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John Updike’s “A&P”: Literary Analysis

Introduction

John Updike’s short story “A&P” is narrated from the perspective of a teenager Sammy, who belongs to a working-class family but strives to join the privileged part of society. The work is built around the three main motives: division of social classes, conservatism versus liberalism, and consumerism versus romanticism. Written on the brink of the old order, the story brings fresh, yet controversial ideas, challenging the established attitudes of the readers. In “A&P” the author utilizes bathing suits and herring snacks to symbolize the outdatedness of gender roles and the importance of individuality.

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Symbolism

Bathing Suits

Bathing suits are one of the primary symbols of John Updike’s short story “A&P.” As suggested by Bentley, the author uses the unusual attire to characterize Sammy’s pattern of thinking throughout the story (121). Entering the supermarket while only wearing bathing suits, girls disregard the established social norms of the small town. Rebellious and deliberately provocative, the act of wearing bathing suits calls immediate attention from the towners who accuse young women of attracting unnecessary attention from male strangers (Bentley 121).

Lenger, the authority figure in Updike’s short story comments that girls’ attire is inappropriate for his store and forbids them from entering until they cover their shoulders. In a contemporary context, bathing suits would symbolize gender stereotyping and sex-shaming that still frequently occurs at school and the workplace. Unlike the regular grey clothing worn by housewives who enter the supermarket daily to do grocery shopping, the girls’ bathing suits drastically differed with bright colors, catchy patterns, and memorable prints.

A representation of sexuality and femininity for girls, bathing suits carry a different meaning for Sammy who is initially mesmerized by the female’s attractive appearance and young vibrant personality. Sammy perceives bathing suits as a symbol of freedom and an opportunity to escape from the limited society wherein he finds himself stuck since childhood (Porter 1158). Inspired by the girls’ ability to disobey the norms of social conduct, the man decides to go against the system, removing his apron and bowtie, symbols of the corporate uniform (Updike 614). Though Sammy dares to quit his job, the freedom communicated by the girls’ act remains inaccessible to him (Porter 1158). Unsure how to fight for his rights and grow his independence from the limiting social order, he ends up wearing the freshly ironed white shirt, combatting feelings of uncertainty and doubt.

Herring Snacks

Another notable symbol of Updike’s short story is herring snacks. When Sammy sees Queenie purchasing the Kingfish fancy herring snacks in pure sour cream in the store, he starts presuming her socioeconomic status (Porter 1159). The snacks bought in the shop take on a symbolic value in the man’s eyes as Queenie mentions that her mother asked her to get some food for the party organized in the house in the afternoon.

The vision of herring snacks helps Sammy to imagine the type of party held at Queenie’s mother’s house (Porter 1159). He unconsciously compares the official suits, luxurious cocktails, and expensive food served at the woman’s social gathering with the lemonade and Schlitz beer offered to his parents’ guests (Updike 618). Fascinated, yet puzzled with his discovery, Sammy understands that his family would never afford to buy herring snacks for a casual party, treating the occasion of purchasing new beer glasses as a festive event.

As the man attempts to predict Queenie’s social status based on her purchases, he also assumes her attitudes to people belonging to the working class. In his opinion, the girl treats people running the A&P store as inferior to her and her family (Porter 1159). Without having objective evidence for making such an assumption, Sammy feels heightened and euphoric with his realization. In a pointless effort to impress Queenie and approach her social class, Sammy quits his job. What may seem like a courageous gesture of self-liberation, from one perspective, may appear as a doomed attempt to overcome social constraints strengthened by envy and stereotypes.

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Themes

Individual VS Collective

The theme of individuality is dominant in the plot of Updike’s short story, expressed through Sammy’s perception of freedom. The protagonist envisions liberty as an individual’s freedom to be different from the tendencies dictated by society (Bentley 124). Surprisingly, the author’s main goal is not to advocate the importance of individuality but approach the topic holistically with an argument presented on both sides. From one perspective, Sammy condemns the “sheep” instinct of the working-class people who are scared to express their personality through unusual appearance, looks, or patterns of behavior (Bentley 124).

