You are on page 1of 13


John Updike was born in Shillington, Pennsylvania, in 1932. His mother was a writer, and she
encouraged her precocious sons writing. Updike attended Harvard University, where he was
editor of the Harvard Lampoon, and did postgraduate work at Oxford. In the mid-1950s, Updike
was hired by the New Yorker as a staff writer. The New Yorker was then, as now, a prestigious
venue for new short fiction, and Updikes work fit in well with the magazines urbane, witty
style. A&P, published in 1961 and appearing in the 1962 collection Pigeon Feathers and
Other Stories, is in many ways a prototypical New Yorker story: a short, realistic, first-person
narrative written in a distinctive voice and focusing on character study. The master of such
fiction and Updikes acknowledged early role model was J. D. Salinger, whom Updike has
praised for his ability to capture life in all its messy shapelessness. Updike has long since
moved out of Salingers shadow, however, and is renowned for his polished, descriptive prose
that captures both the natural world and the cultural environment of our times. As Updike puts
it, his short fiction is intended to give the mundane its beautiful due.
Updike has been a consistently popular and highly prolific author since 1959, when he
published both his first collection of short fiction, The Same Door, and his first novel, The
Poorhouse Fair. Since then, he has continued to produce novels, short stories, poems, memoirs,
essays, art criticism, and book reviews at an impressive clip. Updike has the unusual distinction
of combining serious critical acclaim (although this has not been universal) and scholarly
appreciation with a steady popularity with the reading public. Among his best-known novels
are Couples (1968); The Witches of Eastwick (1984), which was made into a popular movie;
and the Rabbit series: Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), and
Rabbit at Rest (1990). Much of Updikes fiction focuses on upper-middle-class suburban life,
usually in New England or the Northeast, and often centers on a marriage under stress owing to
the affairs of one or both of the partners. Updike has described his primary fictional concern as
the American small town, Protestant middle class; the Rabbit series perfectly highlights
this concern, as it traces the life of Harry Rabbit Angstrom, a suburban Pennsylvanian, from
adolescence though old age, one decade at a time. The series has been celebrated for its
evocation of America in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Updikes work has been shaped by his
Christian faith and especially by the work of the Protestant theologians Karl Barth and Sren
Although he has had one of the most successful careers of any American writers, Updike has
always had his detractors and enjoyed his fair share of controversy. He has feuded publicly with
the famously touchy essayist and novelist Gore Vidal, as well as with the novelist John
Gardner, who described Updikes work as bourgeois-pornographic fiction that glorifies
adultery. Similar criticism has often been aimed at Updikes more sexually explicit work,
particularly Couples, and even the early story A&P, in which Updikes interest in the
dynamics of sexual attraction is clear. More recently, Updikes negative review of a novel by
Tom Wolfe drew a withering reply from Wolfe, and the subsequent war of words, waged in the
pages and letters columns of several magazines, was gleefully followed by the literary world.
Still producing novels, stories, and criticism regularly, Updike remains one of the most visible
figures in American letters, a perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize, and the rare writer who
can combine literary merit with popular success.

