A&P | Study Guide

John Updike

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A&P | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In "A&P" what is the significance of Sammy's description of Queenie's hair and face and how she holds her head?

As much as Sammy seems to disapprove of them, he knows the rules in the A&P. After describing at length how much skin Queenie is showing above the top of her bathing suit and how white her naked shoulders are, he finally describes her hair, face, and how she holds her head. Her hair is in a bun, which, although "unravelling," is still a more conservative hairstyle. Her face, he says, is "kind of prim." Thus, Queenie's hairstyle and expression look proper. She also "held her head so high her neck ... looked kind of stretched, " which suggests to him she is elegant and self-contained, and which only enhances her beauty to Sammy. Since the rest of her is at odds with A&P propriety, Queenie's proper hairstyle,"prim face," and confident posture may act as a shield against the shocked looks of other customers. The contrast also suggests that looking at Queenie as either proper or improper may be simplistic, when he has never seen her before she entered the store.

What is Sammy's opinion of the store's customers in "A&P"?

Sammy resents the customers and looks down on what he perceives as their priorities and lifestyle. He lumps them together, using the metaphor of sheep to describe their behavior. In his opinion, they move like a herd: all going in the same direction down the aisle, all startled by the three girls in bathing suits who are going the opposite way in both direction and propriety. To Sammy, the customers all avoid anything that takes them out of their usual comfort zone: they are people who all think, act, and live the same boring, old-fashioned way and refuse to accept anyone who deviates from their lifestyle. To him as a 19-year-old, he does not see their humanity as individuals. Sammy also makes fun of the customers' use of shopping lists and how they mutter when trying to remember what they wanted to buy, as if he is mentally superior to them. He even disparages how they look. The "witch" has "no eyebrows"; Stokesie's customer is "an old party in baggy gray pants who stumbles up" to the register. Sammy says he's one of the "bums," a favorite term of his for the customers. Later, he labels them "scared pigs in a chute," further dehumanizing them.

In "A&P" what assumptions does Sammy make about the customers he calls "house-slaves in pin curlers"?

Among the "sheep" Sammy describes as being "hilarious" are "a few house-slaves in pin curlers" who "looked around ... to make sure what they had seen was correct" as the three girls pass by. These are most likely housewives whose busy lives (taking care of children, cleaning, shopping, cooking, running errands, and so forth) lead them to go shopping in curlers. Sammy makes several assumptions about these customers. He focuses on the pin curlers because he assumes the women come to the A&P wearing curlers because they don't care how they look. His use of the word "slaves" is an exaggeration, evoking images of people who have no power over their own lives. It also indicates his assumption that these women do not enjoy their lives but are forced into them. This may well be true of some, but others may be perfectly happy. He seems not to know any of them. Still, Sammy lumps them together, not seeing them as individuals, but as types. It is possible that Sammy sees his own life as an A&P cashier as a sort of slavery too, and he is projecting his feelings on these women.

In "A&P" why does Sammy say it's different for the girls to wear bathing suits on the beach than to wear them in the store?

When girls wear bathing suits on the beach, they are among many people similarly dressed. They don't stand out. Since everyone is showing a lot of skin, it's less noticeable and less provocative. The sun's heat and light also makes it seem more natural to wear less clothing, and thus show more skin in general. The glare of the sun also makes it harder to see what anyone is wearing. But, swimsuits are proper attire for swimming, which is what people do at the beach, so the clothing matches the context. In the A&P, however, it's very provocative to wear bathing suits; the girls look more naked than they do at the beach. Everyone else is covered up, and the contrast makes the girls stand out. Their bodies look out of place against the stocked supermarket shelves. Their bare feet look more exposed because everyone around them is wearing shoes. The cooler temperature in the A&P also makes it seem unnatural to go unclothed in that environment. The store's fluorescent lights are mercilessly bright, again calling attention to how much skin the girls are showing in town away from the water.

What is the purpose of the narrator's informal tone in "A&P"?

The tone in which Sammy narrates the story is informal due to his use of colloquial speech—words and phrases used in ordinary conversation. The story sounds from the beginning as if he is relating it to a friend or acquaintance over a cup of coffee. Sammy peppers his comments with "you know" and "as you may imagine." He starts sentences with "I forgot to say" or "anyway" or "as I say" as people often do to connect pieces of a story together as they go along. Sammy's use of direct address, in which he seems to speak directly to readers ("Do you really think it's a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar?"; "The bow tie is theirs, if you've ever wondered") also adds to the overall sense of immediacy and informality. This informal tone makes the story in a sense funny and engaging. It also makes Sammy sound like a real 19-year-old, cranky and frustrated, but also observant and lively. He could be a young American man almost anywhere, holding down a boring job, but bursting with energy. Sammy's informality also reveals how he is somewhat immature, even nasty at times, as he ruthlessly insults the customers to himself and his coworkers. As a result of all these factors, the informal tone sets up the end of the story for maximum emotional impact. When Sammy quits his job and realizes his life has taken a serious turn, it is especially powerful because Sammy' s tone has been so informal up to this point.