In this case, conformity appears as a social curse that limits a person’s ability to progress and move forward, overcoming the restrictions of one’s social class (Bentley 124). The man emphasizes that compliance does not nurture creativity or growth, closing an individual in the frames of the old order.

From another perspective, conformity to the collective norms is convenient and secure. Following the established canons of behavior is a way to ensure financial stability and have a full-time job. Yet, Sammy does not seek security or convenience, willing to rebel against the limitations of a low-paid working-class job of a cashier (Bentley 126). The problem arises when the man fails to understand that expressing one’s individuality comes with a very high cost. Losing a job and failing to impress the girl from the upper social class, he starts doubting whether the collective attitude is that debilitative (Stearns 394). With such a conclusion, Updike makes a slightly pessimistic, yet important point, individuality is rare. Regardless of the current political or socioeconomic trends promoting authenticity and freedom of choice, most people will continue adhering to the collective attitudes.

Women VS Men

Another dominant theme that deserves closer attention in “A&P” is traditional gender roles. As per the story’s setting, the woman is still viewed as a housewife with a predefined set of activities and occupational possibilities (Stearns 397). The scope of the females’ rights is so limiting that, indeed, men have the privilege to choose their wives ’ clothes, accessories, and hobbies. Yet, the stereotypical chain of gender roles gets broken in the story when girls wearing bathing suits enter the supermarket, creating an opposite picture to what was common in the 1950s-1960s in the US (Toni 22). From one point of view, entering the supermarket in bathing suits is provocative and even scandalous. It may draw unwanted attention and spoil the women’s reputation.

However, the author does not incorporate this scene to emphasize ladies’ sexuality as such. Instead, he points out that women have a right to be in full control of their bodies, choosing what to wear and what parts of the body to show. Updike clearly marks his territory, condemning the scene of sex-shaming by the store’s manager (Stearns 398). With this powerful message, he suggests that males should be ashamed to make sexist comments on the basis of women’s looks.

Another interesting detail to mention is that Updike puts a line between the working class and upper class using the opposite gender roles. A woman is used to symbolize the luxury, wealth, and inaccessible privileged social class, while a man represents the middle class. Though the author does not give a background story of Queenie’s career, implying that she is rich by heritage, he raises an important point that females can belong to the privileged social class even without being married to a wealthy gentleman.

Motifs

Working Class VS Upper Class

The motif of social classes division is particularly important for the understanding of the story’s symbolism. Sammy, an impulsive teenager belonging to the working class, divides the customers of the A&P store into two categories, working-class and upper class, on the basis of their purchases, appearance, and clothing (Toni 24). Though the man has never directly interacted with the representatives of the upper class, he deliberately pursues communication with rich people, envying their social advantages and societal position. His delusional outlook on wealth is formed through the prism of several foregone conclusions (Toni 22).

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First, he views individuals belonging to the upper class as liberated because of their attire and material things owned. Second, Sammy suggests that rich people do not live according to the social rules dictated by the masses.

As the story progresses, the protagonist makes an even more outrageous distinction, comparing the working class with sheep, all of whom think, dress, talk, and act alike. Sammy’s fear to belong to the low socioeconomic class is so prevalent that Lengel, his manager, can easily scare him with a notion of having a working-class job for the rest of his life (Toni 20). Blinded by the superficiality of the upper-class life, the teenager defends the privileged society members while the latter fails to acknowledge his existence (Toni 19). Hoping to overcome the struggles of a working-class man, Sammy loses his job and embarks on a journey of liberation. Yet driven by adolescent romanticism, he fails to understand that there is much more to the privileged upper class than fancy snacks and less restricted clothing.

Conservatism VS Liberalism

One of the critical motifs for the understanding of Updike’s setting is the 1950s American conservatism, where the societal order was dominated by the assigned gender roles and strict social norms. Failure to adhere to the common rules frequently resulted in public condemn and exclusion from social gatherings (Stearns 394). Safe conformity to the peaceful routine order served as a valid alternative to the destruction brought by World War II.

Challenging the conservative order, the protagonist of the “A&P” characterizes “sheep” or so-called grey masses of housewives belonging to the working class using the term conformity (Stearns 394). In contrast, the girls wearing bath suits to the supermarket represent the new liberal beliefs, where complacence is the less prevalent and stereotypical confrontation of the appearance is rather an exception than a rule.

