A & P by John Updike
In A & P by John Updike we have the theme of desire, change, conformity, rebellion, liberation and consumerism. Taken from his The Early Stories collection the story is narrated in the first person by a young nineteen year old boy called Sammy and after reading the story the reader realises that Updike may be exploring the theme of desire. Though it is obvious that Sammy is physically attracted to Queenie as the story continues the reader also senses that Sammy wants to live his life as he thinks Queenie may be living hers. While Queenie is at the check-out Sammy imagines what parties at Queenie’s house may be like. Unlike the parties his own parents have and which Sammy considers to be boring, he imagines parties at Queenie’s home to be more exciting. This may be important as it is possible that Updike is suggesting or highlighting to the reader the desire that Sammy has to live a life beyond what he already knows (and which he does not accept). There is a sense that Sammy wishes to change his life. It may also be important that Sammy’s perception of Queenie and how she lives her life is based on two observations that Sammy makes. He believes that Queenie, by walking around the store in her bathing suit, is living her life as she chooses (as an individual rather than conforming to societal norms) and that by purchasing some Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks Queenie must be upper-middle class unlike Sammy who is working class.
Sammy also appears to objectify Queenie and often compares her (or parts of her body) to commodities. This is noticeable when Sammy compares Queenie’s chest to a ‘dented sheet of metal tilted in the light.’ Also while Queenie is at the check-out paying for the Herring Snacks Sammy again compares Queenie’s chest to ‘the two smoothest scoops of vanilla I had ever known were there.’ Though both of these incidents may highlight that Sammy is viewing Queenie as a product or commodity (that he could buy in the store) it is also possible that Updike is suggesting that Sammy lacks the maturity to view Queenie as a person rather than as a commodity, he is after all still only nineteen. Some critics also suggest that by quitting his job not only has Sammy acted impulsively but again he is showing a lack of maturity. Though by quitting his job it is also possible that Sammy is displaying a sense of individuality, which mirrors the individuality that he believes Queenie and her friends are showing by walking around the store in their bathing suits.
The setting of the story may also be symbolic as by setting the story in a supermarket Updike may be placing a spot light on society itself, suggesting that society in general is driven by consumerism. Something that Updike explores a little further when Sammy tells the reader ‘I bet you could set off dynamite in an A&P and the people would by and large keep reaching and checking oatmeal off their lists.’ It is through this line that the reader realises that Updike may be highlighting how important consumerism is to society. It is also interesting that Updike introduces brand names into the story. By doing so he could again be highlighting the importance of consumerism (and brands) to society. Also Sammy tells the reader that he cannot understand why people (other shoppers) need to buy so many cans of pineapple juice. Again it is possible that Updike by having Sammy comment on the quantity of pineapple juice that some of the shoppers are buying is further highlighting the importance of consumerism to society.
There is also some other symbolism in the story which may be important. The bathing suits that each of the girls is wearing and which Lengel considers to be inappropriate may symbolise the indifference that the girls have for perceived societal norms and how an individual should dress or appear in public. The fact that the girls are walking down the aisles in the opposite direction to the other shoppers may also be symbolically important as again Updike may be highlighting the girls’ individuality and their ability to live their lives without conforming to the perceived norm (of how an individual should shop). It may also be important (at least symbolically) that Sammy refers to the other shoppers in the store as being like ‘sheep.’ Again it is possible that Updike is highlighting to the reader the idea of conformity, unlike the girls every other shopper in the store (at least in Sammy’s eyes) appears to be conforming or accepting of societies norms.
The ending of the story is also interesting as though it would seem that Sammy is quitting his job in support of the girls and mirroring the individuality that he believes they are showing, there is also a sense that he may be doing so in order to appear as a hero to the girls, who ironically remain unaware that he has quit his job. It is also interesting that when Sammy looks back into the store and sees Lengel he describes Lengel’s back as being ‘stiff, as if he’d just had an injection of iron.’ This line may be important as Updike may be highlighting not only how unbending (or rigid) Lengel is but how unbending society in general is. Rather than changing the world Sammy begins to realise how difficult his life will be as a result of quitting his job and not conforming to the accepted norms of society. By rebelling against society (and its norms) and seeking to be independent Sammy may have liberated himself but he has also managed to alienate himself from society.