A&P | Study Guide

John Updike

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A&P | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


What is the function of the first sentence in John Updike's story "A&P"?

The first sentence—"In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits"—has two functions. First, it sets the narrative tone. The first five words use colloquial grammar, reversing the phrasal verb "walks in" and refusing to adhere to the subject-verb agreement rule (the plural noun "girls" should take the plural verb "walk," not "walks"). This suggests that the tone of the story will be informal and similar to the way someone would tell a personal story. Second, the sentence also focuses the reader directly on what is most salient to the plot. The three girls will be the narrator's and most other characters' central concern throughout the story, ultimately triggering a life-changing event for the narrator. The first sentence also points out what the girls are wearing. This is what will draw the narrator's and other characters' attention to them and to one of the story's main themes, the sensuality of youth versus established propriety.

In "A&P" why does Sammy call one of his customers "a witch"?

Sammy sees his relationship with the customers as a series of confrontations, and his tone tends to be critical and sometimes resentful. At first it may appear to readers that Sammy calls his customer "a witch" simply because she yells at him for ringing up her HiHo crackers twice. But Sammy insults her using a term that stereotypes women in particular. Sammy then insults the woman's physical appearance. To him, she is old and unattractive, "about fifty, with rouge on her cheekbones, and no eyebrows." Finally he claims that "if she'd been born at the right time they would have burned her over in Salem," a famous punishment for those considered witches, who were almost exclusively female. Calling his customer a "witch" thus establishes the stereotypical way in which Sammy, and others in the story, often view women. Sammy's description of his customer as a "witch" also helps set up the entrance of the three girls in bathing suits, whom he considers young and attractive. While the girls appear to contrast with Sammy's older customer in this respect, Sammy is actually defining the girls the same reductive way, based on their gender and their appearance, at least at this point in the story.

How does Updike evoke the setting in his short story "A&P"?

Updike uses readers' familiarity with the typical supermarket layout and familiar product references to evoke the traditional setting and atmosphere of the A&P. Sammy, for example, refers to the aisles not by number but by lists of the products they contain. He also talks about the special displays that are typical of supermarkets, such as "a pyramid of Diet Delight peaches." Common foods that customers purchase in a grocery store, such as oatmeal and pineapple juice, are mentioned. Updike also refers to specific sensory details of the setting, such as the store's "cool" temperature, "fluorescent lights," "stacked packages," and "checkerboard green-and-cream rubber-tile floor." He also describes the store's exterior, including "bags of peat moss and aluminum lawn furniture stacked on the pavement" in front of the store's "big windows," and the sun hitting the parking lot. In addition to the physical characteristics of the store, Updike describes the looks and behaviors of typical customers one might see there. Many people know or have been a cash-register-watcher or have seen a shopping list mumbler in a supermarket. It is also likely that many readers have seen parents yelling at their children in the parking lot or witnessed an unusual person walking through the store. Most readers are probably familiar with exactly these details having visited such a common setting themselves.

In what ways do the girls act as catalysts in "A&P"?

A catalyst is someone or something that causes a change to occur. The girls in "A&P" act as catalysts because they provoke a change in Sammy. He is already dissatisfied with what he considers the boredom and conventionality of the town and the lives of the people in it. His job is dull and routine, and it frustrates him because it feels as if it leads nowhere. The girls' unusual appearance goes against the grain of the deadening propriety the A&P and its customers represent to him. They change the chemistry of the entire store simply by walking through it. When Sammy sees the judgment in people's eyes and witnesses the manager Lengel's paternalistic rebuke of the girls, a sense of resistance rises up in him that joins with his existing resentment toward his life and especially his job. This—and, of course, his desire to impress the girls with his heroic defense of them—is enough to spur him to action: because of them, he makes a choice that changes his life.

In "A&P" what does Sammy's description of Big Tall Goony-Goony say about how girls get along with one another—at least in his opinion?

Sammy thinks Big Tall Goony-Goony isn't as good-looking as the other two girls; her hair isn't quite right, her chin's "too long," and she's got a sunburn across her nose and cheeks. He says she's "the kind of girl other girls think is very 'striking' and 'attractive' but never quite makes it." Attractive girls, in his opinion, know this "very well" and that it's the very reason "why they like her so much" because she is not a threat. Sammy seems to think that girls decide who to hang out with based on whether that person will make them look more attractive to boys. Sammy also says he's sure Queenie "felt in the corner of her eye me and over my shoulder Stokesie in the second slot watching." In his mind girls are constantly aware of their effect on boys and choose their companions to heighten this effect.

In "A&P" how does Updike indicate that Sammy doesn't have much experience with girls?

