Writing an essay on A&P by John Updike
John Updike's short story A&P tells how Sammy, a young assistant in an A&P store, makes a grand but useless gesture in the hope of impressing a group of girls. The story is often chosen as an essay topic, largely because of its ironic ending. So what's the best way to go about writing this essay?
Start by introducing and describing Sammy. He's nineteen years old and his thoughts tell the reader that he is both cynical and romantic. The story is narrated from Sammy's point of view, giving a clear insight into his thoughts and feelings; all other characters are described only in his terms, so the impression given of them might not be completely accurate.
The events of the story begin when three girls come into the shop dressed in swimsuits, to buy a jar of snacks. Sammy admires their bravery in breaking a social convention, but quickly judges each of them in a fairly superficial way based largely on their looks; he becomes instantly infatuated with one, whom he nicknames Queenie. The shop manager, a Sunday School teacher, reprimands the girls for the way they are dressed and embarrasses them. Sammy decides that he wants to defend the girls and also impress them; he informs Lenger, the manager, that he is resigning in protest. His gesture fails, though, as the girls have already left the shop and never realize what he has done.
What does it all mean? On one level the story is an ironic and amusing tale about a well-intentioned act that backfires; Sammy has now lost his job but didn't leave with the girls as their hero as he had imagined he would. On a deeper level, though, it is a coming of age story. Sammy is still a teenager and his thoughts and actions have reflected that. At the end, though, he is forced to realize that actions have consequences and that growing up means taking responsibility. Realizing that ignoring the expectations of society (personified by Lenger and his parents) can have serious repercussions he thinks about " how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter" if he keeps on acting in this way.
Contrast Sammy with Stokesie, the other shop assistant. Only a few years older than Sammy, but married with two children, he is used as a contrast to him. Sammy himself muses that the only difference between them is Stokesie's family, but in fact Stokesie is aware that his family rely on his job and he performs it as well as he can. He could not afford to make a gesture like Sammy's. Sammy may see this as lack of courage or imagination, but in fact Stokesie is the one who has already learned how to get on in society.
As a conclusion, discuss the impact of Sammy's action on everyone involved, himself included. Look at whether he has gained or lost from it - increased understanding against the loss of his job.
"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.
"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."