A&P | Study Guide

John Updike

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A&P | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


What is the importance of Queenie's statement to Lengel in "A&P" that she and the other girls are "decent"?

Lengel tells the girls: "We want you decently dressed when you come in here." Queenie responds, "We are decent." Lengel is referring to what the girls should wear to be "decently dressed." Queenie's response takes the concept of decency one step further. She is not only referring to what she and the other two girls are wearing, but to who they are as people—decent girls. Queenie may be saying that she and her friends are "decent" for a number of different reasons. The girls are likely from a higher social class than the store workers. Queenie may believe that they are well-bred and therefore well-behaved. She may mean that she and the other girls are "decent" because they are innocent of wrong-doing, and that they did not intend to offend the other customers deliberately. Perhaps Queenie does not realize that what she and friends are wearing has the ability to offend others, suggesting that the girls are self-involved and live in a sort of bubble in which they see themselves as "decent" because they can't imagine anyone else would think otherwise. It is also possible that Queenie is objecting to Lengel's comment because she truly feels that she and her friends are "decent" no matter what they are wearing.

Why does Sammy say in "A&P" that "the others want ... juvenile delinquency"?

Legally, juvenile delinquency is a technical term referring to criminal actions by minors, who cannot be prosecuted as adults. However, at the time Updike was writing "A&P," it was a catchall phrase for teens acting out against adult rules and expectations. Schools regulated the length of boys' hair and the length of girls' skirts; they banned chewing gum in class and rock and roll at school dances. If high-school boys grew their hair too long, if high-school girls wore pants to school, or if kids "sassed" their parents, it was all considered juvenile delinquency. So when Sammy ironically says "policy is what the kingpins want" and "the others want ... juvenile delinquency," he's not thinking about drug dealing and drive-by shootings. He's thinking about the freedom to grow your hair a little longer, wear jeans to class, and listen to the music you like rather than what adults tell you to listen to. The A&P dress code that Lengel is enforcing is just the sort of "policy" Sammy and other kids his age hoped they had left behind when they graduated from high school.

When Lengel is talking to the girls at Sammy's slot in the A&P, why is Stokesie so quiet?

Because Sammy considers Stokesie to be like him, he assumes that Stokesie doesn't want "to miss a word of the confrontation between Lengel and the girls." But Stokesie isn't like Sammy; as a married father of two, he's more like Lengel and the customers. He probably is listening; after all, the customers in line are listening, too. But there are other reasons for him to make as little noise as possible. Stokesie hopes to have a career with A&P. He may not want to do anything that might startle the customers or make them more uncomfortable. He may not want to call Lengel's attention to him. He would not want to become a target for Lengel's disapproval or to be called on by him as a possible ally in the discussion. Instead, he wants to be seen as a quiet, efficient worker who helps the customers rather than gawking at girls in bathing suits, although he joined Sammy in doing so earlier. If there's a conflict between sensuality and propriety, no matter what Sammy thinks, Stokesie will for his own sake come down on the side of propriety.

How does Lengel, the store manager, function thematically in "A&P"?

Readers know that Lengel is a friend of Sammy's parents, so he's roughly their age—perhaps in his mid- or late 40s. As a result, he is a member of the older generation and therefore by definition likely opposed to the tastes and mores of the younger generation. He's a Sunday school teacher, so he also teaches young people how to be good church members. As the manager of the supermarket, part of his job is to make sure A&P's company policies are enforced. His office designates him as an authority figure separated from the bustling humanity of the store. His job makes him the voice of the establishment. Because of these roles, Lengel embodies propriety. Also, at least from Sammy's point of view, all these aspects of his life make him a good example of what is boring and conventional. Lengel warns him that he will regret it later. However, he does not change Sammy's mind. While Sammy acknowledges in the story's final line that "my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter," he leaves Lengel behind for a new life.

In John Updike's "A&P" why does Sammy quit his job?

While he rings up Queenie's purchase, Sammy is thinking about quitting his job. As soon as he hands her the bag and the girls start walking away, he quits. He hopes they'll hear him and watch, realizing he's quitting because of them and is "their unsuspected hero." But his action seems like more than just a gesture meant to win him the girls' attention and appreciation. He genuinely feels upset on their behalf over Lengel embarrassing Queenie with his rebuke. Sammy has observed and commented negatively on the customers' and McMahon's reactions to the girls throughout the story. He considers the town as a whole to be too stuck in its ways. Sammy seems to disapprove of the general closed-mindedness of the community and feels he doesn't want to be a part of it. Perhaps he even looks at his future life in this town and realizes that he will become boring and judgmental, too, if he continues working at the A&P. Even looking back at the incident later, he doesn't find that his quitting was as "sad" as his parents may think it; he doesn't regret it. Life will become harder, but it won't be boring, and he will be living it on his own terms.

