In John Updike’s short story A & P, a young man named Sammy takes witness to what he sees as an injustice happening to a group of bikini-clad teenage girls in the grocery store in which he works. He takes a bold step and decides he would rather not work for a manager that decided to embarrass the young girls in front of everyone instead of addressing them privately, so he quits. The bold step that he takes is part of his initiation into adulthood. Updike develops the initiation through the story and it becomes the central theme.
The theme of initiation can be very broad and viewed in many different perspectives. The teenage boy in the story could be seen as being initiated into the adult world. I can remember many times in my own life that were almost like a light switch clicking on and I realized I was becoming more mature. Times when I would usually kick myself for acting like my parents, but instead all of the sudden made sense. The boy from the story fell in love with this girl as soon as he saw her and he was so infatuated by her that he wanted to stand up for her.
He could have said something while the manager was embarrassing her, but he might not have wanted to call even more attention to the awkward situation she was already in. By keeping it discreet, it really stands out that he was just quitting because he saw an injustice and not just for the attention of the girl. This surprised me, because since the manager didn’t hear him the first time he said that he quits, he had a chance to retract it since he knew the girls didn’t hear it and they were already gone.
Updike develops the mind of the teenage boy Sammy through the vivid descriptions of the three girls. The descriptions are very fitting for what a teenage boy would probably be thinking. He is at that age where girls are still a large curiosity and his imagination is running wild. My favorite description is when he describes “Queenie’s” upper chest as a “clean bare plane of the top of her chest down from the shoulder bones like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light” (114). These vivid descriptions help the reader remember that Sammy is just an adolescent in a journey into manhood. At the very end of the story, Sammy feels his stomach sink as he realizes that his life may have changed in a different way than just giving up his job.
Updike gives a great buildup of character in A & P, and the climax of the initiation makes the reader remember when he or she became an adult. Something we can all remember.