Three teenage girls, wearing only their bathing suits, walk into an A&P grocery store in a small
New England town. Sammy, a young man working the checkout line, watches them closely. He
appraises their looks and notes even minute details about the way they carry themselves. He
also speculates about their personalities and their motivation for entering the store dressed the
way they are. Sammy is particularly interested in the most attractive girl, who appears to be the
leader of the group. This girl, whom Sammy dubs Queenie, has a natural grace and
confidence, in addition to her beauty. As the girls roam the aisles of the A&P, they create a stir.
As Sammy points out, the store is in the center of town, nowhere near the beach, where the
girls attire would attract less notice. Sammys coworker Stokesie ogles the girls as well,
joking around with Sammy as he does so. Sammy jokes along with him, but he feels the
contrast between himself, still single, and the married Stokesie. Stokesie is resigned to a life of
working at the A&P, whereas Sammy, although admitting that he and Stokesie are much alike,
seems to feel that such a future is beneath him. As yet another of his coworkers begins to
admire the girls, Sammy feels a twinge of pity for them for having compromised themselves
this way, most likely without realizing it. This feeling is quickly supplanted by pure excitement
as the girls choose Sammys checkout line to make their purchase.
Lengel, the store manager, approaches Sammys checkout lane. Lengel chastises the girls for
entering the store in bathing suits, citing store policy. The girls are embarrassed, and Queenie
protests that her mother wanted her to come in and buy some herring snacks. In this statement,
Sammy gleans insight into Queenies life. He imagines her parents at a party, everyone dressed
nicely and sipping drinks the color of water. He thinks about his own parents parties, where
people drink lemonade or cheap beer.
As the girls begin to leave the store, Sammy suddenly turns to Lengel and quits his job,
protesting the way Lengel has embarrassed the girls. Sammy hopes the girls are watching him.
Lengel tries to talk Sammy out of quitting, telling him that he will regret the decision later and
that his quitting will disappoint his parents. Sammy, however, feels that he must see the gesture
through to its conclusion, and he exits the A&P. When he reaches the parking lot, he sees that
the girls are long gone. Sammy is left alone with his ambiguous feelings and a growing sense of
foreboding about what life has in store for him.

Sammy - The narrator. Sammy is a nineteen-year-old boy working the checkout line at an
A&P in a small New England town. When three girls come into the store wearing only bathing
suits and are chastised by the store manager, Sammy quits his job, hoping to impress them, and
is then filled with foreboding about the future.
Read an in-depth analysis of Sammy.
Queenie - A teenage girl who enters the A&P in her bathing suit and is nicknamed Queenie
by Sammy. Queenie, the attractive leader of the three girls, rouses Sammys desire from the
minute he sees her. When the store manager reprimands her for wearing only a bathing suit in
the store, she defends herself by saying she needs to buy herring snacks for her mother. Her
response suggests to Sammy a sophisticated world very different from the one in which his own
family lives.
Read an in-depth analysis of Queenie.
Lengel - The manager of the A&P. Lengel is a by-the-books manager, as well as a Sundayschool teacher. Stuffy and uptight, Lengel is, to Sammy, a prisoner of the system as well as an
authority figure. Lengel confronts the girls about their skimpy attire, embarrassing them and
angering Sammy.
Stokesie - A checkout clerk at the A&P. Although Stokesie is only a few years older than
Sammy, he is already married and has two children. Sammy condescends to Stokesie, who
intends to make a career out of working at the A&P. However, Sammy also identifies with
Stokesie in some ways and sees him as a cautionary example of how he himself might end up.
The First Friend (Plaid) - One of the three girls who wear bathing suits into the A&P. The
first friend is somewhat attractive, but she is overshadowed by the girl Sammy calls Queenie.
The Second Friend (Big Tall Goony Goony) - One of the three girls who wear bathing
suits into the A&P. The second friend serves as a contrast to the most attractive girl, whom
Sammy calls Queenie.

