A&P | Study Guide

John Updike

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A&P | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


What does "A&P" have in common with John Updike's other fiction?

"A&P" is like Updike's other fiction in two main ways. Updike was a master at bringing his narrator to life through language and narrative tone. Sammy uses colloquial slang and grammar; his tone is often flippant and unthinking. His language and tone make him a believable 19-year-old. In contrast, the narrator of Updike's story "Lifeguard," written after "A&P" but published one month earlier, is a divinity student who uses very formal words and grammar. His tone tends to be grandiose and deliberate. In "A&P" when Queenie pulls a dollar bill out of the top of her bathing suit, Sammy says, "The jar went heavy in my hand. Really, I thought that was so cute." In contrast, the theologian turned lifeguard says, "Lust stuns me like the sun." Both narrators are saying the same thing but saying it differently due to their language and tone. Updike regularly focused on on the topics of conformity, sexuality, and small-town America, whether in short stories or novels. For example, Sammy works in an A&P and lusts after a stranger in a bathing suit. In Updike's Rabbit novels, a series of four novels devoted to the same protagonist, Rabbit is a used car salesman who cheats on his wife. Both Sammy and Rabbit do jobs that anyone in an American small town might do; both are very average American men; both are concerned with and comment on their (and others') sexuality.

In "A&P" what does Sammy mean when he describes McMahon as "patting his mouth and looking after them sizing up their joints"?

McMahon's gesture can be interpreted in three very different ways. As he looks at the girls, McMahon could be faking a yawn as if to say there's nothing new here. But since he also sizes the girls up, it seems unlikely. A more probable interpretation is that the butcher finds the girls attractive and is responding much as Sammy does. But Sammy's words imply that McMahon looks at the girls ironically as if they were tasty joints of meat rather than human beings. Since Sammy himself objectifies the girls by dwelling very specifically on certain parts of their bodies, his disapproval of McMahon seems hypocritical. Another possible interpretation is McMahon disapproves of the girls' apparel. Patting his lips and intently looking them up and down could just as easily be McMahon's expression of outraged propriety as one of sexual interest.

In "A&P" why does Sammy begin to feel sorry for the three girls, and what does his reaction reveal about him?

After watching the customers react with shock to the girls, Sammy admits that "it's one thing to have a girl in a bathing suit down on the beach ... and another thing in the cool of the A & P." So he understands the customers' surprise. He even accepts that Stokesie, as a "responsible married man," questions whether or not wearing a bathing suit in the A&P is "done." But when he sees "old McMahon ... sizing up their joints," Sammy suddenly begins to feel sorry for the girls, saying that "they couldn't help it." Sammy's response is hypocritical. After all, he has been as guilty as anyone else of staring at the girls lustfully because of what they are wearing. But he doesn't recognize his own culpability. Also, he is beginning to feel a connection with the girls, one that he expresses in the last paragraph of the story when he says, "I look around for my girls, but they're gone." He feels a sense of proprietary concern for them which begins when he disapproves of McMahon's gaze.

What clues does Updike give in "A&P" that Sammy is recounting something that happened in the past?

Most of the story is told in the present tense. For example, in the first paragraph, he uses phrases like "in walks these three girls," "I'm in the third check-out slot,"and "I don't see them until." But sometimes Sammy slips into past tense, which alerts the reader to the fact that the narrator is recounting past events. Starting with the third sentence, he slips into the past tense for three sentences before reverting to present tense again: "the one that caught my eye"; "she was a chunky kid"; and "I stood there." The rest of the story continues moving between the past and present tenses in this way, which is a natural way of recounting a past event informally. But it is not only the verb tense that indicates Sammy is looking back on his last day at the A&P. He also makes a comment in the middle of the story from his future perspective: "Now here comes the sad part of the story, at least my family says it's sad but I don't think it's sad myself." Here he confirms that his family has already reacted to the event, which they found "sad," and that he continues to stand by his actions after the event has taken place. In the moments just after he quits his job, Sammy seems to have some misgivings about resigning, but does so at least in part because "once you begin a gesture it's fatal not to go through with it." But at the time he's telling the story and looking back on his actions, he doesn't regret quitting his job. It was part of his growing up.

In "A&P" why does Sammy compare the store to a pinball machine?

After the girls get directions from McMahon, they disappear from Sammy's view. With nothing to do, he waits for them to return, making this analogy: "The whole store was like a pinball machine and I didn't know which tunnel they'd come out of." Sammy's view of the girls is blocked because of the arrangement of aisles in the store, which is like the tunnels in a pinball machine. A player bats the ball with a flipper, and it disappears into one of the machine's tunnels. Just as Sammy can't know which aisle the girls have gone down because he doesn't know what they want to buy, the pinball player can't know from which opening the ball will re-emerge. Sammy's analogy of the store to a pinball machine therefore creates a sense of anticipation that underscores how fascinated Sammy is by the girls. In addition, his analogy suggests how the supermarket, which represents predictability and even a type of propriety, is a kind of social machine or social game, in which people's lives, like those of the customers or Sammy's boss, Lengel, take place in an enclosed environment dictated by rules.

How does Sammy feel about the nonfood products on sale in the A&P?