Although Sammy is an excellent observer and notices things like how Plaid's "belly was still pretty pale" and that Queenie walks "as if she didn't walk in her bare feet that much," he really doesn't have any idea how girls think, or whether they think at all. He admits this: "You never know for sure how girls' minds work." He even suggests they don't have minds at all but "just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar." Sammy imagines unlikely scenarios, such as Queenie's instructing the other two girls on the best way to walk while in the A&P. Judging from his explanation for why Plaid and Queenie might spend time with Big Tall Goony-Goony, Sammy doesn't seem to think girls capable of real friendship, either. If he had much experience with girls and less of an adolescent sexist attitude toward them, he would know better: girls can form close friendships and have minds of their own.

According to Sammy, how is Queenie different from the other two girls in "A&P"?

Sammy sees Queenie as the girls' leader. He portrays her as assertive, saying she talked the others into going into the A&P with her. He thinks she's self-confident and doesn't care what people think of her; she walks up an aisle against the flow of the other customers, keeping her head up and her pace slow and even. Sammy believes she is "showing [the other two girls] how to do it," or how to behave in the store. She is the one who completes the task of finding and paying for the herring snacks. She is also the most vocal of the three girls when Lengel rebukes them, insisting that she and the other girls are "decent." It is important to remember that this is Sammy's reading of Queenie's posture and actions. Sammy could just as easily be misinterpreting them. The other girls could just be keeping her company while she runs an errand for her mother. So it's natural for Queenie to walk in front of the other girls because she needs to find the snacks. Her posture as she walks through the store may be natural or it may be a cover for her embarrassment over having nothing on but a bathing suit.

What can readers infer from Plaid's fumbling with the cookies in "A&P"?

From what Sammy says, Plaid picks up more than one package of cookie and then puts them back on the shelf. Logically, she must be considering buying them. Readers can think of two reasons she might not do so. Perhaps she picks them up and then remembers she has no money with her. This is likely since she's wearing a bathing suit and nothing else. In fact, when Queenie arrives in his check-out slot, Sammy wonders where she will get the money to pay for the herring snacks. Sammy never says either other girl is carrying a wallet or purse, so Plaid probably can't buy the cookies and is just passing the time. However, it's likely Sammy thinks there's another reason. At this point, for the first time, he calls Plaid "the fat one"; before this point, she has been "chunky." Sammy may well think she wants to buy the cookies but forces herself not to because she's trying to lose weight. Like many of Sammy's observations about the girls, this one may say more about his assumptions about girls than convey any truth about the girl herself, whom he has never seen before.

What is the significance of the title of John Updike's short story "A&P"?

A&P stores are no longer in business, but at the time the story was written, the title alone evoked a clear image of the setting for readers. American readers would certainly have been familiar with A&P stores, probably having often shopped in them. It is the chain's familiarity that makes the A&P more than simply the setting of the story. The A&P represents a traditional American lifestyle and familiar values. Within its walls are orderliness and predictability. The A&P can be seen as representing a widespread consumerism and conformity, and for the story's narrator, Sammy, an airless, familiar life dedicated to maintaining the status quo. A chain store is one that replicates itself endlessly, with few if any changes. It looks the same and sells the same merchandise wherever it appears, creating an instant sense of order and rules. This sense of sameness is exactly what Sammy rejects when he quits his job at the end of the story.

In "A&P" how does Sammy's description of the girls define his attraction to them?

For Sammy, the girls shine; they are somehow brighter than the other female customers, with their "varicose veins mapping their legs." He sees the girls in greater detail, too, and contemplates these details at length. Sammy notices Plaid's "crescents of white ... where the sun never seems to hit, at the top of the backs of her legs." It is this whiteness that makes him forget whether he has rung up his customer's HiHo crackers. He also comments on Queenie's "long white prima donna legs" and the "shining rim" around the top of her bathing suit, saying that nothing could be "whiter than those shoulders." He compares them—in an unusual metaphor—to "a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light." The girls' shining sensuality electrifies Sammy. Sammy also describes the effect the girls, especially Queenie, have on him. He closely observes and recounts just how Queenie's naked feet touch the floor and how she has no jewelry on her hands so that they're "bare as God made them." In this place, where everyone else is fully dressed, her naked feet and hands are erotic to him. Sammy says the way Queenie turns makes "his stomach rub the inside of [his] apron," which gives the impression that he is aroused. When Queenie takes the money out of the top of her swimsuit, he says,"The jar went heavy in my hand." This is a much stronger indication of his physical response than the next sentence, which downplays the power of his attraction to her: "Really, I thought that was so cute."

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