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A&P | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

The story is set in the 1950s in an A&P grocery store in a small town north of Boston and roughly five miles from the Massachusetts coast.

The Girls

Sammy is ringing up groceries for a middle-aged woman at his cash register at the A&P grocery store when three girls in bathing suits walk in. One is "a chunky kid" wearing a "plaid green two-piece." He's so distracted by her that he rings up the woman's crackers twice, and "the witch," as he calls her, gets mad. He calms the customer down and watches the girls walk around the store. There's a chubby one in the two-piece; another one who's tall with black hair and a long chin—"the kind ... other girls think is very 'striking' ... but never quite makes it"; and a third, who's "the queen" of the group and leads them around. They are all barefoot.

Sammy nicknames the first girl "Plaid," the second "Big Tall Goony-Goony," and the third "Queenie." Queenie's wearing a pinkish one-piece with the straps off her shoulders. Her hair is in a bun, and her face is "prim." She leads the other two down an aisle, "walking against the usual traffic." When the customers, whom Sammy labels "sheep pushing their carts," notice the girls, they're startled: the sight of bathing suits in the A&P challenges standards of propriety. Nonetheless, the "sheep" resume their shopping.

The Boys

Sammy and his coworker Stokesie both admire the girls, but Stokesie—hoping to be a manager someday—wonders whether the girls are acting inappropriately. After all, the A&P is in the middle of town, at least five miles from the beach. They watch the girls go to the meat counter and ask McMahon, the butcher, something; he points them in a different direction, then he eyes the girls as they walk away, "patting his mouth and looking after them sizing up their joints." Sammy begins "to feel sorry for them." When the girls reappear, Queenie has a jar in her hand. Since Stokesie already has a customer, the girls come to Sammy's register. Queenie puts down the jar of "Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream: 49¢" and "lifts a folded dollar bill out of the hollow at the center of her nubbled pink top."

The Manager

The manager, Lengel, sees the girls and tells them, "This isn't the beach." Queenie blushes and says they're running an errand for her mother. Hearing the quality in her voice, Sammy can imagine her family having a cocktail party at which they serve the somewhat unusual herring snacks. He compares his lower-class home to what he thinks is her more upper-class one. Plaid says they "just came in for the one thing" so they weren't really shopping. Lengel replies that they still need to dress "decently." Queenie seems offended and insists that she and the other girls "are decent." Lengel tells the girls to dress correctly next time and turns away. Sammy rings up the sale. Queenie pays, and Sammy gives her the change and a bag with the jar of herring snacks in it.

The Heroic Act

As the girls are leaving, Sammy says, "I quit." The girls don't seem to notice; they walk out quickly, heading for their car. He tells Lengel, "You didn't have to embarrass them," but Lengel says the girls had embarrassed everyone else in the store. As Sammy takes off his apron, Lengel, who's a friend of Sammy's parents, tries to talk him out of leaving. Lengel reminds Sammy of his responsibility to his parents and says Sammy will "feel this for the rest of [his] life." By the time Sammy gets outside, the girls are gone. A "young married" woman is in a screaming match with her kids by a car. Through the store window, Sammy sees Lengel has taken Sammy's place at the cash register. Sammy realizes "how hard the world [is] going to be to" him from now on based on his actions.

Analysis

"A&P" describes a pivotal day in the narrator's young life. When his mother ironed his shirt the night before, neither she nor her son expected the next day to be different from any other day. As Sammy goes about his job at the A&P as usual, he doesn't expect that his life is about to change. But from the moment the story begins, Sammy's path moves him relentlessly toward the climax of the story and of his young life.

Setting

By setting the story in an A&P during the 1950s, Updike ensured that readers would be familiar with his setting. When the story was published in 1961, readers had likely been inside an A&P and knew exactly what the aisles, products, and check-out lanes described by the narrator looked like. This was the store their parents had likely shopped at, too. This familiarity lends the setting a sense of old-fashioned conventionality, even stodginess. At the same time, the A&P was a symbol of entrepreneurship and capitalism. In a decade in which the purchase of goods was a sign of middle-class prosperity and success, it represented a bridge between old-fashioned values and the consumerism at the heart of American life.

By the 1960s, A&Ps were everywhere and had a near-identical look and layout no matter where they were. Thus, the A&P itself represented stable, established values. The goods sold there, the employment hierarchy, and the unspoken rules of behavior were all part and parcel of the A&P. When Sammy gives up his job and walks out of the store, he symbolically rejects a future as part of the establishment.

