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A&P | Study Guide

John Updike

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A&P | 10 Things You Didn't Know


John Updike's story "A&P" was first published in the New Yorker in 1961 and anthologized in the collection Pigeon Feathers in 1962. Its narrator, Sammy, is working the cash register at an A&P supermarket when three young women in swimsuits enter the store. At first, Sammy judges them only by their physical appearance, but he begins to question his reactions, and in fact his whole life, leading him to make a decision that changes everything.

Called a "witness to America," Updike himself said that his aim in writing was "to give the mundane its beautiful due." Updike was awarded two Pulitzer Prizes, two National Book Awards, and a Pen/Faulkner Award. His fiction, including "A&P," often focused on middle-class life.

1. Updike was inspired to write "A&P" after seeing girls in swimsuits in the grocery store.

Updike spent many years living in Ipswich, Massachusetts, and it was in the supermarket there that he found the inspiration for "A&P." He saw a group of girls come into the store in swimsuits and bare feet, which was "sufficiently startling" to make him remember it. He said that although "girls in bathing suits at the beach were one thing," this encounter was different and "seemed to make a germ of the story."

2. Updike refused to revise "A&P" for textbooks.

Updike didn't think of "A&P" as a story written in his "usual style," calling it an "idiomatic monologue." In other words, it is a single narrator's meditation on an event that uses many idioms, such as "got her feathers smoothed." However, he didn't wish to change it in any way. He was asked by more than one textbook company to change the story for publication in their volumes. One Japanese publisher feared the story would exasperate students. Nonetheless, Updike flatly refused all such requests for revision.

3. The New Yorker required changes in "A&P" because of crudeness.

When Updike first submitted "A&P" to the New Yorker, a line in the opening paragraph read, "She was a chunky kid, with a good tan and a sweet broad soft-looking can." The editors objected to the word can, asking Updike to replace it with butt. Updike replied, "You must be kidding about 'butt.' It's really just as crude as 'can.'" Eventually, "broad soft-looking can" was replaced with "broad backside" in the magazine, but in the anthology Updike reinserted can.

4. "A&P" has been called a "modern retelling" of a short story by James Joyce.

"A&P" has often been compared to the Irish writer James Joyce's "Araby" (1914), one of the stories in his collection Dubliners. Both stories feature a first-person narrator whose romantic feelings for a girl spur the protagonist to attempt a heroic deed that, ultimately, leaves him unsatisfied and disillusioned. Both take place in a market. In "Araby," however, the boy returns to his family still a boy, while in "A&P" the protagonist Sammy steps out into the sunlight alone, having become an adult.

5. "A&P" has been called a critique of American consumerism.

Critics have noted that by setting his story in an A&P, a supermarket symbolic of middle-class consumer society, Updike was critiquing the values that the setting denotes. The narrator refers to the customers as "sheep," and the story is sprinkled with the narrator's critiques of the items offered in the store. When the narrator quits his job at the A&P, he is rejecting the consumer values—including the need to acquire and the decline of social engagement—that the A&P and its offerings represent.

6. Critics argue over whether "A&P" is pro-feminist or antifeminist.

Updike has been called by some critics a feminist writer because of his attempts to focus on women's issues and their "ongoing tribulations." Others point out that the language and events in "A&P" are sexist. The narrator focuses on the looks of the young women who walk into the store, describing their bodies in detail. Lines such as "you never know for sure how girls' minds work" highlight the sexist tone. Updike himself was aware that readers and critics objected to his portrayals of women and claimed that he'd been "constantly trying to improve" the way he depicted women.

7. Updike's first wife compared "A&P" to the work of J.D. Salinger.

Mary Updike, Updike's first wife, is said to have complained that the character of Sammy in "A&P" sounded too much like J.D. Salinger, the author of The Catcher in the Rye. Updike himself agreed, saying that it was "sort of Salingeresque in the monologue and the little jokes about the girls and the contents of the shelves and all that."

8. Updike originally wanted to be a cartoonist.

Updike fell in love with cartoons as a child and wanted to be an animator. When he first started reading the New Yorker, where he later worked and then published stories, he was attracted by the cartoons it featured.

As a teenager he drew cartoons and tried to get them published. As a college student, his drawings made it into the Harvard Lampoon. Even as a writer, Updike was affected by cartoons, saying, "One can continue to cartoon, in a way, with words." Updike gave credit to the "cartoonist manqué" for the "crispness and animation" in his writing. And in "A&P," he includes a reference to a cartoon, writing of "Schlitz in tall glasses with 'They'll Do It Every Time' cartoons stencilled on."

9. Updike compared his writing schedule to a dentist's.

In an interview, Updike was asked about the schedule he kept for writing. He explained that he tried to be "a regular sort of fellow—much like a dentist drilling his teeth every morning—except Sunday." He didn't believe in waiting for inspiration, noting that "the pleasures of not writing are so great that if you ever start indulging them you will never write again."

10. One of Updike's neighbors created a collection of memorabilia taken from the author's trash.

In 2006 a man named Paul Moran bicycled passed Updike's house in Massachusetts and noticed the writer taking out his trash. He circled back and looked in the recycling bin, hoping to find something with Updike's writing on it as a conversation piece. Instead, he found that Updike had tossed all his honorary degrees. Moran grabbed them, then returned over and over to Updike's trash, eventually ending up with drafts of stories, photographs, invitations, and even a pair of shoes. Updike's official archive is at Harvard, but Moran kept adding to his unofficial collection until Updike's death, though friends of the family have said the writer would have been "horrified" at the invasion of privacy.

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