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Language as a Tool in John Updike’s “A&P”


John Updike uses language as far more than a narrational or beautifying tool in his short story “A&P”; instead, he employs linguistic tools such as metaphors and colloquialism to enrich his characters and provide a riveting analysis of the many social trends at war in 1960s America.

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John Updike’s famed short story “A&P,” which was an instant classic from the moment of its release, is as notable for its use of language as it is for being its social commentary on life in the 1960s. The quiet confrontations and rebellions occurring in the rapidly changing society are brought to life through the thoughts and words of Sammy, the main character. The narrative is complemented by the linguistic tools that aid readers in acquiring a comprehensive picture of the story and add flavor to an otherwise dull world. Rather than solely adding to the beauty or vivacity of the text, Updike uses metaphors as the vehicle through which the story becomes more realistic and closer to life. The work, which is told from the nineteen-year-old store clerk’s point of view, is delivered in a distinctly conversational manner, which is as much a part of the story as the events taking place. Colloquialism allows for an immersion in the teenager’s mind, a subsequent distaste for his more vulgar thoughts, and a sympathy for his inner struggle. John Updike uses language as far more than a narrational or beautifying tool in his short story “A&P”; instead he employs linguistic tools such as metaphors and colloquialism to enrich his characters and provide a riveting analysis of the many social trends at war in the 1960s America.


Metaphors take on a role beyond merely enhancing the language in John Updike’s short story “A&P”; instead, they serve as linguistic tools that allow the author to compare the appearance and manners of his characters, thereby allowing him to affect a riveting analysis of society. Both Sammy’s sense of self-importance and his naive sense of the romantic are shown through the language used to describe his innermost thoughts. Updike’s language clearly indicates how Sammy seeks to reach beyond his mundane work life and into a life of greater romance and import (Bowers). A bored Sammy romanticizes the most mundane of tasks, such as Stokesie opening a package “as gently as peeling a peach”. Sammy prefers to see Lengel as possessing “an injection of iron” rather than as a normal man in a managerial role overseeing his subordinates. These metaphors highlight both Sammy’s immaturity and his longing for a greater purpose, which respectively later lead him to quit his job in a fit of either teenage pique or rebellion against the system (Bowers). Overall, it is thus possible to see the myriad of ways in which Updike has used incredibly evocative and often metaphorical language to imbue a richness into the otherwise stale world Sammy inhabits. Language is thus a tool of creation, rather than mere description, and allows the short story to become the successful work that it is.


One of the more notable features of the work is the way the reader is immersed in Sammy’s inner world, which is achieved through the use of colloquial language representative of a teenager’s mind. His labeling of an older customer who distracts him from the young girls as a “witch about fifty” is a wonderfully descriptive bit of language. It simultaneously demonstrates Sammy’s immaturity and presents a delightfully visual image for the reader. He then goes on to equate calming the lady down with getting “her feathers smoothed,” which puts in mind the teenage boy’s vision of a middle-aged woman – a sort of sharp-nosed harpy, whose mission in life is to torture teenage store clerks. It must be noted that this view has been challenged by recent reinterpretations of the character of Sammy as female, which would lend an entirely different flavor to the story (Dossett). However, the language used to describe women, for example, “do you think it’s a mind there..?” hints against this theory and seems to confirm Sammy’s maleness. Though supported by other scholars, the suggestion of Sammy’s femininity makes the highlighted gender characteristics moot and removes much of the linguistic appeal of the work (Dabek). An analysis of Updike’s literary techniques thus eliminates the point of reviewing Sammy’s gender, as much of the language is rooted in his worldview as a teenage boy.

Another use of language is in demonstrating Sammy’s naivety and puffed-up sense of importance. Although only nineteen himself, he thinks of “poor kids” when observing the girls being ogled by one of his older colleagues. Whether this is down to a desire to defend the girls, which seems unlikely given his own lecherous gaze, or down to embarrassment, it nevertheless clearly demonstrates Sammy’s inflated sense of maturity (Dabek). The comparison of his manager to a school superintendent further highlights Sammy’s youth and his condescending view of the store’s staff. This argument is not necessarily in keeping with other interpretations that show his eventual quitting as “a stand against mindless consumerism” (Bowers 174) rather than a teen acting out against the authority figures in his life. Overall, colloquial language is employed as a world-building tool, as it offers insight into Sammy’s mind and allows the reader to observe and sympathize with his perception of the world.

How linguistic tools contribute to social analysis

Social analysis is achieved through the use of language in depicting Sammy’s thoughts and the interactions of Sammy, his fellow workers, and the bikini-clad girls. The ambiguity of the tongue leads the reader to wonder whether the girls were seeking attention through their form of dress or whether Sammy’s perception of them was contorted through gender stereotypes (Dossett, 14). Indeed, this leads to a scholarly debate about the extent to which Sammy’s thoughts and behaviors are influenced by the suburban setting of his life (Bowers, 2019). According to Flajasar, the critical social commentary aspect of Updike’s work is reliant on its suburban setting (36). This is an interesting observation, as the mundane setting and rich language appear to complement each other and allow the story to unfold. Following the importance of the story’s setting, Sammy’s misunderstanding of class positions is described by Aguiar as being “due to the deceptive class dynamics of the supermarket where he works” (59). Classism can be seen to have a potentially harmful effect on Sammy’s life (Aguiar). Though the privileged girls help to inspire his act of rebellion, it has no bearing on their lives; indeed, they do not even notice, and yet it has potentially disastrous consequences for him (Aguiar). In fact, this view has led to the opinion that it is wrong to consider Sammy a rebellious character due to the social and historical context of the work (Bowers). In all, John Updike’s use of literary tools to enrich a localized, mundane setting allows him to enact a searing social analysis of suburban Americans in the 1960s through a short story about a teenage boy’s frustration with and eventual rebellion against his tedious job.


Language is a hugely effective tool in Updike’s hands, as it transforms a short story about a day in the life of a bored teenager in a sleepy American town into a riveting commentary of the culture clashes of the 1960s. The choice of narrator and linguistic elements all combine to make the reader sympathetic and receptive to Sammy’s plight. The reader wishes to cheer him on as he chooses the path of individual freedom, like many of his generations. With this decision, he rejects his parents’ steady and established life and the older generation’s values and condemns himself to a life of uncertainty. However, though small in scope, the tale is made exquisitely rich through Updike’s use of language and linguistic tools such as colloquialism and metaphors to create an almost immersive reading experience. Metaphors take on a role beyond beautifying the language in John Updike’s short story “A&P” and instead serve as linguistic devices that allow the author to compare the appearance and manners of his characters. The colloquial language Updike uses in compiling the character of Sammy creates the understanding that the teenager is himself trying to give his actions meaning and is in want of a sympathetic reception. Language is thus at the very root of the world-building and social analysis that continues to make “A&P” such a compelling story decades after it was first published.

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Works Cited

Aguiar, Christian. Living class in John Updike’s “A&P”. The Explicator, vol.78, no. 2, 2020, pp. 58-61. Web.

Bowers, Terence. The Significance of Sounds in Uplike’s “A&P”. The Explicator, vol.76, no.4, 2019, pp.174-178. Web.

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

Dossett, Sadie. “The One Who Changed: An Analysis of “A&P” and Sammy’s Epiphany”. HOHONU, vol.14, 2016, pp. 13-14.

Flajasar, Jiri. Suburban Identity in the Poetry of John Updike. Prague Journal of English Studies, vol. 8, no.1, 2019, pp. 35-54. Web.

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