Sammy, the narrator of A&P, is an opinionated, sarcastic, disaffected teenager with a healthy
interest in the opposite sex and a keen observational sense. Sammy notices everything around
him, and he drinks in every detail of the girls physical appearance, from the texture and
patterns of their bathing suits to the different boundaries of their tan lines. Sammy goes beyond
the surface details to glean insights about the people he observes. For example, Queenies
dangling bra straps are intensely interesting in a purely sensual way, but they are also clues
from which he begins to construct an image of her inner life. Once he hears the girls speak, his
image becomes even more detailed, as he is able to get an impression of Queenies social
status. Sammys focused observations and descriptions reveal his own prejudices and blind
spots. For example, Sammys frankly lustful ogling of the girls reveals a certain immaturity,
and he is dismissive and contemptuous of the A&P customers, seeing them as sheep and
houseslaves. He is equally dismissive of his coworker Stokesie, whom Sammy sarcastically
presents as an unimaginative drone.
The irony of Sammys sense of superiority is that he realizes that, in the eyes of the rich,
carefree Queenie, he must seem just like Stokesie and the straight-laced Lengel. His desire to
set himself apart from themto prove that he is differentcompels him to quit his job.
However, he announces, I quit primarily because he wants the girls to overhear him, and the
gesture loses resonance when he realizes they didnt notice it. It seems less wise when he is left
not with admiration but with a vague guilt and doubt about his rash action. Sammys desire for
Queenie, which begins merely as a young mans interest in a pretty girl, ends up as a desire for
escape from the A&P and, in effect his own life. The world he imagines through Queeniea
world of sophisticated parents, summer vacations, and the freedom to disregard the social
norms of places like the A&Pmakes him hunger for opportunities beyond his limited
experience. In resigning his position, Sammy is trying to signal his desired membership in this
glamorous alternate world and exercise his desire to make a new life.
Queenie is a mixture of precocity and innocence, testing the boundaries of allowable behavior
without fully grasping the implications of her actions until she is confronted and embarrassed
by Lengel. Queenie is the leader of her group of friends, and she has clearly induced the other
two girls into making a spectacle of themselves by walking into the A&P wearing only their
bathing suits. While the other girls seem awkward and abashed, Queenie is undaunted by the
disapproving glances of the other shoppers and the eager gazes of the male employees.
Although she simply goes about the task of finding her herring snacks, her confident stride
reveals her awareness of being observed: she seems to be putting on a performance of both
independence and sexual power. When Lengel challenges her behavior, however, her selfconfidence weakens slightly. Called to task for her skimpy garments, she hovers between her
desire to be sexually provocative and her knowledge of the vulnerable position in which she has
put herself. No longer a self-assured sexual being, her responsethat she is buying something
for her motherreveals that she has not yet quite reached adulthood. The combination of her
brazenness and vulnerability ultimately spurs Sammy to shun the rules that bind him.

The Power of Desire

From the moment the girls walk into the A&P, they attract the gaze of every man in the store,
which demonstrates the power their sexuality gives them over the opposite sex. Although they
make a point of acting nonchalant (Queenie more successfully than the other two), the girls are
well aware of the eyes tracking their every move. As long as the girls do not acknowledge the
mens interest, they are in a position of powerinspiring desire but not subject to it. Their
strategy works well, and the A&Ps male employeeseven the unyielding Lengelshow some
degree of sexual interest. However, Lengel ultimately undermines this strategy and tries to
lessen their power. By confronting the girls so bluntly, Lengel calls the girls on their behavior,
embarrassing them by suggesting that they are well aware of the inappropriateness of their
attire. Queenies claimWe are decentis an attempt to reestablish their superior position,
implying that it is Lengel who is being inappropriate.
The girls have a profound transformative effect on the men in the A&P, especially Sammy.
They inspire the men to act piggishly, as they stare at the girls while making lewd comments to
one another. For these men, their response seems rooted in hormones, and Lengels attempt to
get the girls to respect social norms is an effort both to control the desire of such young men
and to protect the girls from it. In Sammy, however, the girls inspire a more profound reaction.
Under the influence of his desire for Queenie, Sammys imagination is awakened, and he takes
a dramatic step to change his life. Sammys actions are not purely motivated by his desire, but
they are inseparable from it.
The Mystery of Other Minds

Throughout the story, Sammy exhibits prowess in both observing others and gleaning insights
from those observations, but the girls suggest to him the true mystery of other minds. When a
customer reprimands Sammy for a mistake, Sammy characterizes the woman as a witch
straight out of Salem and thinks, I know it made her day to trip me up. For Sammy, the
customers at the A&P are all too easy to understand. The same holds true for Stokesie and
Lengel, who Sammy believes he has thoroughly figured out. When the girls enter the store,
however, Sammy wonders what on earth theyre thinking. Although Sammy makes an effort to
understand the girls, especially Queenie, and believes that he is successful, his confidence is
undermined by his actions at the end of the story. His grand gesture of sympathy for the girls
his quittinggoes unnoticed, and his motivations are muddled and confused. He is left with a
sense that, for all his ability to observe and understand others, he must now turn his inquisitive
eye on himself.