In "A&P" how does Sammy use verbal irony in his description of the workers trying to fix the sewer on Central Street, and why ?

Sammy notices "about twenty-seven old free-loaders tearing up Central Street because the sewer broke again." Sammy uses verbal irony—saying something that is different than what is meant—in this description. He calls the city workers "free-loaders" even though he knows they are doing their jobs and working for their pay, just like him. Sammy uses irony sarcastically because he sees the work on the sewer as pointless for the practical reason he mentions—the sewer will inevitably break down again, and often—but also because he sees their job as another dead-end job like his own. As he does at other points in the narrative, he projects his own feelings of dissatisfaction onto the city workers. When he talks about them, he is really describing his own situation.

In "A&P" how does Sammy characterize the town where the story is set?

Just as the A&P itself is a symbol of the established values of a particular way of life, the town where the story is set exemplifies those values and that way of life. The buildings in the center of town are typical of the lifestyle it exemplifies. The two banks reflect the people's need to earn and save money and take out loans for cars and houses. The conventional desire to have a house is also reflected in the "three real-estate offices." The townspeople's proper and conventional lifestyle is also indicated by the central position of the church. The newspaper store and the A&P are the only stores mentioned. Both sell practical items rather than anything frivolous or without use. It's only five miles from the beach, but people dress properly in the town; a woman in a bathing suit doesn't even get out of her car if she isn't wearing at least shorts or a shirt over it. In any case, according to Sammy, some people never even deviate from their boring lives enough to travel the five miles to the beach. This may be an exaggeration that expresses Sammy's feelings more than it does the reality of the townspeople's lives, but it gets the idea across of how boring he thinks the town is. Given Sammy's description, it's easy to imagine that he will eventually leave not only the A&P but also the town in order to break free of what he thinks is its dull conventionality.

In "A&P" what are the similarities and differences between Sammy and Stokesie?

Sammy and Stokesie are both young men who live in the same town, work at the A&P, and like looking at and joking around about women. But that's about as far as the similarity goes. Sammy is single, and Stokesie is a married father of two. Sammy is still living at home, so he doesn't have to support himself. Stokesie has to support himself, his wife, and his children; he may also have a mortgage and car payments to make. Sammy resents his job at the A&P, whereas Stokesie wants to make his career there by someday becoming a manager. In fact, Stokesie is a lot more like Lengel than he is like Sammy. Basically, he wants to be Lengel someday. Because of his responsibilities, Stokesie has grown up—something Sammy has yet to do.

In "A&P" what does Sammy think of Stokesie's career ambitions?

Sammy doesn't really take Stokesie's career ambitions very seriously. He knows Stokesie hopes to manage the A&P someday, but he doesn't think it will actually happen for two reasons. First, Lengel is in that position now and isn't going anywhere. Sammy says flippantly that Stokesie might become manager "in 1990," years away. But, realistically, Lengel will retire and someone will replace him. Stokesie is taking the long view and planning for the future. At this point in the story, Sammy, who is only 19 and is unencumbered by a wife and kids, can't imagine doing that. The other reason Sammy can't take Stokesie's ambitions seriously is that he can't imagine himself wanting such a thing. Because he feels a kinship with Stokesie, it's impossible for Sammy to believe his friend wants something so completely different from what Sammy himself would want.

In John Updike's "A&P" how does Sammy view mothers?

As is typical of the attitudes Sammy expresses in "A&P," he makes a lot of negative comments about mothers but, when it comes to his own family, he seems to have a double standard. Most of the A&P customers he calls "house-slaves" are likely to be mothers, yet he seems to look down on them. He talks about "women with six children and varicose veins" whose legs no one would want to look at. At the end of the story he mentions seeing "some young married screaming with her children" in the parking lot; to him she isn't even a woman or a mother but a genderless "married." Yet he makes no such nasty comments about his own mother. As he leaves the A&P, it flashes through his mind that he's wearing the shirt his mother ironed the night before. He knows she ironed it for him to wear to work, yet he is wearing it while quitting his job. Readers are aware that Sammy has some sympathy for how his mother may feel about this. He has already agreed with Lengel that he doesn't want to "do this to [his] Mom and Dad." Of course, he's speaking with hindsight. He has already said that he parents will find the events of this day "sad," rather than being angry with him. So, Sammy views mothers with compassion and love—but only if he can see them as human beings, which doesn't happen until after he has quit his job and begun to grow up as an individual.

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