It is essential to understand that liberalism was only rising in the 1960s when Updike wrote his short story, meaning that the crash of old values with new attitudes effectively resonated with the audience. As the author describes rattled customers who lost direction after seeing young attractive girls wearing bath suits, he implies that readers, fascinated by the story’s motif, also felt confused with the rebellious provocative ideas (Stearns 395).

Liberal motives of “A&P” are expressed with the ongoing theme of freedom of choice, interrelated with the freedom of occupation. Ironically, opposing the conservative order, Sammy unties his apron and replies to the manager’s inquiry with an old-fashioned expression “Fiddle-de-doo” (Stearns 395). Yet, what the protagonist fails to realize is that liberalism comes with its own challenges. Coming to this conclusion at the end of the story, Sammy is left wondering regarding the convenient conformity of conservatism contrasted with the ambiguous freedom of liberalism.

Consumerism VS Romanticism

Consumerism is another prevalent motif, present in Updike’s short story. The author builds the fabula of his work around the major social problem of defining happiness through material wealth. Sammy, the protagonist, is stuck between the heightened romanticized ideas of liberalism and the stereotypical perception of freedom in regard to the owned goods (Dabek 3). Just like most of the people belonging to the working class, the teenager strives to accumulate wealth to purchase fancy food and clothing. As he pictures an image of freedom, he inevitably sees white jackets, herring snacks, and expensive drinks (Dabek 4). Instead of seeing freedom as a logical consequence of spiritual transformation and liberation from societal stereotypes, the man associates the abstract term with material things, blinded by their price.

The problem of consumerism depicted in Updike’s “A&P” echoes a common idea of the American dream, where every individual from the working class can build his/her way to the privileged upper class. Liberal ideas and romanticized concepts do not intrigue Sammy as much as the opportunity to spend money and own goods that are currently inaccessible to him because of his socioeconomic status (Dabek 5).

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For some, the issue of consumerism is closely associated with greediness and the decay of moral values. Yet, the author does not describe Sammy’s outlook on the world as such, ironically pointing out his naïve adolescent beliefs regarding the division of social classes and the role of material things in life (Dabek 5). Though the protagonist actively attempts to show the reader that romanticism is outdated, his effort to transform his life due to romantic notions suggests the opposite.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Updike’s short story “A&P” is a twentieth-century hymn, commemorating a struggle of an individual from the working class striving to enter a privileged part of society. The two notable symbols that accompany the development of the plot are bathing suits and herring snacks. Bathing suits represent the rebellion against the established societal order, while herring snacks stand for the high socioeconomic status.

The two aforementioned symbols are intertwined with the corresponding themes of individuality and gender roles. The author raises an important point regarding conformity to the social norms and adherence to the assigned gender roles. Through the eyes of his characters, Updike condemns sex-shaming, suggesting that it is time for women to have full control over their bodies. The themes of the story are beautifully complemented with the three motifs, focused on class division, consumerism, and liberalism. Though tempting, the transition from the old order to the new way of life is not always smooth, pushing an individual to rethink his/her views and values.

Works Cited

Bentley, Greg W. “Sammy’s Erotic Experience: Subjectivity and Sexual Difference in John Updike’s “A & P.” Journal of the Short Story in English, vol. 43, 2004, pp. 120-141.

Dabek, Anna. Consumerist Society and its Impact on the Individual in “A&P” by John Updike. GRIN Verlag, 2014.

Porter, Gilbert M. “John Updike’s “A&P”: The Establishment and an Emersonian Cashier.” The English Journal, vol. 61, no. 8, 1972, pp. 1155-1158. Web.

Stearns, Jennie. “Resistance on Aisle Three?: Exploring the Big Curriculum of Consumption and the (Im)Possibility of Resistance in John Updike’s “A&P.” Curriculum Inquiry, vol. 41, no. 3, 2011, pp. 394-415. Web.

Toni, Saldivar. “The Art of John Updike’s “A & P.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 34, no. 2, 1997, 1-25.

Updike, John. “A&P.” Making Literature Matter: An Anthology for Readers and Writers, edited by John Schilb and John Clifford, Bedford, 2012, pp. 614-619.

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