Girl-watching is what sets A&P in motion, and Sammy provides copious details of the three
girls as he watches them walk around the store. Sammy describes each of the girls in turn,
noticing the details of their bathing suits, their hairstyles, and their bodies. His interest is

explicitly sexual. Sammy appraises the first friends can and almost becomes faint over
Queenies breasts. He notices the varied shades of their skin and even analyzes Queenies gait.
Such detailed observations suggest the extent of Sammys rapturous appreciation of beauty as
well as the underlying aggression in the male gaze. Sammys girl-watching leads to both a
warm, imaginative interest in the object of his desire and a darker, more possessive feeling (at
one point, Sammy refers to my girls). In the end, any possession of the girls Sammy has
experienced is revealed to be an illusion. He has watched them, and that is all.
Brand Names

Brand names appear throughout A&P, setting the story firmly in the postwar period of
American prosperity, when a flood of consumer goods hit the markets and advertising became a
pervasive force. Updike tries to capture the sense of plenitude in a well-stocked market by
referring to the cat-and-dog-food-breakfast-cereal-macaroni-rice-raisins-seasonings-spreadsspaghetti-soft-drinks-crackers-and-cookies aisle. But he also tries to convey some of the
artificiality inherent in an environment dominated by marketing and branding by focusing on
the cheesy labels on all the merchandise. He repeatedly invokes the brand names: Hiho
crackers, Diet Delight peaches, Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream, and so on.
They are all unified under the A&P logo and surrounded by cars such as the Ford Falcon. For
better or worse, brands and labels are an important part of the cultural landscape, and their
artificiality is one of the things against which Sammy ultimately rebels.
Bathing Suits

The bathing suits that the girls wear into the A&P are an emblem of the girls casual disregard
of the social rules of the small town. They also represent the girls deliberate provocation, an
attempt to attract the eye of every man they encounter. Sammy is initially drawn to the girls
simply because they are scantily clad, young, and attractive. However, for Sammy, the bathing
suits come to symbolize freedom and escape from the world in which he finds himself. What he
ultimately finds compelling about the girls in their bathing suits is that they have disrupted the
system of rules that he has been forced to observe, an observation that Lengel, the authority
figure, underscores by trying to enforce the rules the girls have violated. When Sammy quits
his job, he significantly removes the corporate uniform (apron and bowtie) that establishes his
place in the system. However, the freedom of the bathing-suited girls remains unavailable to
him. Sammy ends up alone, in a white shirt his mother ironed for him, wondering what to do
Herring Snacks

The Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream purchased by Queenie take on a
symbolic value in Sammys eyes when he hears Queenie explain that she is buying them for her
mother. Instantly, Sammy has a vision of the kind of party at which such herring snacks would
be served, and it is a world away from the parties his own parents throw. Sammy mentally
contrasts the white jackets, herring snacks, and sophisticated cocktails of Queenies social set
with the lemonade, Schlitz beer (a working-class brew), and novelty glasses of his own parents
group. Sammy understands that from Queenies perspective, the crowd that runs the A&P

must look pretty crummy. Sammys sense of his own superiority to his surroundings is both
heightened and humbled by this realization. But rather than resent Queenie for her social
advantages, Sammy envies her freedom from the constraints he himself feels. Quitting his job,
then, is both a doomed attempt to impress the girl and a gesture of self-liberation.