Vivid Descriptions

Sammy's descriptions of the A&P and its customers create a sensory experience. Rather than simply saying the girls walked up the third aisle, Sammy identifies the aisle by listing the products to be found there: "the cat-and-dog-food-breakfast-cereal-macaroni-rice-raisins-seasonings-spreads-spaghetti-soft drinks-crackers-and-cookies aisle." Later he talks about the customers going "around the light bulbs" and passing other product displays. This description reflects Sammy's way of thinking about the layout of the store—a way of thinking that reflects what the store represents. Objects to be consumed are laid out in orderly, predictable ways. Everything is in its designated place, as shoppers expect it to be at any A&P.

Sammy's description of each of the three girls, but especially of Queenie, makes them vividly present. He describes each girl's physical characteristics with great specificity that reveals both his fascination with them and his objectification of them early in the story: "do you think it's a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar?" His careful descriptions of Lengel, Stokesie, and McMahon convey with great precision the way the A&P operates as a workplace and each man's place within it: "he [Stokesie] thinks he's going to be manager some sunny day." His portrayal of the town in which he lives communicates its deadly dullness and his contempt for it: "if you stand at our front doors you can see two banks and the Congregational church and the newspaper store and three real-estate offices."

Narrative Tone

As the story opens, Sammy's tone is light, lending a comic effect to the story; he chats away as if relating a funny story in an offhand way. His language is slangy and sounds typical of an adolescent boy of his time. He often expresses disapproval amusingly, especially of customers but sometimes of A&P products, through sarcasm, or mocking commentary. For example, he gets his annoyed customer's "feathers smoothed and her goodies into a bag." He talks of discount records as "gunk you wonder they waste the wax on" and "plastic toys done up in cellophane that fall apart when a kid looks at them." He also uses humor to describe the girls' location as they move around the store through the use of store products and a pinball machine metaphor: "they come around out of the far aisle, around the light bulbs."

But once Sammy begins telling "the sad part of the story," the moments of sarcasm become rarer, and the light tone shifts toward a more neutral recounting of events and conversations. He still notices Stokesie and the actions of the customers, but he is less likely to offer his opinion about them. This shift in tone coincides with a change in Sammy's perspective on events as his sympathy for the girls and how they are treated in the store grows. He begins to contemplate quitting his job, so his focus narrows to Lengel, the girls, and himself.

Figurative Language

Updike uses abundant similes and metaphors in "A&P" to describe the characters. For instance, Sammy thoughtlessly describes customers who are hesitant to approach his register when he and Lengel are talking about his decision to quit: "A couple customers that had been heading for my slot begin to knock against each other, like scared pigs in a chute." This metaphor likens the customers to pigs in a slaughterhouse because the customers are nervously trying to avoid being near Sammy and Lengel's confrontation.

Other metaphors are less gruesome, such as the ones describing Queenie, who has "prima donna legs"—long and shapely, like a dancer's. She walks on her bare feet "as if she was testing the floor with every step"—carefully and deliberately. He admires the "clean bare plane of the top of her chest down from the shoulder bones like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light"—giving the impression that her exposed skin is glowing, and drawing his gaze to her.

The comparisons reveal Sammy's point of view on events. His negative comparison between the customers and the pigs reveals his judgment against adults and conformity. His positive comparisons between Queenie and a dancer and a sheet of metal in light reveal his burgeoning sexual fascination with her.

Sammy's narration is also packed with hyperbole—that is, exaggeration. This technique adds to the humor of the narrative, but it also indicates the intensity of Sammy's feelings. His first customer is "a witch" and "if she'd been born at the right time he claims that they would have burned her over in Salem." Of course, she's only a middle-aged woman who doesn't want to be overcharged—not generally a reason for burning someone at the stake. But Sammy expresses his simmering discontent and general annoyance with the conformity that surrounds him through such exaggerated statements.

It is noticeable that he doesn't describe the three girls or Stokesie in exaggerated terms but reserves his hyperbole for people and things that he associates with the boring, traditional lifestyle of small-town life. There are townspeople who "haven't seen the ocean for twenty years" although they live just five miles from the coast.

Sammy versus the Other Characters

At 19 Sammy is the youngest member of the A&P staff, and his age colors his narration. Stokesie is three years older, and although Sammy says Stokesie being a family man is "the only difference" between them, it is a big difference. The two young men may joke around as they do when they admire the girls, but Stokesie keeps his nose to the grindstone. He needs to bring in his paycheck; his wife and children depend on it. Stokesie has ambitions, too. He hopes to become store manager someday. For him, making a gesture like the one Sammy makes at the end of the story would be impossible because he has too much to lose. Sammy may feel Stokesie is a lot like him, but Stokesie is probably more like Lengel and many of the store's customers.

Sammy calls both McMahon and Lengel "old," but it's likely both McMahon and Lengel are middle-aged. Sammy clearly feels a generation gap between him, McMahon, and Lengel. He places himself, Stokesie, and the girls on one side and McMahon and Lengel on the other. While it's okay for him and Stokesie to ogle the girls, when McMahon does it, Sammy suddenly sees the girls as innocent victims and feels defensive on their account. His desire to identify with the girls, to side with them, and to defend them peaks when the manager tells them off.

