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In this lesson, we will review the literary success of John Updike. We will then summarize his short story ‘A & P’ and analyze its themes and meaning.

John Updike

John Updike was born in 1932 in Reading, Pennsylvania. From early childhood, Updike was described as a serious student, but one that enjoyed humor in writing. After graduating high school, he majored in English at Harvard, graduating summa cum laude.

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In 1954, he sold his first story to The New Yorker. After moving to England to study art and taking a job at The New Yorker, which he eventually left, Updike and his family eventually settled in Massachusetts.In 1958, Updike published his first book of poetry.

From there, he began to write novels, his most famous being the ‘Rabbit’ series. Throughout his life, Updike wrote more than 20 novels, hundreds of short stories, poetry, literary criticism, and even children’s books. He is only one of three authors to win the Pulitzer Prize twice.

Updike often told stories of life in small town America. His characters were flawed and usually experienced a personal struggle in their decisions. He also looked at seemingly normal behavior and made something fascinating from it – a good example of this is ‘A & P.’

‘A & P’ Summary

‘A & P’ tells the story of Sammy, a 19-year-old grocery store clerk at a small town in New England. One day, three girls in bathing suits come into the store. Sammy immediately notices the most attractive one, who he names ‘Queenie.’ The three girls, led by Queenie, walk through the store and start to create a stir.

The store is nowhere near the beach, so it is a little odd that this group is there. Sammy begins to imagine things about each girl, assigning characteristics to each of them. He also has fun watching the customers’ reactions as they see the girls walk by.

The girls enter Sammy’s checkout line and are approached by the manager, Lengel. Lengel tells the girls that they are dressed against store policy. The girls argue that they were only running a quick errand for Queenie’s mother, but Lengel again tells them that they must dress appropriately next time. He then leaves and tells Sammy to ring them up.Sammy finishes checking out the girls and then tells Lengel that he is quitting. Lengel tries to talk Sammy out of it, but Sammy wants to make a statement for the girls. He leaves the checkout line and runs out to the parking lot, hoping to see the girls, but they are gone.

At the end of the story, Sammy watches Lengel in his checkout lane and realizes that he is now alone.

‘A ; P’ Analysis

‘A ; P’ is a coming of age story, a transition from childhood to adulthood. At the start of the story, Sammy is a typical 19-year-old working at a grocery store. However, as he watches the reactions to the girls, he begins to change.

He is amused by the reactions, but also defensive. In addition, he does not want to become someone that is working at a grocery store for the rest of his life. Although he is afraid that he may get a bad reputation and disappoint his parents, he quits his job in support of the girls.Sammy’s change to adulthood is also seen in his questioning of conformity. In the beginning of the story, Sammy wants to make it clear to the audience that he is not like the other people working in the grocery store. He talks about Stokesie, a co-worker who hopes to become a manager one day, and Lengel, who he describes as hiding in the office all day.

Neither men appear happy to Sammy, and he does not want to commit to working in the store as long as they have.The girls are an example to Sammy of nonconformity. From the minute they enter the store, they are working against the rest. They walk down the aisle the wrong way, they distract the male workers, Sammy even makes a mistake on his register, and they disrupt the store itself.

However, their insistence that they are decent becomes a message to Sammy. While Lengel argues that they are not decent, that bathing suits are not appropriate attire for grocery stores, Sammy begins to realize that being different, even rebellious, is really okay.

Character Analysis

Sammy, the narrator of the story: From the beginning of the story, he talks about the ‘sheep’ or followers in his town. To him, everybody acts and dresses the same way. While reading, we get the sense that Sammy wants to break out but is not sure how he can.

When he sees the girls, especially Queenie, he sees that there are people who are able to break out of what is expected. By quitting his job, Sammy shows that he is gaining power to do the same.Queenie, the leader of the girls: She is the most attractive one, and the one who is leading the girls through the store. They are there because her mother has asked them to pick up herring snacks.

Although we do not know anything about her other than what Sammy sees or hears, she becomes Sammy’s motivation for quitting and being different.Stokesie: Sammy’s married co-worker who hopes to be manager one day. We see him in the story watching the girls and making comments about them. To Sammy, Stokesie represents what he does not want to be. Sammy does not want to stay at the grocery store and work his way to manager.Lengel: Sammy’s manager, who is a reminder to Sammy that his choice will disappoint people. Like Stokesie, we do not learn too much about Lengel other than what Sammy tells us.

Lengel urges Sammy not to quit because of his parents, and it is Lengel who takes over the register for Sammy when he leaves. This act represents the life that Sammy would have if he stayed at the A & P.

Themes

The largest theme in the short story is that of coming-of-age and growth. We watch Sammy change from a teen who does what is expected of him to one who goes against authority and realizes that he is alone. We also learn in this act that Sammy is a person of principles. He feels that the treatment of the girls was not fair, and he wanted to speak out for him, even if they did not hear him.

In addition to this main theme, we also see the theme of appearance. From the moment that the girls enter the store, they are judged by their appearance. People see them as not decent, and they are lectured by Lengel that their appearance is not appropriate. We ultimately get the feeling that society has expectations of us, but not everyone will meet these expectations.

Finally, there is the theme of society and class. Updike writes often about middle-class America, and this is another good example. He sets the story in a typical grocery store where the people are middle-class shoppers. Sammy is surrounded by working-class family people while he is at work.

However, when the girls come to the store, Sammy imagines that they are from a wealthy family. He pictures Queenie and her lifestyle, which becomes another motivation for Sammy to quit his job. Prior to this, it was understood to Sammy that he would work and become a part of the system he has witnessed, but the idea of wanting more is another push for Sammy to quit his job and try something new.

Lesson Summary

John Updike was a successful author, poet, and literary critic. Throughout his life, he wrote hundreds of short stories, novels, poems, and critical essays.

His short story, ‘A ; P,’ is an example of themes and settings that are common in his writing. ‘A ; P’ tells the story of Sammy, a grocery store clerk who comes of age.In the story, Sammy encounters three girls who come to the store in their bathing suits. While watching the customers’ reactions, Sammy realizes that he does not want to be a part of the crowd; he wants to escape the expectations that society has and be different.

Through this experience, we watch Sammy change from a teen to an adult in this coming-of-age story. We also learn that appearance and what people define as decent can be different, and social class doesn’t have to be unchanging.

Learning Outcomes

After completing this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Recall the early life of John Updike
  • Retell the plot of ‘A ; P’
  • Discuss the story as an example of a ‘coming-of-age’ tale
  • Analyze the major characters
  • Expound upon the various themes of the short story

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