While Sammy sometimes makes fun of the foods people buy, he is most disparaging of the nonfood items in the A&P. Historically, the A&P was the first grocery story to integrate nonfood items into its product line, which was one of the reasons it dominated the US market for so long. But Sammy considers some of these mass-produced, nonfood products cheap and outmoded, a reminder, perhaps of how old-fashioned and lacking in value he thinks the lives of the A&P's customers are. He singles out the music the store has on sale: "records at discount of the Caribbean Six or Tony Martin Sings or some such gunk you wonder they waste the wax on." The Caribbean Six did Caribbean-style dance music, and Tony Martin was famous for singing in Hollywood musicals from the 1930s to the 1950s, so they may seem old-fashioned or outdated to young Sammy. He also comments on the "plastic toys done up in cellophane that fall apart when a kid looks at them." This is an exaggeration on Sammy's part, but it gets the idea across: the toys are so cheaply made they fall apart before a child gets a chance to take them out of their wrapping, and Sammy rejects all this merchandise.

In John Updike's "A&P" what is Sammy's opinion of Lengel?

Sammy has known Lengel for a long time. Readers know this because, as Sammy tells them, the A&P manager has been friends with Sammy's parents "for years." This is probably why Sammy creates a much more complete, well-rounded picture of Lengel than of other characters in the story. Although he disagrees with Lengel about the girls, Sammy doesn't make fun of his opinions. In fact, after introducing him and making light of his role as store manager by saying he is "about to scuttle into that door marked MANAGER behind which he hides all day," Sammy actually admits that Lengel is pretty sharp ("he doesn't miss that much"). Later, he finds it funny that Lengel repeats "this isn't the beach." But Sammy laughs at the image Lengel's words evokes in Sammy's mind—that "the A&P was a great big dune and [Lengel] was the head lifeguard"—not at Lengel himself. In general, though, Sammy finds Lengel "dreary"—at least in part because the man teaches Sunday school. Still, although he finds Lengel too focused on propriety and policy, he doesn't at any point indicate that Lengel views the girls as sexual objects. In fact, Lengel's rebuke is polite and very fatherly. He doesn't kick them out, either. He isn't punitive at all; he has Sammy ring up their purchase and just asks them to dress properly next time. Sammy recounts the exchange without passing judgment, but he still doesn't approve of Lengel embarrassing the girls, which he takes personally.

In John Updike's "A&P" what is Lengel's opinion of Sammy?

Lengel recognizes how young Sammy is. After all, he's known him "for years." This also influences how much patience Lengel has with Sammy and how he tries to talk him out of quitting his job. He treats Sammy paternally, reasoning with him rather than simply accepting his resignation without comment. Sammy's quitting saddens him, not least because of his friendship with Sammy's parents. As a mature adult, Lengel also understands the repercussions of Sammy's actions—how his quitting may affect both Sammy's parents and Sammy himself. After all, they live in a small town, and it may be hard for Sammy to get another job once he walks away from this one. As long as Sammy is still talking with him, Lengel remains patient. But after Sammy goes, Sammy reports that Lengel's "face [is] dark gray and his back stiff, as if he'd just had an injection of iron." The stiffness of his back indicates strong emotion. It could be anger over having to do Sammy's work when he has his own obligations, or it could be a strong sense of disappointment and sadness stemming from his fatherly hopes for the boy. It could also be an indicator of Lengel's determination to remain businesslike in the face of Sammy's leaving.

In John Updike's "A&P" what is Sammy's relationship with his family like?

Sammy never says directly what his relationship with his family is like. But readers can infer from the story that his family is loving and supportive. Sammy's mother irons his work shirts, for example. After Lengel makes the point that the girls were embarrassing them, not the other way around, Sammy turns an expletive into his grandmother's phrase "Fiddle-de-doo" and remarks that "she would have been pleased" that he chose it over a more offensive term. When Lengel tries to talk Sammy out of quitting, he says, "Sammy, you don't want to do this to your Mom and Dad," and Sammy tells readers, "It's true, I don't." This indicates Sammy cares for his parents and doesn't want to hurt them. At the same time, he does not express fear of their reaction, so he stands by his decision and walks out. In Sammy's one comment about his family's reaction to his quitting, he tells readers they found the events sad; he doesn't say anyone got angry with him or punished him, suggesting that they supported and accepted his decision.

In "A&P" how do Queenie and Plaid use the purchase of the herring snacks to defend themselves against Lengel?

When Lengel confronts the girls about how they are dressed, readers might expect an angry clash. But in fact, no such confrontation occurs. Lengel says, "Girls, this isn't the beach," and the girls know immediately what he means. They don't argue that they have every right to wear bathing suits in the store or that the store policy is unfair. Instead, Queenie and Plaid plead extenuating circumstances caused by their need to purchase the herring snacks. The fact that she is purchasing herring snacks, to Sammy an unusual, high-class, fancy food, puts Queenie outside of the ordinary to begin with, implying that she is beyond the usual rules. Queenie also tells Lengel that her mother asked her to pick up the herring snacks. She wants to deflect Lengel's judgment: It wasn't her idea to come to the store like this; she was just being a dutiful daughter. Plaid's comment—"We weren't doing any shopping. We just came in for the one thing"—actually shows that she understands that it is improper to shop in the store in their bathing suits; her argument is that picking up one item doesn't really constitute shopping. Neither Queenie nor Plaid challenges the A&P policy or the sense of propriety it represents directly, although they do try to defend themselves to Lengel. However, the incident doesn't seem very important to them.

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