Desire and Disappointment in “A & P” and “A Woman on a Roof”

Categories: John Updike

It may be natural instinct for men to be attracted to a good-looking woman or one who displays more than the usual amount of skin in public. The level and type of attraction varies from one male to another. However, more often than not, the primary expectation or fantasy of the male admirer regarding the female being admired, is not met because these expectations and fantasies are based on his personal conceptions and stereotypes about what women should be and not what the particular woman he chances upon is in reality.

The male protagonists in John Updike’s “A & P” and Doris Lessing’s “A Woman on a Roof” exhibit different expectations on the female characters they meet but in the end, all of them would be disappointed and disillusioned with both the female character and, in turn, their own selves.

            Updike’s hero is 19 year-old Sammy who works in the checkout counter of a convenience store. One day, three young women walk into the store in their swimsuits.

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Sammy’s reaction, along with another young but married co-worker, is typical of men their age: they gawk at the woman with sexual desire. Written in the first person point of view of the main character, the reader notes that what Sammy notices about the women are the usual things that men desire in women like “long white prima-donna legs…(and) clean bare plane of the top of her chest down from the shoulder bones…(Updike).” Her admiration becomes more than a physical attraction, however, when the store manager reproaches the girls for their out-of-place outfits.

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In a burst of impulse, Sammy resigns from his job, his reason being that he could not take the embarrassment that the store manager inflicts upon the girls. He imagines his resignation to be a heroic act which he expects the girls to notic. To his disappointment, however, they do not even look back at him. Outside the store, Sammy thinks about “how hard the world was going to be (Updike)” afterwards. He realizes that the heroism is simply his own conception about what he does and nobody else, especially not the girls, get it. He loses his job in the process and he has too much pride to take it back.

            The three male protagonists in Doris Lessing’s story, meanwhile, react upon the sight of a barely-clad woman sunbathing on a rooftop. Like Sammy, the men lust at the sight of the woman in “red scarf tied around her breasts and brief red bikini pants (Lessing).” The initial reaction evolves differently among the three men, however, as the sunbathing woman becomes a daily distraction to their work. Harry, past middle-age, reminds the other two to think of their own wives as they look at the woman. To him, the woman is a possession that should be reined and controlled and the particular woman on the roof must have had a husband that is not doing his job. The newly-married Stanley is confident that women are willing and submissive when they are coaxed.

He gets along with Mrs. Pritchett because she responds to him. Tom, the youngest, has an ideal, fairy-tale image of himself. He imagines himself “at work on a crane, adjusting the arm to swing over and pick her up and swing her back across the sky to drop her near him (Lessing).” He is a hero protecting her from Stanley. All the time while the men watches, yells and whistles at her, the woman remains indifferent. Days later, Harry eventually gives up. Stanley becomes more enraged as the day becomes hotter. Tony remains hopeful but suffers the most as in the end when he decides to finally go and talk to the woman he is rejected and driven away.

            Men have been used to classifying women according to types based on superficial images generated by media or during talks amongst themselves. When a man encounters someone that does not fit any of the molds, she disappoints him greatly, more than even she realizes. The characters in the two stories illustrate how hope could turn into disillusionment when a man entertains grand ideas about a woman even before understanding her.

Works Cited

Lessing, Doris. A Woman On A Roof.

Updike, John. A & P.

Updated: Nov 01, 2022
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Desire and Disappointment in “A & P” and “A Woman on a Roof”. (2017, Apr 23). Retrieved from

Desire and Disappointment in “A & P” and “A Woman on a Roof” essay
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