Analysis of John Updike's "A and P"

The Story Shares a Unique Perspective on Social Norms

A and P
cvicknola/Flikr/CC BY 2.0

Originally published in The New Yorker in 1961, John Updike's short story "A & P" has been widely anthologized and is generally considered to be a classic.

The Plot of the Updike's "A&P"

Three barefoot girls in bathing suits walk into an A & P grocery store, shocking the customers but drawing the admiration of the two young men working the cash registers. Eventually, the manager notices the girls and tells them that they should be decently dressed when they enter the store and that in the future, they will have to follow the store's policy and cover their shoulders.

As the girls are leaving, one of the cashiers, Sammy, tells the manager he quits. He does this partly to impress the girls and partly because he feels the manager took things too far and didn't have to embarrass the young women.

The story ends with Sammy standing alone in the parking lot, the girls long gone. He says that his "stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter."

Narrative Technique

The story is told from the first person point of view of Sammy. From the opening line -- "In walks, these three girls in nothing but bathing suits" -- Updike establishes Sammy's distinctively colloquial voice. Most of the story is told in the present tense as if Sammy is talking.

Sammy's cynical observations about his customers, whom he often calls "sheep," can be humorous. For example, he comments that if one particular customer had been "born at the right time they would have burned her over in Salem." And it's an endearing detail when he describes folding his apron and dropping the bow tie on it, and then adds, "The bow tie is theirs if you've ever wondered."

Sexism in the Story

Some readers will find Sammy's sexist comments to be absolutely grating. The girls have entered the store, and the narrator assumes they are seeking attention for their physical appearance. Sammy comments on every detail. It's almost a caricature of objectification when he says, "You never know for sure how girls' minds work (do you really think it's a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar?)[...]"

Social Boundaries

In the story, the tension arises not because the girls are in bathing suits, but because they're in bathing suits in a place where people don't wear bathing suits. They've crossed a line about what's socially acceptable.

Sammy says:

"You know, it's one thing to have a girl in a bathing suit down on the beach, where what with the glare nobody can look at each other much anyway, and another thing in the cool of the A & P, under the fluorescent lights, against all those stacked packages, with her feet paddling along naked over our checkerboard green-and-cream rubber-tile floor."

Sammy obviously finds the girls physically alluring, but he's also attracted by their rebellion. He doesn't want to be like the "sheep" he makes such fun of, the customers who are befuddled when the girls enter the store.

There are clues that the girls' rebellion has its roots in economic privilege, a privilege not available to Sammy. The girls tell the manager that they entered the store only because one of their mothers asked them to pick up some herring snacks, an item that makes Sammy imagine a scene in which the "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 glass plate." In contrast, when Sammy's 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."

In the end, the class difference between Sammy and the girls means that his rebellion has far more serious ramifications than theirs does. By the end of the story, Sammy has lost his job and alienated his family. He feels "how hard the world [is] going to be" because not becoming a "sheep" won't be as easy as just walking away.  And it certainly won't be as easy for him as it will be for the girls, who inhabit a "place from which the crowd that runs the A & P must look pretty crummy."