Today it is common for businesses to post signs stating the rules of their premises: “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service,” or for movie theaters to run service announcements reminding people not to talk during a film. Society has become so informal that reminders of basic decency and courtesy are commonplace. This is in sharp contrast to the era in which “A & P” is set, when standards of appearance and behavior were more rigid and more accepted. Women were required to wear hats in church, and men were required to take theirs off. In the office, rules were largely unwritten, but rarely broken. Women wore dresses, nylons, and girdles. Men wore gray, blue, or black suits and never left home without a tie. During the 1950s and early 1960s, conservative dress mirrored conservative social values. Conformity was a measure of popularity as well as a measure of moral rightness. Most people, particularly members of the middle class, wanted to fit in with their neighbors. Suburbs were constructed of identical houses, and the American dream was to have a family, a car, and the modern conveniences that would make one equal to others of one’s social standing. Those who bucked the trends were frequently labeled eccentric or bohemian. The rebellion of many young people from the mid-1960s onward stemmed from what they perceived as the oppression of the staunch rules their parents imposed upon them. In the story Sammy is a good example of this. He knows what the rules are, but he does not admire the “sheep” who so willingly follow them. When he quits his job at the grocery store, he has upset the status quo, an event that Sammy’s parents deem “sad.” In refusing to smooth over his behavior and return to his job, Sammy takes a stand that makes him aware of “how hard the world was going to be…hereafter.” In such a rigid society, he knows he may be relegated to the status of an outsider or troublemaker for disagreeing with the unwritten code of acceptable behavior.
There was little positive incentive for Sammy to act as he did. In the late 1950s, the culture had its iconoclasts, but they were never sanctioned by the mainstream. In Nicholas Ray’s 1955 film Rebel without a Cause, starring James Dean, a teenager’s quest for love and warmth in a cold and loveless world turns to tragedy. All movies were subject to censorship from the Hayes Office before the current rating system was devised in the late 1960s. Not only were sex, obscene language, and violence strictly curtailed, but characters of low morals were required to suffer negative consequences of their actions within the course of the film. Jack Kerouac’s seminal novel On the Road, published in 1957, tells of beatnik outcasts Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty who drive across the United States listening to jazz and smoking marijuana while trying to find something authentic in American culture. It was also during this era that Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl was published. In it, Ginsberg condemns a conformist culture for crushing the creative spirit of artists: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.” Such strong language was not received warmly by mainstream society. The poem became the subject of a landmark obscenity trial, and the poem’s publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Books, was jailed by the San Francisco Police Department.
Rock’n’ roll music got its start in the 1950s. At best, it was dismissed as a fad, at worst, it was considered the devil’s work. The new music was filled with a sensuality that middle America vehemently condemned, if only because it was causing young people to swoon with emotions previously kept largely in check. Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry were considered suspicious for their wild movements, flashy clothes, and for beguiling American youth away from the path of safe, decent, sexually modest entertainment. This is the world into which Updike introduces the three teenage girls in bathing suits in “A & P.”