John Updike’s A &P speaks for those without voice, champions the defeated, encourages the discouraged, incites the timid, and most importantly, proves the worth of a brave act, however small and insignificant. At the time when John Updike’s A & P was written, the social climate was anything but calm. It was way beyond tranquil. From the historical view, it was on the verge of a revolution – a social revolution. A & P was published in the The New Yorker in the 1960s.
As history would later reveal, the 1960s represented an era which saw the rise of American civil rights movements and neoconservativism. This era gave birth to feminism and gay rights. Basic human rights were questioned, revisited, and advocated vigorously. This agitated state of the current environment was depicted distinctly in the story. The hero of the story, Sammy, chivalrous and smitten, championed the girls’ cause by quitting his job, rather impulsively. As John Updike’s Sammy put it, “Policy is what the Kingpins want.
What the others want is juvenile delinquency. ” (Updike 1). Sammy is just aching, anxious, and yearning to break free from the conventionality represented by the supermarket and its so-called policies that when something out of the ordinary disrupts a rather “empty store” on a “Thursday afternoon”, everyone was dislodged from their comfort zones. The girls, young and attractive, at least to the eyes of Sammy, served as the incendiary agent that will ultimately light up Sammy’s inner fire to stand against conformity.
As The New Yorker’s reader base is largely of the cultured and literary set, John Updike’s portrait of a young boy, captivated by a barely clad girl and who does something impetuously, attempts, rather successfully, to challenge the readers to reconsider their own decisions, and views on the pressing matters at the time. (Wells 129) From an impressionistic standpoint, the story expects its reader to comprehend and react to Sammy in a manner that the emotions solicited from the reader go beyond the text or the dialogue.
The story demands that the reader feels the dramatic irony in Sammy’s condition — compassion towards his hopeless ideal of getting the girl but at the same time rallying behind him in his futile attempt through his brazen move of resigning. However, on the aesthetic view, Toni Saldivar’s work, “The Art of John Updike’s A & P”, juxtaposes Sammy’s “Queenie” with Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. The 15th century painting’s main attraction is Venus, the Greek goddess of love. With Venus, are two women who seem to be attending to her needs.
One figure is even welcoming her as she arrives in the shoreline seemingly to cover her with an adorned cloth just as a servant or lady-in-waiting would assist a queen. Sammy coined a name, Queenie, for his object of affection. John Updike went a little further as to solicit an imagery of boyish fervor and enjoyment for his readers. The writer’s reputation for liking and fantasizing about women can somewhat be gleaned from Sammy’s description of his Queenie. John Updike makes Sammy describe his “Queen” and with his manner of description, the striking similarity with that of Botticelli’s painting is undeniable.
The prominent neck, the long, white legs down to the bare feet of Venus in Botticelli’s painting is the artistic portrayal of Sammy’s object of affection. Add to that the the painting depicts Venus as coming from the sea, Sammy’s girls are wearing bikinis and looked like they just came from the beach. It is at this point that the readers may wonder if Sammy had made the illusion gone too far as when he equated the girl that caught his eye to a queen complete with ladies-in-waiting, and has irreparably set himself up for a crashing disappointment.
When one reads A & P, the influence of and similarity to James Joyce’s “Araby” is clearly evident. Like Araby, John Updike’s story is told “by a young man now much the wiser, presumably, for his frustrating infatuation with a beautiful but inaccessible girl whose allure excites him into confusing sexual impulses for those of honor and chivalry. ” (Wells) The details by which the heroes of both Araby and A & P describe the one they desired are very comparable. “Both boys are excited by specified whiteness about the girls.
” (Wells) Sammy referred to Queenie’s long white prima-donna legs and her white shoulders to which he seemed to cannot get enough of as he repeatedly mentioned them throughout the narrative. Moreover, this allusion to Sammy’s Queenie’s “whiteness” once again reinforces the idea that Sammy’s object of desire is unattainable — one that rises above the mere mortality of Sammy’s common existence. From a mimetic viewpoint, the 1960s, North Bostonian setting of the story lends some unrealistic elements to the three girls in bikinis coming in the store which is five miles from the beach.
At first glance, it seemed that it was all happening in Sammy’s mind as he is imagining things on a rather slow day in his meager job. Three girls in bikinis is a picture very common in a nineteen year old boy’s mind. However, the presence of skimpily clad girls is not at all far-fetched. It was the 60’s after all, where everything is being challenged. It was a period of trying out new things, especially common with the youth. And this change, especially in a community where A&P is situated is being chided by those of the older generation which is represented by Sammy’s manager.
