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A&P | Themes

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Sensuality versus Propriety

When Sammy looks at the girls, he sees how attractive they are and enjoys it. He not only enjoys looking at features like Plaid's "can" or Queenie's long neck, but he dwells on details such as Plaid's tan, which doesn't reach her stomach, causing Sammy to infer that her two-piece bathing suit is new. This is an intimate level of sensuality that goes beyond Stokesie's quick gush of appreciation—"Oh Daddy ... I feel so faint." Sammy pays attention to details of the girls' bodies, such as Plaid's "crescents of white ... at the top of the backs of her legs" and Queenie's "long white prima donna legs," white shoulders, and long neck. He lingers on and delights in these details.

But the other people in the store react differently, and even Stokesie is aware of this. "Is it done?" Stokesie asks Sammy, questioning the propriety of the girls' swimsuits. As manager Lengel is the one who speaks for the A&P and what is proper there. In Sammy's opinion, Lengel runs the store too much according to policy and a conventional concept of decency, which keeps the manager from engaging in the sensuality of life. Sammy thinks Lengel is too stuck in his role as a Sunday school teacher. The A&P customers are much the same to Sammy, choosing to avert their eyes from the sensual girls and continue with their proper activity of shopping for their families. When Lengel takes the girls to task for dressing inappropriately, Sammy finds that sort of judgment unfair and chooses to embrace their difference from the norm.

Change

The girls' appearance in the A&P wearing bathing suits and Sammy's resignation from his job foreshadow changes in society. The story takes place during the 1950s, but it looks forward to the coming decade of extreme change, when many in a whole generation will shrug off the "proper" lifestyle of their parents and embrace nonconformity. Clothing will be one of the symbols of their rebellion, which will also feature an acceptance and celebration of sensuality and sexuality. When Sammy defends the girls' right to shop in their bathing suits, he rather unconsciously takes a step toward that rebellion.

"A&P" describes a turning point in Sammy's life. He's growing up emotionally and his actions in the story will force him to grow up even faster. At first, Sammy reacts to the girls without thinking; he finds them attractive and studies their bodies appreciatively. He's amused by the other customers' shocked reactions to the girls. Then, as he observes additional reactions, especially McMahon's, he finds himself thinking of the girls as people who might be hurt by the assumptions and judgments of others. He "beg[ins] to feel sorry for them" and ultimately tells Lengel, "You didn't have to embarrass them." To make a gesture in support of the girls, Sammy quits, but readers sense an ambiguity on his part. When Lengel tries to change Sammy's mind, saying Sammy doesn't want to hurt his parents and will "feel this for the rest of [his] life," Sammy admits to himself Lengel is right. And once he's outside, Sammy quickly realizes the implications of his actions. He still stands by them, but he recognizes he has chosen a more difficult path.

Boredom versus Deviation

Although jolted awake for an instant by the girls, the A&P customers quickly return to the tedium of their sheep-like shopping behavior. It is not that they don't want a break from the boredom of their monotonous lives, though. It's just that they look for moments of excitement within certain parameters. A good example is the "cash-register-watcher," who finds excitement in catching Sammy ringing up her crackers twice.

In contrast, Sammy chooses to live with gusto. Not only is he consistently critical of how the customers and workers cling to accepted behaviors, but he walks out at the end of the story and realizes he is going to be one of the ones who walks against the herd—and that it won't be easy.

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