First-Person Narration and the Unreliable Narrator

The voice that Updike creates for Sammy is both deliberately casual and poetically descriptive,
alternating between common slang and sharp wit. Sammy is clearly intelligent, although still
uneducated at nineteen, and capable of creating striking images, such as calling a girls hair
oaky and describing the sunlight as skating around the parking lot. Updike keeps Sammys
language colloquial, beginning sentences with You know and Really and including asides
and hesitations in an attempt to keep the language natural. The effect of Updikes technique in
handling the first-person narration in A&P is to ensure that the reader will not mistake
Sammys voice for Updikes. That is, Sammy is not meant to function as a stand-in for Updike
or as a spokesman for the authorial point of view.
Sammy is a classic example of an unreliable narratorthat is, a narrator who is a fullfledged character in the story and whose opinions must be analyzed rather than simply
accepted. For example, Sammys comment on the unknowability of the female mind should be
taken as a statement in a characters voice and not as a statement of Updikes feelings on the
topic. A more significant example is Sammys statement that once you begin a gesture its
fatal not to go through with it. This is by no means a message statement by Updike. Rather, it
is a highly debatable proposition by an impulsive young man who may have reason to regret the
gesture he completes. An understanding of Updikes subtle handling of his narrator is key to
grasping the true action of the plot of A&P: the slow revelation of a young mans character.

Conformity and Rebellion

One of the things Sammy comes to understand during the course of A&P is how close he is to
being assimilated into the corporate structure represented by the A&P. At the beginning of the
story, Sammy is quite clear that he is unlike the sheep and houseslaves milling about the
aisles of the store. Sammy is equally confident that he is neither a chump like Stokesie, who
wants to climb the management ladder, nor a flunky like Lengel, who haggles over cabbages
and hides behind his office door all day. As he surveys the scene, Sammy is comfortable behind
his wised-up, sarcastic attitude. However, all this self-confidence is shaken by the three girls
who enter the store in their bathing suits, and especially by the beautiful leader of the group.
From the start, Updike emphasizes the disruptive effect the girls have on the usual order of the
store. They immediately cause Sammy to make an error at his register, which he hardly ever
does. They move against the usual traffic flow of the store, disturbing the other shoppers. And
of course they completely distract all the male employees and eventually draw the disapproving
attention of Lengel.
Although Sammys attention is riveted by the sexual display the girls make, their casual
defiance of the standards of the community ultimately affects Sammy more strongly. Sammy is
used to being a sarcastic, ironic observer of the rules, whereas Queenie and her friends simply
ignore those rules. When Queenie defends herself against Lengel by insisting, We are decent,
she is only trying to get out of an embarrassing situation. Sammy, however, decides that she is
simply correct: youth and beauty are always decent, and natural grace should trump the world
of brand names and money every time. Sammy quits because he is infatuated with the glamour
and sophistication he imagines in Queenies life and wants to impress her. He also quits
because he realizes that in a quarrel between rebellious beauty and stifling order, he wants
beauty to win (even if that stifling order provides him with a paycheck).

Historical Context
A&P was published in 1961 and is an early version of what would become the defining
narrative of the 1960s in popular mythologythe youthful rebels taking on the soulless system.
The story includes the key elements of the myth, including the backdrop of postwar prosperity
and the attendant consumer culture, a hint of the Cold War (Sammy imagines the Russians
controlling the A&P in 1990), and the requisite opposition of youth and authority in the
confrontation between Sammy, the girls, and Lengel. An important indicator of the seismic
social upheavals of the 1960s that lay ahead is the storys focus on the inappropriate dress of
the girls. The ultimate symbol of the generational conflict of the 1960s was the contrast
between long-haired, freewheeling hippies and their parents in traditional suits and dresses. The
immodesty of the girls walking around the A&P in revealing bathing suits is a harbinger of the
many confrontations over public decency that would come in the ensuing decade.
Sammy seems already to be on the side of those who favor the natural approach over the
uptight buttoned-down style of the older generation, although what he really wants from life
is still defined mostly in terms of what he doesnt want: he doesnt want to be stuck at the A&P
like Stokesie, he doesnt want to be buttoned up like Lengel, and he doesnt want the kind of
life his parents have. The vague desires he does have seem to be mirrored in the brazen,
scantily clad girls. This sort of conflict between the establishment and the rebels would
soon become a favorite Hollywood device, recycled endlessly from Easy Rider to American
Beauty. In the case of A&P, the ultimate result of Sammys act of defiance is not some
glorious liberation but only a young man at loose ends, struggling to redefine himself just as
the country faced its own changing identity in the 1960s.

