Symbolism in John Updike’s “A & P”
Symbolism in John Updike’s “A & P”
John Updike’s short story “A & P” recounts how an adolescent supermarket cashier named Sammy has his life changed forever when three girls in bathing suits shop in the store where he works. He is the first person narrator who shapes the tale with his descriptions, attitudes and opinions. He is the protagonist who grows up quickly in a single day and the only round, fully developed character in the tale. As you proceed through the story and become acquainted with Sammy’s opinions and ideas, it becomes obvious that Sammy has made the only choice that affords the possibility of real joy and fulfillment in his future. He is ready for a change.
Sammy’s life revolves around his job at a local A & P supermarket in a small Massachusetts town north of Boston. The store is located “right in the middle of town” (99) and near “two banks and the Congregational church” (99). Although the town is only “five miles from the beach” (99), “there’s people in this town haven’t seen the ocean for twenty years” (99). The beach is for tourists and wealthy visitors, not the townsfolk. We see a very conservative community, investing their money for the future and preparing for the next life, but not living or enjoying this one to any extent.
The store is typical of a post-war A & P with its fluorescent lights, “checkerboard green-and-cream rubber-tile floor” (98) and “all those stacked packages” (98). It’s a little shabby, selling “records at discount…gunk you wonder they waste the wax on… and plastic toys done up in cellophane that fall apart when a kid looks at them” (99). There are seven “slots” for the cashiers to work in and Sammy has to wear a uniform at work, a bow tie and apron, as do the other workers. The aisles are organized, like the “cat-and-dog-food-breakfast-cereal-macaroni-rice-raisins-seasonings-spreads-spagehetti-soft-drinks-crackers-and-cookies” (98) aisle, items pigeon-holed, but apparently without any regard to an item’s individual properties. The store’s organization reflects the town’s organization of its citizens, urging conformity and knowing your place in typical middle-class American style. The physical settings show us the spirit of the town and the mindset of its inhabitants.
Lengel, the manager, is Sammy’s boss and “has been a friend of his parents for years” (101). He looks “old and gray”(101) to Sammy and as manager, he spends his time arguing over deliveries and hiding all day in his office. Sammy thinks “Lengel’s pretty dreary, teaches Sunday school and the rest” (100). His coworker, Stokesie, is twenty- two, only 3 years older than Sammy, but he’s “married, with two babies chalked up on his fuselage already ” (99) and his highest hope is to be manager himself someday. Life in Sammy’s town and at his socio-economic level, doesn’t look particularly promising or exciting. Lengel and Stokesie are typical citizens, adhering to the politics and accepted middle-class values of the town. never straying from what is expected of them.
Sammy doesn’t think too much of his customers either. He describes one who has caught him making a mistake as a “witch about fifty with rouge on her cheekbones and no eyebrows, and I know it made her day to trip me up” (97). He refers to them as “sheep,” (98) “houseslaves in pin curlers,” (98) and “scared pigs in a chute” (101). He thinks the customers appear so devoid of spirit or imagination, he bets you could set off dynamite in the store and they would keep shopping. They don’t appeal to him physically either since “they are usually women with six children and varicose veins mapping their legs and nobody, including them, could care less” (99).
But he does find the three scantily clad beach-crowd girls who enter the supermarket barefoot and in bathing suits attractive. He spends considerable time describing their physical attributes with adolescent interest. He calls the first one Plaid because of her bathing suit design and describes her as “a chunky kid, with a good tan and a sweet broad soft-looking can with those two crescents of white just under it”(97). Another he calls Big Tall Gooney and tells us she has “one of those chubby berry-faces, the lips all bunched together under her nose…a tall one, with black hair that hadn’t quite fizzed right, …and a chin that was too long” (97). But he is smitten with the girl he calls Queenie who appears to be the leader of the group.
He talks of her “long white prima-donna legs” (97), straps that are “off her shoulders looped loose around the cool tops of her arms” (98) so that “there was nothing between the top of her suit and the top of her head except her… I mean, it was more than just pretty” (98) and with breasts like “the two coolest scoops of vanilla I had ever known were there”(101). Age, physical characteristics and dress aren’t the only differences that he notices between the girls and the regular customers. The girls also walk the store aisles against the usual traffic pattern and the regular customers find that disconcerting. Obviously, these girls do not follow the social conventions of the town.
When the girls arrive at Sammy’s check out counter he learns Queenie is buying herring in sour cream for her mother. Lengel, the manager, taking notice of them, comes over and tells them they are not at the beach and the store wants them “decently dressed when they come in here”(100). While the embarrassed girls defend themselves against Lengel’s continued criticism, Sammy imagines Queenie’s house where the snacks will be eaten. He “slid right down her voice into her living room. Her father and the other men were standing around in ice-cream coats and bow ties and the women were in sandals picking up herring snacks on toothpicks off a big plate and they were all holding drinks the color of water with olives and sprigs of mint in them” (100). He compares this scene to his family where “when my parents have somebody over they get lemonade and if it’s a real racy affair Schlitz in tall glasses with “They’ll Do It Every Time” cartoons stenciled on” (100). He’s beginning to realize there are other ways to live in the world beside the middle-class one he grew up with.
As the girls exit the store, Sammy rises to their defense and tells Lengel he didn’t have to embarrass them like that. But Lengel replies “It was they who were embarrassing us” (101). This difference of opinion is symbolic of the differences that exist between Sammy and his town, friends, and family. Almost without thinking, Sammy says “I quit” (101). Lengel cautions Sammy “you don’t want to do this to your Mom and Dad” (101), trying to keep him in line in the same paternalistic way he chided the girls for their attire. But Sammy’s mind is made up and it seems to him “that once you begin a gesture it’s fatal to not go through with it” (101). Finally understanding who he is and what he wants to become, Sammy removes his tie and apron, punches in No Sale on the register and walks out the door. Lengel says “You’ll feel this for the rest of your life” (101). Sammy hears Lengel’s last words but is willing to accept “how hard the world was going to be…hereafter” (102).
The theme appears to be that life is a constantly branching path, that the choices we make have a price, and any choice can be both a blessing and a curse. Sammy has chosen a road less traveled, a freer, possibly more exciting and interesting life, one that rejects working-class routines and values. But he can’t ignore the fact that he doesn’t have a job, the girls are gone, and they would probably not be interested in him anyway. There are those who will choose the traditional path: predictable, safe, but very limited. And there are the Sammy’s who will take their chances on individualism and growth even with the possible economic and social costs. In the final analysis, it seems that Sammy was already unhappy and dissatisfied with his life and the girls were just an excuse he was looking for. Sammy is given the opportunity to choose a life other than the one he’s been expected to lead. Although life may be more difficult for Sammy, his options are greater, his fate no longer predetermined, and he now has the freedom and will to decide his own future.
Kirszner, Laurie G., and Stephen R. Mandell, eds. Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing.
Compact 4th ed. Boston: Heinle & Heinle, 2000.
Updike, John. “A & P.” Kirszner and Mandell 97-102.