Even the attitude and behavior of the shoppers as very timid and seemed like just going through the motions of shopping is very typical. The narration of the events was very real, and very accurate in the way as it is described by a teenager like Sammy. In addition, from a structural viewpoint, This was set in North Boston, “five miles from a beach”, in the 1960s where “women generally put on a shirt or shorts or something before they get out of the car into the street. ” More precisely, the whole narrative was set inside the A&P supermarket.
It transpired in only a few minutes — just enough for the girls in bikinis to ask and look for the Herring snacks among the aisles and shelves and pay for them. However, the way Sammy described the wholse scene, it seemed like an eternity. It is as if time stopped and took a vacation and everything was in slow motion. Lengel, Sammy’s boss, is portrayed as a paragon of morality. The fact that he teaches Sunday school says it all. The story was narrated in colloquial speech befitting the times — with reference to apathetic shoppers as “sheep”.
It was a rather quiet and uninteresting day in a rather uneventful place as a middle-of-town supermarket. This framework casts the backdrop for Sammy’s shining moment even though he narrated it as “the sad part of the story”. The three girls in their bikinis were, to say the least, out of place. Lengel, who “doesn’t miss that much”, along with his iron-clad virtues and stature in the community beckons him to say something about the extraordinary scene that is already causing quite a commotion in an otherwise dull supermarket.
Lengel had to uphold the norm and reinforce the policy. Sammy was a witness to all of these. His “Queen” was being questioned and put in her place by the mortal Lengel. Sammy, still overwhelmed with passion, decided to do something — anything. From a formalist view, everything was seen through the eyes of Sammy. His view on the world, his co-workers, his manager, and his object of desire — everything was coming and interpreted from his eyes. The way the store manager frowned upon the girls is typical of an upbringing that emphasizes severe adherence to the norm.
North Boston is a conservative community who seemed to not have been affected yet with the changes that are transpiring outside. The readers are being given a peek to Sammy’s thoughts and more importantly, the process by which he reasoned out and made his courageous decision of quitting his job. It was a pyrrhic victory for the narrative’s hero. From an impressionistic view, John Updike encourages the readers to rally behind Sammy’s cause. At the outset, our hero approached his otherwise brazen move with much trepidation.
Managing only a whimper of a rather inaudible utterance of his ultimate outcry, he had to utter the words twice for Lengel to hear him and also, and more importantly, to reassure himself of his decision. This can be seen as Updike inciting his readers to encourage and approve the girls’ unsuspected hero’s bold action towards an immovable establishment as Lengel. In an era where change is facilitated and promoted, where views are starting to lean toward the liberal, and where the one quiver in our hero’s voice may as well be heard as a loud roar, Updike wants Sammy’s “I quit” to resonate far beyond the reader base of The New Yorker.
Updike succeeded in poignantly portraying the ability of the 19-year-old boy in the A & P to defend his desires with whatever he has. In the supermarket, he has no power, he has no influence, so in order to voice out his opposition to what was going on, he did the only thing that he could do that will have at least the desired effect — he quit. It is regrettable that by the time Sammy stepped out of the supermarket, his girls were gone. The unsung hero will remain, well, unsung and unnoticed. The readers are expected to applaud Sammy for his candor.
I, as a reader, wanted to take his hand and shake it and give him a pat on the back for his courage to stand up to his manager. Although I would have cringed at the idea that he is losing a job that is quite important not only to him but his family as well, I would have nevertheless congratulated him for a rather bold display of what he thinks is right. The central conflict of this story transpires in Sammy’s head — the decision whether he will act on what he is feeling, and whether this is the opportune time to challenge the supermarket’s policy or not.
Events, descriptions and dialogues in the story revolve around helping Sammy in making this difficult decision. Right after this triumph of sorts, Updike gives us the hero’s ambivalent epiphany: “I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter”. (Updike 1) All throughout the narrative, the character spoke in a colloquial manner. The choice of the word — hereafter — seems out of place. Nevertheless, Updike might have purposely used it to connote a realization beyond what the hero, as well as the readers, can comprehend at the moment.
It speaks of the aftermath of making a bold move, and initiating an unprecedented action. The “hereafter” in the narrative characterizes uncertainty. Sammy does not regret what he had done, but he expresses hesitation on what is to come and what is to happen. He went in as so far as to predict that it was not something good. Nevertheless, the fact that he looks to the “hereafter”, how ever dreary it may be, denotes something positive.
Sammy looking to his own future and sees something bleak, shows the resiliency of the human spirit. An act, however great and noteworthy, may go unnoticed. It might even bring forth repercussions. Sammy proves to the readers, greater than the indefiniteness looming ahead, it was all worth it. Works Cited Saldivar, Toni. “The Art of John Updike’s “A & P”. ” Studies in Short Fiction 34 (1997): 215. Wells, Walter. “John Updike’s “A & P”: A Return Visit to Araby”. Studies in Short Fiction 30 (1993): 127+.
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