The gap between Sammy and the customers is even wider. He groups them together despite obvious age differences. Some are middle-aged or older, but others are young mothers with children. Still, Sammy doesn't think of them as people with lives of their own; instead, he characterizes them by their shopping habits: they are "cash-register-watchers" and "house-slaves" who push their carts and mutter over their shopping lists; they buy incomprehensible amounts of pineapple juice. When confronted with the girls in bathing suits, the customers are embarrassed, and Sammy finds their embarrassment "pretty hilarious." He makes fun of them and by doing so makes fun of their sense of propriety.

In the background is Sammy's relationship with his family. He doesn't mention them often, but when he does, readers sense a close relationship. His mother ironed his work shirt the night before; his grandmother would be "pleased" if she knew he was using her expression "Fiddle-de-doo"; his parents will consider the incident "sad" (rather than childish, foolhardy, or stupid). These brief references give the impression of a loving, perhaps small family—Sammy never mentions any sisters or brothers—who support him.

Growing Up

Like most adolescents on the brink of adulthood, Sammy experiences a generation gap, feeling the difference between himself and those who are older than him. Sammy is experiencing what many a young person of his age might feel: a desire to rebel against expectation. His manager expects him to perform his job responsibly and well. The A&P customers expect him to help them efficiently and correctly and to remain polite no matter how they treat him. His parents expect him to get a responsible job and start earning a living—the beginning of a future in which he may well have to support himself with no safety net.

At the same time, Sammy is still grappling with trying to understand the world around him. At times, his youthful arrogance is on display. He has himself convinced that he understands the lives of his coworkers and customers, but he doesn't. He sees things in black and white, without nuance—almost as cartoons. He admits that he doesn't understand girls, yet he makes judgmental statements about the relationship among the three girls he's watching: Queenie is the leader who's had to convince the others to go shopping with her and is now showing them how to act; the other girls would call Big Tall Goony-Goony "striking" but actually hang out with her because it makes them look better. At his most sexist, he wonders if girls are even capable of thinking: "Do you really think it's a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar?"

Sammy also sees everything in relation to himself. The "witch" with the HiHo crackers is out to get him and happy she tripped him up. The girls must be aware of him and Stokesie watching them. Lengel disapproves of Sammy's smiling during Lengel's confrontation with the girls. He has to quit quickly so that the girls notice him doing it; he assumes they will recognize what he has done for them and consider him their hero. Sammy's self-absorption is typical of many adolescents. But, in reality, Stokesie's career plans, along with Lengel's mature concern for the customers and for Sammy's parents, contrast sharply with Sammy's egocentrism.

Brand Names

From the first paragraph, when Sammy rings up a customer's HiHo crackers twice, to the last, when he sees a customer's Falcon station wagon parked in the lot, Updike packs his story with product references and brand names. This brings to life the grocery store setting, but it also references the general consumerism and standardization of American life in the 1950s.

It was a time of consumerism, two-car nuclear families, and upward social mobility. When Queenie comes to the cash register with her purchase of "Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream: 49¢," the product name sets her apart from other customers with their HiHos and pineapple juice. There is a long description on the herring snacks that contains ritzy-sounding words like "king," "fancy," and "pure." Her purchase affects how Sammy visualizes her home life.

Sammy sometimes treats people in the story as if they are brand-name products, by reducing them to familiar stereotypes with predictable characteristics. From the "witch" to the "old bum" to the comparison of customers to sheep and pigs, Sammy frequently lumps people together and dismisses them. He considers many of the customers, his boss, and the girls as two-dimensional figures, in contrast to his own superior complexity.

Updike's Original, Unedited Version

Interestingly, when Updike first submitted the story to The New Yorker, it was three pages longer. In those three pages, after leaving the A&P, Sammy goes to the beach to look for the girls; although he doesn't find them, he spends time commenting on what he sees there. The editor at the magazine suggested to Updike that cutting the last three pages would strengthen the story. Updike agreed and made the change. Then he used the material he had cut as the basis for another story—"Lifeguard"—about a divinity student working a summer job as a lifeguard, who considers questions of God and of human life and mortality while observing the people on the beach and the beauty spread out at his feet.

A&P Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675

Introduction

1 Three girls in bathing suits walk into the A&P.

Rising Action

2 Sammy sees customers are shocked and turn away.

3 The girls come to Sammy's register to buy herring snacks.

4 Lengel tells them to dress appropriately next time.

Climax

5 Sammy quits.

Falling Action

6 Lengel tries to convince Sammy to stay but can't.

Resolution

7 Outside, Sammy realizes life just got harder.

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