A&Ampp John Updike Theme Essay

On its simplest level, “A & P” is a humorous adventure story, in which a young protagonist acts in the name of romantic love—and pays the price. The optimistic reader may feel that a sensitive hero has been freed from a dead-end job and a restrictive moral code, but a more realistic response will also recognize that Sammy’s act has left him in a kind of limbo: He now belongs neither to the world of Lengel and his parents (because he has quit the job they hoped he would keep) nor to the world the girls represent and to which, through his romantic gesture, he aspires. Like Sarty in William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” (another story about a young boy acting against his parents), Sammy’s act takes him, not from one world to another but to a place in between—and nowhere.

Like so many short stories, both European and American, “A & P” is primarily a story of initiation, as a young boy moves from innocence (and ignorance) to experience (and knowledge). Like the young boy in James Joyce’s “Araby,” perhaps the quintessential initiation story, Sammy has gained some knowledge (through what Joyce called an “epiphany” or revelation) both of himself and of adulthood, but he has also discovered “how hard the world was going to be” to those who cling to their romantic notions about life. Lacking as yet the maturity to accept compromise or to live with the world’s injustices, this noble and still uncorrupted youth has acted rashly and lost everything, except perhaps himself. The reader implicitly feels that Sammy’s initiation into the adult world will continue long after this short story is over.

Short as it is, the story has a number of classical overtones. Like the hero in an Arthurian legend, Sammy is on a romantic quest: In the name of chivalry, he acts to save the “queen” (and her two consorts) from the ogre Lengel. At the same time, Sammy is tempted by the three Sirens from “the Point” and rejects his mentor (or older guide), Lengel, to follow them; from this perspective, Sammy’s initiation comes when he recognizes the futility of this quest and returns to Lengel, who presents him with the truth. Such mythical possibilities point up the richness of John Updike’s prose.

There are also sociopsychological implications in this initiation story. Although Sammy defends the three girls against the provincial morality of Lengel and the town (“Poor kids, I began to feel sorry for them, they couldn’t help it”), it is only Sammy who holds to the outmoded romantic code; the three girls ignore him. Sammy, in other words, is a working-class “hero” defending a privileged upper class that does not even acknowledge his existence. In the medieval romance, all the characters were aristocratic. Here Sammy loses his job because of romantic notions to which only working-class characters, apparently, still subscribe.

"A & P" Updike, John (Hoyer)

The following entry presents discussion of Updike's short story "A & P."

Often depicting middle-class, Protestant America, Updike's short fiction focuses on the feelings of loneliness and isolation that lead the "common man" to seek some form of higher truth or ultimate meaning. "A & P" represents one of Updike's most successful coming-of-age narratives; the story articulates a teenaged boy's sudden awareness of the split between his inner feelings and society's values. Like much of Updike's fiction, "A & P" first appeared in The New Yorker before being published in the collection Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories (1962).

Plot and Major Characters

"A & P" is narrated by Sammy, a nineteen-year-old boy who is a cashier at a local A & P grocery in a conservative New England town during the summer tourist season. When three adolescent girls enter the store wearing only their bathing suits, Sammy is mesmerized. He describes the appearance and actions of the girls with elaborate detail, observing that something about their demeanor suggests a remote, upper-class lifestyle that contrasts with his own. As the girls prepare to make their purchase, the store manager reprimands them for what he perceives as their indecent appearance. Hoping the girls will notice his chivalrous gesture, Sammy abruptly quits his job in protest. Realizing that he might later regret his impulsive action, Sammy nevertheless follows through with his decision to quit, and walks off the job. By the time he walks outside into the parking lot, however, the girls are already gone. The story ends on a melancholy note as Sammy reflects upon "how hard the world was going to be for me hereafter."

Major Themes

"A & P" concisely sets up oppositions between several motifs: the individual versus the collective, conservatism versus liberalism, the working class versus the upper class, women versus men, and consumerism versus Romanticism. Interpretations of "A & P" depend to some degree upon the reader's understanding of the reason for Sammy's hasty decision to quit his job: some argue that he is truly rebelling against the disparagement of the young women by the Puritanical manager, while others feel that he quits due to misguided self-interest, in hopes that the girls will notice him. Critics have often viewed Sammy's gesture as quixotically romantic, since he gains nothing through his decision except the loss of his job.

Critical Reception

"A & P" is one of Updike's most anthologized and most popular stories. While the narrative style of the story has been widely acclaimed, critical opinion is split between those who declare the piece a work of genius and those who find it devoid of profound content. Much critical discussion has focused on the significance of Sammy's actions: while many reviewers interpret his behavior as admirably honest and authentic, some argue that his inappropriate judgement of his town's standards leads to his isolation and loss at the conclusion. Commentators have found possible literary sources for the story in Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," Joyce's "Araby," and Emerson's "Self Reliance."

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