Themes and Characters

The encounter of Sammy, a checkout clerk at an A & P supermarket, with a trio of swimsuited girls encompasses many of the themes central to adolescence, including accepting the repercussions of one’s choices. When Sammy quits in protest of how the girls were treated by the store’s manager, he perceives that from now on, the world will be a more difficult place. As Sammy tells the story his language indicates that, at age nineteen, he is both cynical and romantic. He notes, for instance, that there are “about twenty-seven old freeloaders” working on a sewer main up the street, and he wonders what the “bum” in “baggy gray pants” could possibly do with “four giant cans of pineapple juice.” Yet, when Queenie approaches him at the checkout, Sammy describes her “prim look” as “she lifts a folded dollar bill out of the hollow at the center of her nubbled pink top.” “Really,” he says, “I thought that was so cute.” He vacillates back and forth between these extremes of opinion during the story. He considers some of the customers “houseslaves in pin curlers,” yet he is sensitive enough that when Lengel makes Queenie blush, he feels “scrunchy inside.” At the end of the story, he quits his job in an effort to be a hero to the girls and as a way of rebelling against a strict society. Experiencing an epiphany, he suddenly realizes “how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter” if he refuses to follow acceptable paths.

Sammy most pointedly embodies an important theme in “A & P”: that of choices and consequences. While all of the main characters in the story must make a choice and endure the consequences of that choice, Sammy makes the most obvious and most meaningful choice, and on some level he is aware of the consequences. When he chooses to quit his job, he knows that this decision will have ramifications in his life that will last for a long time. His family is affected, and it causes him to recount the situation as “sad.” Because he has stood up for something on principle-he acted in protest of the manager’s chastisement of the girls-he knows life will be difficult for him. If Sammy quits his job every time he encounters a situation he dislikes, his life will become extremely complicated. In the short term, the consequence of quitting is having to find another job, and with his rash decision comes the possibility he will be branded a troublemaker or misfit by the community in which he lives.

“Queenie” is the name Sammy gives to the pretty girl who leads her two friends through the grocery store in their bathing suits. He has never seen her before but immediately becomes infatuated with her. He comments on her regal and tantalizing appearance. She is somewhat objectified by Sammy, who notes the shape of her body and the seductiveness of the straps which have slipped off her shoulders. When the girls are chastised for their attire by Lengel, Queenie, who Sammy imagines lives in an upper-middle-class world of backyard swimming pools and fancy hors d’oeuvres, becomes “sore now that she remembers her place, a place from which the crowd that runs the A & P must look pretty crummy.” Sammy becomes indignant at Lengel’s treatment of the girls and tries to help them save face by quitting his job. Queenie, however, appears not to notice and leaves the store promptly, diminishing the impact of Sammy’s gesture.

The three girls must suffer the consequences of having gone to the grocery store in their bathing suits. It is hard to believe that they had no idea they were improperly dressed. In the early 1960s women still wore dresses, hats, and gloves most of the time when they were in public. In their youthful exuberance to push the limits of propriety, the girls have been reprimanded by an adult. They have also made quite an impression on two young men, Sammy and Stokesie, which was, perhaps unconsciously, their intention in the first place. Nevertheless, because of their choice to violate community standards, they suffer embarrassment by being reprimanded by an authority figure. Even Sammy’s attempt at solidarity with them is not enough to salvage the situation; they make a hasty retreat from the store and disappear without taking a stand, unlike Sammy. From the girls’ meek reaction, one can surmise that the girls will not take many more risks of the same sort in the future. Such a brush with authority will likely hem them in, successfully socializing them to accept community norms. Sammy, however, because of his quick defiance, is less likely to blindly adhere to arbitrary rules for the sake of maintaining peace.

Lengel’s choice to confront the girls has the unforeseen consequence of losing an employee when Sammy resigns in protest. Lengel spends most of his days in his office. Entering the story near the end, he represents the system: management, policy, decency, and the way things are. But he is not a one-dimensional character. He has known Sammy’s parents for a long time, and he tells Sammy that he should, at least for his parents’ sake, not quit his job in such a dramatic, knee-jerk way. He warns Sammy that he will have a hard time dealing with life from now on, should he quit. He seems truly concerned even while he feels the need to enforce store policy.

When he comes into the store after “haggling with a truck full of cabbages,” he could have ignored the three girls. They were, after all, standing in the checkout line, and he is “about to scuttle into that door marked MANAGER.” Instead, he makes the choice to confront the girls in front of Sammy. If he considers any consequences to his actions, he does not show it. He is merely enforcing the social codes of his time and place. He expects that the girls will comply and that Sammy, and anyone else within hearing, will agree with him.

The girls inevitably stop their protestations, as Lengel expected they would, but Sammy quits-an act that Lengel could not have imagined ahead of time. To Lengel’s credit, in spite of his stuffiness and self-importance, he shows Sammy patience. He does not yell or order him immediately out of the store, but warns him of the very real consequences of his act. Yet, it is Lengel’s adherence to the social code-which says that this behavior must go into Sammy’s personnel file-that cause those consequences. It is, in a small way, like classical tragedy. The players in this drama are helpless to act other than the way they do, but it is not the gods who set the parameters of their behavior, but society, with its written and unwritten list of expected behaviors and consequences for deviating from that list.

A related theme in “A & P” is individualism. Sammy asserts his individuality when he quits his job. He knows that Lengel has every right, according to the standards of the time, to speak to the girls as he does. However, by standing up for the girls, Sammy questions those standards and asserts that there is a higher standard of decency that says one should not embarrass others. In deciding which rules of conduct are more important, he asserts his individuality, unlike the girls who slink away because they know they have violated the rules of conduct.

Sammy is the only character in this story who asserts his individuality. Two of the girls are simply following their leader, and Queenie is easily embarrassed and capitulates to Lengel. The other shoppers in the A & P are only “sheep,” nervously herding together at Stokesie’s cash register to avoid the confrontation. Lengel is the enforcer of policy, a term often used for rules that cannot be easily explained with any degree of rationality. He blindly follows the dictates of society, unable to articulate the reasons for those dictates beyond saying that the A & P “isn’t the beach,” an observation so obvious and so lacking in reason that it causes Sammy to smile-a small, but definite step toward his rebellion.

Stokesie, the young, married man who works with Sammy at the A & P checkout, has little to say or do in this story, though, like Sammy, he observes the girls in the store with interest. Only three years older than Sammy, he provides a glimpse of what Sammy’s future might be like; Stokesie’s wife and two children comprise “the only difference” between them, Sammy comments.

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