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Metaphors and Figurative Language in Updike’s “A&P” and Pastan’s “Marks”


Figurative language and metaphors are used in short stories and poems to establish mood, develop characterization, enhance daily language, and make the works more expressive and brighter. In the poem “Marks,” Linda Pastan uses an extended metaphor to demonstrate the narrator’s attitude toward her family members and their appraisal of her work. In comparison, in his short story “A&P,” John Updike uses metaphors and figurative language to describe the protagonist’s attitude toward other people and reveal his inner world and imagination. Both authors utilize these figures of speech to help the readers better penetrate the plot and comprehend the characters’ feelings and emotions. Although Pastan and Updike use different metaphors and other figures of speech to create mood and express the narrators’ emotional states in their works of literature, one can see many similarities in the use of these literary techniques.

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The Use of Metaphors and Figurative Language in the Poem “Marks” by Linda Pastan

The poem “Marks” by Linda Pastan is a short, 12-lines only poem about a mother and her family’s attitude toward her work. The poem reveals such themes as family, aging, grading, and even death through metaphors and figurative language. The entire poem is an extended metaphor. The narrator uses school grades to demonstrate how her husband, son, and daughter measure her as a wife and mother. It seems that her family members do not grade her work with marks, but these marks allow the narrator to communicate with her audience more effectively.

The author uses three different systems to grade her work. Thus, the father evaluates his wife using letters, the son utilizes a charting system, and the daughter applies a pass/fail system. In such a way, the author distinguishes between three diverse family relationships and attitudes. Moreover, different grading systems can be identified with different standards with which the mother has to comply. The first line of the poem establishes a positive mood, which is later changed: “My husband gives me an A” (Pastan line 1). First, readers may think that the husband loves and values his wife, but the following metaphor refutes this thought: “An incomplete for my ironing, / a B plus in bed” (Pastan lines 3-4). This metaphor demonstrates that the husband takes his wife for granted and evaluates all her activities instead of telling her thank you. One can see that letter grades are associated with the narrator’s husband, whose work appraisal is subjective.

The son and daughter use other grading systems to assess their mother. In such a way, Pastan tries to show that the mother is forced to comply with this grading system, but she is irritated with it. The same can be said about a school where students are forced to comply with grading systems, and if they make something unusual or non-standard, the school states that they fail. Rebellious students will disagree and protest against such a system, dropping out of school. The poem’s last line uses school jargon to describe the mother’s rebellious nature and suggests that she will no longer tolerate her family members’ judgment: “I’m dropping out” (Pastan line 12). These words can also be identified with death, meaning that the mother can no longer endure the whole appraisal system, and she feels as if she is morally dying. One can see that Pastan uses metaphors and figurative language to make the readers better understand women’s feelings and the struggles they face during their motherhood.

The Use of Metaphors and Figurative Language in the Short Story “A&P” by John Updike

John Updike’s short story “A&P” is a first-person narration about one day in the supermarket. The narrator, Sammy, is a young boy working at the A&P’s checkout line. One day, three beautiful girls, wearing only bathing suits, enter the supermarket, and Sammy begins to observe them and imagine what these girls have in mind. He nicknames one girl Queenie, because she looks like a queen to him. The story ends with Sammy quitting his job because the store manager, Lengel, rebukes the girls for their appearance. In this short story, Updike uses the supermarket as an extended metaphor for society. Moreover, several examples of similes and personification can also be seen in the story.

The grocery store A&P is a huge metaphor for society and social relationships. The author illustrates how violating social rules and norms arouses fear and bias in human beings. For instance, when people get used to social norms, they will not accept anything different, like wearing bathing suits in the supermarket. The short story demonstrates that most members of society are afraid of changes and do not want to accept any new things and behaviors into their world because of this fear. The A&P supermarket represents an ordinary society where routine is trivial. When the three girls come in, this routine is broken, and the characters’ attention is directed to these unordinary creatures. Like in real life, some people accept unusual things, as Sammy does, and the others refuse to accept them, like the manager Lengel. Therefore, the supermarket represents society, and the interactions between characters demonstrate social norms and relationships within this society.

Another example of figurative language in the short story is a simile. Updike uses similes to compare different objects in unusual ways. For example, when Sammy is gazing at Queenie, he notices “this clean bare plane of the top of her chest from the shoulder bones like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light” (Updike 1). This simile makes the readers better penetrate Sammy’s imagination and understand his thoughts. Another simile helps reveal Sammy’s attitude towards older customers of the store, who “knock against each other, like scared pigs in a chute” (Updike 3). Here, the boy does not see these ordinary customers as individuals. On the contrary, they are all like animals to him, without any signs of individuality and difference. Another simile is used when Lengel comes to the girls, and Stoksie, another worker, shakes “open a paper bag as gently as peeling a peach” (Updike 3). This simile attracts the readers’ attention to this scene, emphasizing the character’s attitude to the situation. Thus, similes convey the narrator’s casual observations in an unordinary way.

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Finally, the author uses personifications to reflect Sammy’s experience and attitudes to society. For instance, the following example denotes that A&P is more than a supermarket for Sammy: “the door heaves itself open, and outside the sunshine is skating around on the asphalt” (Updike 3). The store is like a microcosm, and the sun represents fun activity. One can suggest that Sammy is satisfied with his decision to quit, and he leaves this microcosm and enters the funny and sunny world. Thus, personifications make the story more vivid and help the readers better understand the character’s inner world.

Comparison and Contrast of the Works’ Use of the Literary Techniques and Conclusion

Having analyzed the use of metaphors and other elements of figurative speech in Pastan’s “Marks” and Updike’s “A&P,” one can assume that both authors utilize these literary devices to emphasize the plot and make the stories more expressive and brighter. Pastan’s metaphors reveal the narrator’s feelings and attitudes toward her family members and their appraisals of her work. In comparison, Updike’s metaphors and similes express the narrator’s inner feelings and thoughts about people and his attitude to society and social norms. In both works of literature, the authors compare objects and daily routines to unordinary things and actions.

At the same time, the difference between the use of literary devices can also be seen in the analyzed works. For example, Updike’s short story is more vivid because he uses similes and personifications to reveal the narrator’s feelings. In contrast, Pastan’s poem is an extended metaphor, and it does not contain any other figures of speech. The author only utilizes school jargon to denote the narrator’s irritation with the grading system at the end of the poem. Despite such differences in the use of figurative language, both works effectively convey their hidden messages and express the narrators’ emotions with the help of metaphors, similes, and personification. In conclusion, a short story and a poem have different structures and sizes, but they use literary devices to create mood and convey the characters’ feelings in a similar way.

Works Cited

Pastan, Linda. “Marks.” Your Daily Poetry, Web.

Updike, John. “A&P.” 1962. Web.

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StudyCorgi. "Metaphors and Figurative Language in Updike’s “A&P” and Pastan’s “Marks”." August 31, 2022.


StudyCorgi. 2022. "Metaphors and Figurative Language in Updike’s “A&P” and Pastan’s “Marks”." August 31, 2022.


StudyCorgi. (2022) 'Metaphors and Figurative Language in Updike’s “A&P” and Pastan’s “Marks”'. 31 August.

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