Themes in "A&P" by John Updike

Categories: John UpdikeLiterature

In John Updike ‘s ‘A & P’, the author developed a rebellious theme by introducing it to the rebellious young cashier Sammy. Due to the story being narrated from Sammy’s point of view, the theme of rebellion was made clear to the audience through the character’s thoughts and feelings on the situation he was faced with. When Sammy resigned, disobedient of his client’s comment began with contempt, Updike caused the ultimate rebellion. Updike skillfully explained John Updike’s short story ‘A & P’ as a way to change life in the lives of the three girls wearing swimwear in their workplace, by a young supermarket cashier named Sammy.

He was the first person to shape his story with his explanation, attitude, and opinion. He is the hero who grew up early in a day and is the only completely developed character in the story. Updike uses Sammy’s actions to show that people are not always good or bad, but they are just like everyone else.

Sammy is an average boy who has an idea that there is more to life than following social conventions.

The story begins with the three girls making their presence in the store apparent to the other customers with their outfits of choice. According to The Explicator, Sammy routinely deals with customers for whom he has no respect, calling them ‘witches’, ‘bums’, and ‘sheep’. For example, “You could see them, when Queenie’s white shoulders dawned on them, kind of jerk, or hop, or hiccup, but their eyes snapped back to their own baskets and they pushed on” (pg 20).

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The jerking, hopping, and eyes snapping back to their baskets tells the reader that the company of the women and the way they were dressed made the other customers feel uncomfortable. Nonetheless, the sheep-like shoppers didn’t let this break from conformity distract them from their grocery lists. Not only their looks, but their bravery in breaking a social convention is what stood out to him. Coming to the grocery store dressed as if it were the beach was unheard of. Furthermore, “Poor kids, I began to feel sorry for them, they couldn’t help it” (pg 21). As his obsession grew, Sammy also began to express his feelings of sympathy for the girls. No matter how much he admired them, the girls couldn’t escape the judgemental looks from women, and the lecherous looks from men. Sammy wanted to know why the girls rebelled against society, and this made him grow more fond of them.

Referring back to The Explicator, the journal states that ‘Sammy suggests to the reader that he had been thinking about quitting for atleast a few months because he recognizes the advantages of doing so in the summer rather than the winter.’ Little did he know, his window of oppurtunity was about to be wide open. “Girls, this isn’t the beach” (pg 21). Lengel, the Sunday school teaching, set in his way store manager, shared his thoughts on the girls outerwear. Although the store was near the beach, that didn’t change Lengel’s opinion and he continued to vocalize his disapproval. “All this while, the customers had been showing up with their carts, but, you know, sheep, seeing a scene, they had all bunched up…” (pg 22). Updike reinitiates the use of the metaphor “sheep” to describe the people of the store. Without wanting to be the ones to do it, the others wanted to see the girls reprimanded for coming out in public in such clothes. Furthermore, “It was them who was embarrassing us,” (pg 23). Seeing the way Lengel was embarrassing the girls struck a nerve in Sammy, and he decides to quit his job on the spot, in protest of how Lengel treated them. Despite his act of heroism, the girls left without realizing what he had just done. Sammy soon realized that his gesture had failed and he was left jobless, and he was unsure where his future was going to take him from that point on.

Although Sammy didn’t leave as the girls hero like he had planned, he was taught a valuable lesson. For example, “ You’ll feel this for the rest of your life,” (pg 23). This quote from Lengel emphasized to Sammy that his rebellious actions have consequences and that ignoring the expectations of society will only bring more repercussions. Sammy is still only a kid, as his actions represent, but he is now faced with real-world adult problems. In addition, “…my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter” (pg 23). This hard life Sammy speaks of may be the life worth the challenge. He wanted change and he was the change. This small step could mean that Sammy will stick up for what he believes in and what he thinks is right in the future. Furthermore, “But it seems to me that once you begin a gesture it’s fatal not to go through with it,” (pg 23). Yes, Sammy does look forward to an uncertain future, however this lesson helped him see that the world doesn’t have to be so black and white, and that he can be the change that he was waiting for. He stood up for what he believed in, even if it was dubious this time. Sammy is a teenager and he showed great courage by standing up to his boss and doing what he felt was right, even if it meant being left jobless.

This shows how Sammy has grown into a man who is determined to make his own decisions and take control when things do not go according to plan. Sammy’s determination is shown when he decides that there are things that need to be done and he goes out on a limb to help them.

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Themes in "A&P" by John Updike. (2021, Apr 01). Retrieved from

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