A&P (short story)

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"A&P" is a short story written by John Updike in 1961. M. Gilbert Porter called the titular A & P in Updike's story "the common denominator of middle-class suburbia, an appropriate symbol for [the] mass ethic of a consumer-conditioned society." According to Porter, when the main character chooses to rebel against the A & P he also rebels against this consumer-conditioned society, and in so doing he "has chosen to live honestly and meaningfully."[1] William Peden, on the other hand, called the story "deftly narrated nonsense...which contains nothing more significant than a checking clerk's interest in three girls in bathing suits."[2]

"A & P", first introduced in The New Yorker on July 22, 1961, also later appeared in the collection Pigeon Feathers.

Plot summary[edit]

Sammy, a teenage clerk in an A & P grocery, is working the cash register on a hot summer day when three young women about his age enter barefoot and clad only in swimsuits, to purchase herring snacks.

Although they are dressed for the beach, Sammy allows the girls to continue shopping while he appraises them sexually. He imagines details about the girls based on their appearance alone, impressions that, to his surprise, are shaken when the leader of the trio, a gorgeous, classy-looking beauty he has dubbed "Queenie", speaks in a voice unlike that which he had created in his mind. Lengel, the old and prudish manager, feels the girls are not clothed appropriately for a grocery store, and admonishes them, telling them they must have their shoulders covered next time, which Sammy believes embarrasses them.

Offended by the manager's disregard for the three customers' dignity, Sammy ceremoniously removes his store apron and bow tie and resigns on the spot, despite the mention by the manager of the pain this would cause his parents. Sammy then leaves the store, seemingly in expectation of some display of affection or appreciation from the young women involved, only to find that they've already left, apparently oblivious to his presence.

Characters[edit]

Lengel[edit]

Manager of the local A & P, Lengel is a man who spends most of his days behind the door marked "Manager". Entering the story near the end, he represents the system: management, policy, decency, and the way things are. But he is not a one-dimensional character. He has known Sammy's parents for a long time, and he tells Sammy that he should, at least for his parents' sake, not quit his job in such a dramatic, knee-jerk way. He seems truly concerned even while he feels the need to enforce store policy.

Queenie[edit]

"Queenie" is the name Sammy gives to the gorgeous girl who leads her two friends through the grocery store in their bathing suits. He has never seen her before but immediately becomes infatuated with her. He comments on her regal and tantalizing appearance. She is objectified by 19-year-old Sammy, who notes the shapely contours of her figure and the seductiveness of the straps that have slipped off her shoulders. He also, however, clearly admires how her inappropriate attire defies convention. When Lengel chastises the girls for their attire, Queenie, whom Sammy imagines lives in an upper-middle-class world of backyard swimming pools and fancy appetizers, becomes "sore now that she remembers her place, a place from which the crowd that runs the A & P must look pretty crummy." Sammy becomes indignant at Lengel's treatment of the girls and tries to help them save face by quitting his job. But Queenie appears not to notice and leaves the store promptly, diminishing the impact of Sammy's impulsive gesture.

Plaid and Big Tall Goony Goony[edit]

These are the nicknames Sammy gives Queenie's friends, who are somewhat uneasier about their attire. Plaid is a plump, pretty girl in a plaid two-piece bathing suit; Big Tall Goony Goony is cynically observed by Sammy to have the sort of striking features other girls pretend to admire because they know she's no real competition to them (although he concedes that she's not bad-looking on the whole).

Sammy[edit]

Readers don't learn Sammy's name until the end of the story, even though he is the first-person narrator of the story. He is a checkout clerk at an A & P supermarket. His language indicates that, at age 19, he is both cynical and romantic. He notes, for instance, that there are "about twenty-seven old freeloaders" working on a sewer main up the street, and he wonders what the "bum" in "baggy gray pants" could possibly do with "four giant cans of pineapple juice". Yet when Queenie approaches him at the checkout, Sammy notes that "with a prim look she lifts a folded dollar bill out of the hollow at the center of her nubbled pink top. ... Really, I thought that was so cute." He vacillates back and forth between these extremes of opinion during the story, calling some of his customers "houseslaves in pin curlers", yet he is sensitive enough that when Lengel makes Queenie blush, he feels "scrunchy inside". At the end of the story, he quits his job in an effort to be a hero to the girls and as a way of rebelling against a strict society. In a sudden moment of insight—an epiphany—he realizes "how hard the world was going to be to [him] hereafter" if he refuses to follow conventional paths.

Stokesie[edit]

Stokesie is a 22-year-old white man who is married with two children. He works with Sammy at the A & P checkout, and is the only other store checker mentioned. He is a minor character in the story but does show a sign of ritualism; Stokesie often jokes with Sammy that he will not get promoted unless there is a Soviet takeover of the United States within 20 years, but does his job faithfully each day, providing for his wife and kids. Like Sammy, he also observes the girls in the store with interest. He is a glimpse of what Sammy's future might be like; Stokesie's family "is the only difference" between them, Sammy comments.

Film adaptation[edit]

In 1996, a short film directed by Bruce Schwartz was made based on the short story. It starred Sean Hayes as Sammy and Amy Smart as Queenie in their first official movie roles.[3]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ M. Gilbert Porter (November 1972). "John Updike's 'A & P': The Establishment and an Emersonian Cashier". English Journal. The English Journal, Vol. 61, No. 8. 61 (8): 1155–1158. ISSN 0013-8274. JSTOR 814187. doi:10.2307/814187. 
  2. ^ William Harwood Peden (1964). The American Short Story. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p. 70. OCLC 270220. 
  3. ^ A&P on Internet Movie Database

External links[edit]