The charm of Updike’s slice-of-life stories may seem to come from the hidden layers of meaning that they contain, yet, on closer inspection, one will find out that they are quite straightforward. However, this discovery does not reduce the attractiveness of Updike’s nuanced storytelling; instead, it amplifies the lingering feeling of wistfulness and allows exploring the depth of human nature in a more profound manner. In his short story “A&P,” Updike creates a narrative that is supposed to symbolize coming of age, yet he does so by centering his story on the character that literally comes of age by gaining an experience that weirdly combines pessimistic and optimistic messages.
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The Symbolism of Coming of Age
Arguably, the novel contains several symbols that are more evident and in-your-face with their allusion to the process of gaining experience and growing up, specifically, developing one’s own agency. For example, the presence of sheep in the story is not accidental; instead, they can be interpreted as the symbol of Sammy’s childlike and naïve attitude and his willingness to follow the lead of others without questioning the legitimacy of their statements. At some point, Updike mentions: “The sheep pushing their carts down the aisle” (Updike).
In this respect, the girls that create commotion in the shop are supposed to represent the opposite notion of a rebellion and the willingness to blaze one’s own trail. To make the juxtaposition of the two symbols explicitly clear, Updike combines them in one sentence, continuing the metaphor: “the girls were walking against the usual traffic” (Updike). The reference to the idea of two extremes meeting and the lead character facing the concept of going against traditions is so evident at this point that Updike’s narrative continues with a meta-commentary as the main character defines it as “pretty hilarious” (Updike). However, in the described scenario, the meta-reference works surprisingly well given the naiveté of the protagonist and the natural flow of this observation.
In comparison to the general symbol of the lead character’s maturing embodying the idea of coming of age, the rest of the symbols seem less significant; however, this could not be further away from the truth. Each of the other symbols adds to the sense of transgression that the lead character experiences when observing the interaction between the young women and the owner of the shop. For instance, the symbolism of the items that people come to purchase in the shop is a minor addition to the general narrative, yet it also contributes to Sammy developing a more mature outlook on life and the relationships within society.
Specifically, the difference in the financial opportunities of buyers that shines through as the narrator mentions different types of food that they purchase allows Sammy to gain introspect into the power relationships within society. The mentioning of the price that Queeny pays for her meal might seem like an unintentional and rather pointless detail, yet it delineates the difference between classes clearly for Sammy: “Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream: 49¢” (Updike). Thus, Updike hints at the sense of alienation as an important stage of growing up. The author makes it abundantly obvious that the difference in social background and wealth creates a gap between people, creating a massive obstacle for relationships and interactions.
Moreover, aligning with the general theme and the key symbol of coming of age as the foundation for the story, the narration also incorporates several symbols that seem to lie on the surface with their quite basic meaning. The clothes that characters wear are among these clues; specifically, the difference between the stiff attire of the shop owner, as well as the rest of the people that surround Sammy, and the bathing suits of the girls. Defined immediately by the shop owner as “inappropriate,” these items of clothing serve as the symbol of passage to adulthood. On the one hand, the notion of dismantling social stereotypes by challenging them in a manner that shocks the opponent into paying attention might seem slightly childish and lacking maturity. On the other hand, it is worth keeping in mind that a rebellion is a healthy and natural part of growing up and becoming an independent person. Thus, by viewing the young women that draw the attention of the shop owner and its visitors, Sammy realizes that mindless compliance, to which he was accustomed, might not be necessarily the best line of behavior for him as an adult. The described change in the lead character’s perspective is punctuated with the dialogue that follows:
You know, it’s one thing to have a girl in a bathing suit down on the beach, where what with the glare nobody can look at each other much anyway, and another thing in the cool of the A & P, under the fluorescent lights, against all those stacked packages, with her feet paddling along naked over our checkerboard green-and-cream rubber-tile floor.
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Therefore, the stark contrast between the clothes that the young women wear when they enter the shop and the clothes of the rest of the customers sets the platform not only for the conflict between the girls and the shop owner but also the main character’s internal conflict. The juxtaposition of the norm and the extent to which one can push social boundaries baffles the main character, symbolizing his transition to maturity and the realization of the fragile nature of social standards. As a result, Sammy develops a more nuanced understanding of social interactions and their hierarchy.
There are numerous symbols scattered throughout the story, yet the most evident one is the experience that Sammy has as the representation of the process of coming of age. The idea of maturing as a complex process that implies challenging the norm and is often seen as frustrating by the people that experience it is embodied very vividly in the story of Sammy, making his emotional growth to be the symbol of coming of age, in general. Thus, the story remains appealing to every reader while focusing on a protagonist with a very distinct set of characteristics and a unique personality.
In his straightforward manner, Updike adds uniqueness to “A&P” by creating a coming-of-age narrative and inserting a character that literally comes of age and unravels the wisdom of the fleeting nature of positive emotions and interactions. The novel shows that Sammy, an initially naïve person who unquestioningly follows the leader, develops his own voice as he observes what happens around him and develops his own critical idea of what he sees. Sheep mentioned several times in the story are a more evident symbol of the described issue, yet they represent only a part of Sammy’s narrative, symbolizing his past, trusting, and naïve self.
Updike, John. “A&P.” Tiger-Town.com, n.d., Web.