 issue of the New Yorker and was published again the following year in the author’s collection Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories. Arthur Mizener’s review of the collection in the New York Times Book Review exalted Updike in terms that soon became commonplace for the writer: “his natural talent is so great that for some time it has been a positive handicap to him.” Almost 40 years later, “A & P” remains Updike’s most anthologized story and one of his most popular.
The story opens with Sammy, the teenaged narrator, describing three girls who have walked into the A & P grocery store where he works. They are wearing nothing but bathing suits. He is so distracted by them that he cannot remember if he rang up a box of crackers or not. As it turns out, he rings them up twice, a fact that his customer, “a witch about fifty,” lets him know quickly and loudly. He finishes ringing up the customer’s items as the girls, who have disappeared down an aisle, circle back into view. He notices that they are barefoot. He describes each: there is a “chunky one…and a tall one [with] a chin that was too long” and the “queen,” whom he imagines is their leader. She catches his eye for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the straps of her bathing suit have fallen off her shoulders.
Sammy watches the reactions of the other shoppers to the girls. He refers to the store’s other customers as “sheep” and “a few houseslaves in pink pin curlers.” Another clerk, Stokesie, a married 22-year-old with two children, trades innuendoes with him.
The narrator announces that he has come to what his family deems “the sad part” of the story, though he does not agree. The girls come to his checkout station, and the girl Sammy has dubbed “Queenie” puts down a jar of herring snacks and pulls a dollar from her bathing-suit top, a motion that makes Sammy nearly swoon. The store’s manager, Lengel, spots the girls and reprimands them for their attire, telling them that they should be decently dressed when they shop at the A & P.
Sammy rings up Queenie’s item, carefully handling the bill that just came from between Queenie’s breasts. Other customers appear nervous at the scene Lengel has made at the checkout, and the girls are embarrassed and want to leave quickly. Sammy, in a passionate moment, tells Lengel that he quits. The girls, however, fail to notice his act of chivalry and continue walking out of the store. Lengel asks him if he said something, and Sammy replies, “I said I quit.” Lengel, a longtime friend of Sammy’s parents, tries to talk him out of it, but Sammy folds his apron, puts it on the counter, punches “No Sale” on the cash register, and walks out.
Critics responded enthusiastically to “A & P,” and readers’ identification with Sammy’s predicament has contributed to the story’s continuing popularity. Though little action occurs in the story, Sammy’s character is finely drawn in the space of a few pages, and his brush with authority has large implications. He has been compared to Holden Caulfield, J. D. Salinger’s protagonist in The Catcher in the Rye, and Walter Wells in his essay “‘A & P’: A Return Visit to Araby,” has suggested that Sammy’s moment of protest is similar to the epiphany-or sudden moment of insight-experienced by the narrator in James Joyce’s story “Araby,” a comment that places Updike in the pantheon of the most accomplished writers of the 20th century. Negative reactions to the story center on what some readers perceive as Sammy’s misogynist views. Other critics consider “A & P” a slight story, though one into which a lifetime of dignity, choices, and consequences is compressed.
Updike was only in his twenties when he wrote “A & P,” but he had already gained a reputation for his concise and elegant prose. In a New York Times Book Review article on Pigeon Feathers, the collection in which “A & P” was reprinted, Arthur Mizener called him “the most talented writer of his age in America…and perhaps the most serious.” Having already published two novels and a collection each of stories and poems, Updike had familiarized reviewers with his propensity for capturing small moments in his fiction. Though many claimed he did so with grace, others criticized Updike because the moments were small, and in their opinion, insignificant. “A & P” originally suffered from this view. An anonymous reviewer in Time magazine remarked that Updike “says very little and says it well”-this critic echoes the sentiment of many of his contemporaries. The reviewer went on to say that “even the book’s best story-a young A & P food checker watches three girls in bathing suits pad through the store and quits his job impulsively when his boss reproaches them for their immodesty-is as forgettable as last week’s New Yorker.” Yet, “A & P” has become Updike’s most popular story over the years and has appeared in more than twenty anthologies. Young people especially seem to identify with Sammy and respond to the way he tells his story. Robert Detweiler surmised in his book John Updike that Sammy’s popularity is due to his “integrity, one that divorces him from his unthinking conservative environment.” M. Gilbert Porter, in an essay for English Journal, noted that Sammy’s overreaction “does not detract from the basic nobility of his chivalric intent, nor does it reduce the magnitude of his personal commitment.” Ronald E. McFarland, in an essay in Short Studies in Fiction, claimed that the story’s enduring popularity was due in part to the ambiguity of the narrator’s actions. This sentiment was first proposed by Suzanne Uphaus, who stated in her book John Updike that Sammy’s behavior is an attempt by Updike to reflect on his conviction that “the heroic gesture is often meaningless and usually arises from selfish rather than unselfish impulses.” Other critics are similarly interested in the character of Sammy. In an essay titled “Irony and Innocence in John Updike’s ‘A & P,’” Lawrence Jay Dessner lauded the story’s “brevity and its outrageously naive yet morally ambitious teen-age hero,” whom he called “boisterously inventive and rebellious.” Walter Wells discussed the story as a modern interpretation of James Joyce’s classic tale of adolescent initiation, “Araby.” Calling Sammy’s “the more ambivalent epiphany,” Wells drew comparisons between the sudden realizations of the narrator of “Araby” and that of Updike’s story, and speculated that the author’s purpose in updating Joyce’s story was “to contrast the spiritual value-systems and the adolescent sexual folkways of Joyce’s Dublin with those of suburban New England in the Atomic Age.” Donald J. Greiner, in The Other John Updike: Poems, Short Stories, Prose, Play, summarized the attraction many readers feel to Sammy: The end of the story suggests that all is not self-righteousness and slang. Sammy has sympathy and a sense of outrage. However ironic, his sacrificial gesture is as refreshing as his colloquial candor…. An observer of his social world, he resolves not just to record but also to act upon his impressions.