In "A&P" how does Updike use brand names to indicate social class?

What someone buys at the A&P may reflect social class. Sammy checks out two brand-name products in the course of the story—one at the beginning and one near the end. At the beginning, it's a box of HiHo crackers. The name is cheery and upbeat—the opposite of Sammy's encounter with "the witch" buying them. The name evokes relaxed social events, more middle-class than upper-class. Queenie, with her high-society "flat and dumb yet kind of tony" accent is a perfect match for her snooty Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream. Someone called "Queenie" might only buy Kingfish brand; both sound royal. In his imagination, Sammy compares her family's martinis—strangely, "with olives and sprigs of mint in them"—to his own family's lemonade or Schlitz beer, which was once the most common, best-selling beer in the United States. HiHo and Schlitz are part of Updike's picture of working- and middle-class America; Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks are part of his image of the upper class.

How does Updike indicate that Sammy is not new to his job at the A&P?

There's no indication in the story that Sammy has been working at the A&P for a long time, but it's clear he isn't new to the job. He knows where all the products are located in the store, he knows Stokesie's family situation and career goals, and he knows Lengel spends most of the day in his office. He has also been there long enough to pick out stereotypes among the customers. Finally, although it's "more complicated than you think," he can work the register without thinking about the process. He says he's been doing it so long that it has begun "to make a little song, that [he hears] words to" when he rings up purchases. Sammy may have started at the store a year earlier, after finishing high school. Or, since his parents are friends with the store manager, he may even have worked summers there while still in school. Whichever is true, he is familiar with the store's products, the people working there, and customers' habits, and he can do his job proficiently when not distracted.

What steps does Lengel take to try to stop Sammy from quitting his job at the A&P?

As a friend of Sammy's parents, Lengel tries hard to persuade Sammy not to quit. First, he gives Sammy the opportunity to pretend he didn't quit. When Sammy says "I quit," Lengel acts as if he didn't hear him: "Did you say something?" he asks. At this point, Sammy could easily answer "no" and everything would be as it was before. But Sammy repeats the statement. Next Lengel tries to reason with Sammy. He explains why he rebuked the girls, saying that they were embarrassing the store and customers. But Sammy disagrees, saying "Fiddle-de-doo." Lengel then tells him that Sammy "doesn't know what he's saying." Finally, looking "very patient and old and gray," Lengel tries to reason with Sammy, explaining the potentially negative effect quitting will have on Sammy's parents and on Sammy himself. But this doesn't work either.

In "A&P" why do the customers react as they do when Lengel talks to the girls and Sammy quits?

Sammy assumes the customers just want to avoid conflict. He describes how they "all bunched up on Stokesie" like "sheep" while Lengel talked with the three girls. Then he brands a few of them "scared pigs in a chute" because, after starting to approach his slot when the girls have left, they stop and "knock against each other," startled by Sammy's confrontation with Lengel. But there is another interpretation of their actions. They may not want to embarrass the girls or Sammy by staring at them, but prefer to respect their privacy instead. They may in fact be acting with a mature empathy that Sammy himself does not show toward them.

In "A&P" what is the effect of their interaction on Queenie and on Sammy as he rings up her purchase?

Readers have a good idea of what is going on in Sammy's mind as he rings up Queenie's herring snacks, but must infer what Queenie is thinking from her actions before and after the exchange. Sammy reports that he's thinking while working the register, and from his actions immediately afterwards, readers know he's thinking about quitting. But he is also very focused on Queenie's physical presence as he works. This is clear from his description of handling the money and the jar. He also talks about Queenie's breasts and hands. He handles the dollar bill she gives him "tenderly"; somehow touching the money is almost like touching "the two smoothest scoops of vanilla I had ever known." He gives her her change, noticing the shape and color of her "narrow pink palm." So Sammy is hyper-aware of Queenie's proximity throughout the transaction. For Queenie things couldn't be more different. She has just been told off by the store manager in front of everyone for dressing indecently. If she wasn't aware of her semi-nakedness before, she is now. She is both embarrassed and, most likely, somewhat angry. All she wants is to leave. Even Sammy recognizes that she and her friends "are in a hurry to get out." Sammy was aware of her from the time she entered the store, but she is at his counter only because Stokesie had another customer. For her and the other girls, the store workers are probably no more interesting than the Diet Delight peaches. Sammy didn't matter to her when she came to his register, and after her encounter with Lengel, he probably matters less than ever.

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