John Updike is one of America’s most prominent contemporary authors. He has written novels, short stories, essays, poetry, reviews, articles, memoirs, art criticism, and drama. His work has been adapted for television and film, and he has won numerous awards, including a National Book Award and two Pulitzer Prizes.
“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 action of “A & P” takes place in a grocery store in a town north of Boston that is five miles from the nearest beach. Updike told Short Stories for Students that he wrote “A & P” “in 1961, when I was living in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Driving past the local A & P, I asked myself, Why are there no short stories that take place inside an A & P?’ I proceeded to write one, based on a glimpse I had had of some girls in bathing suits shopping in the aisles. They looked strikingly naked.” Updike added: “Originally the story went on, past the ending it now has: Sammy goes down to the beach to find the girls, and never does find them. But the story’s editor at the New Yorker thought that the story ended where it now does, and I agreed with him.”
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 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.
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.
1. If three girls in bathing suits walked into your local supermarket, what do you think the reaction would be today? Has society’s attitude towards such issues as dress changed or remained essentially the same in the past 40 years?
1. Rewrite the first paragraph of this story in the third person. Why do you think Updike wrote it in the first person?