1. You never know for sure how girls minds work (do you really think its a mind in there
or just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar?).
Sammy speculates on the mental processes of girls early in the story, at the height of his
confidence. Condescending and arrogant, he assumes that if he cannot understand the workings
of a girls mind, it is because there is no mind there to understand. The opposite possibility
that it is his understanding that is limiteddoes not occur to him. Sammys male chauvinist
attitude is mostly a pose, however, part of his idea of himself as the smart, sarcastic observer.
This observation is actually linked to a close reading by Sammy of the body language and
interaction of the three girls. Despite Sammys posing, he is deeply interested in women, both
physically and mentally, although he is not as worldly or wise as he supposes.
2. But it seems to me that once you begin a gesture its fatal not to go through with it.
Sammy makes this resolution near the end of the story, as Lengel tries to dissuade him from
quitting his job. The issue here for Sammy is one of authenticity. Sammy thinks that it would
be fatal for him not to complete the gesture of quitting over Lengels treatment of the girls
because the gesture in question has become a matter of self-definition. By quitting, Sammy
intends to align himself with Queenies world, a world of sophistication, youth, and beauty,
whose values seem opposite to those of the A&P. If he doesnt go through with quitting, he
feels hell be accepting the values he has come to associate with the A&P: conformity,
authority, and shallow materialism. The problem for Sammy is that he discovers that going
through with such a self-defining gesture is just as fatal as not going through with itfatal in
the sense of determining ones fate. Sammy makes his dramatic gesture, but he must now live
with the consequences.
3. His face was dark gray and his back stiff, as if hed just had an injection of iron, and my
stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.
In this, the last sentence of the story, Sammy looks back through the window of the store at
Lengel taking his place behind the register. Through the window, Lengel appears as cold and
hard as metal, as inflexible physically as he was in his actions. Sammy connects the hardness
of Lengels appearance with the hardness that awaits him in his future dealings with the world
there are a lot of Lengels out there, and they tend to do the hiring. In another sense, Sammy
has discovered that the world can be hard in same way that a math problem can be hard.
Sammys self-satisfaction has been deflated, and he has learned that he is not able to negotiate
every difficulty successfully. Sammy has learned a little bit about the kind of person he is and
the specific way in which the world will always be hard for and to him.

How to Cite This SparkNote

Full Bibliographic Citation

SparkNotes Editors. SparkNote on A&P. SparkNotes LLC. 2007. Web. 1
Aug. 2013.
The Chicago Manual of Style
SparkNotes (accessed August 1, 2013).



SparkNotes Editors. (2007). SparkNote on A&P. Retrieved August 1, 2013, from
In Text Citation

Their conversation is awkward, especially when she mentions Wickham, a subject Darcy
clearly wishes to avoid (SparkNotes Editors).
Their conversation is awkward, especially when she mentions Wickham, a subject Darcy
clearly wishes to avoid (SparkNotes Editors, 2007).

The Chicago Manual of Style

Chicago requires the use of footnotes, rather than parenthetical citations, in conjunction with a
list of works cited when dealing with literature.
SparkNotes (accessed August 1, 2013).



Please be sure to cite your sources. For more information about what plagiarism is and how to
avoid it, please read our article on The Plagiarism Plague. If you have any questions regarding
how to use or include references to SparkNotes in your work, please tell us.

Table of Contents
in-depth analysis of Sammy.
in-depth analysis of Queenie.

Related Interests