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Working-Class Resistance in Updike’s A&P

A&P is a short story by the American writer John Updike published in 1962. It recounts an episode from the life of Sammy, a cashier working for the local A&P grocery store during the summer to help provide for his family. He contemptuously observes and narrates the inner life of the store’s customers and other employees. One day, three girls walk in wearing “nothing but bathing suits” and disrupt the store’s daily routine, causing a conflict that ultimately culminates in Sammy quitting his job.

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Sammy feels resentment towards the customers and condescendingly regards them as lifeless cart-pushing automatons. He calls them “sheep” numerous times throughout the story, as well as “house-slaves”, “bums”, “scared pigs in a chute”, and one particular customer “a witch…if she’d been born at the right time they would have burned her over in Salem.” (Updike 1-3). Sammy supposes that if dynamite went off in the store, they “would by and large keep reaching and checking oatmeal off their lists” (Updike 1). The customers represent the mindless consumerist society caught in a rat race that has completely lost its sense of immediacy and consciousness.

Sammy’s attitude concerning the other store employees is just as disdainful. Lengel is the “pretty dreary” manager, a cog in the corporate machine who exerts his authority on the less powerful and enforces the rules that Sammy regards as meaningless. The other cashier, Stokesie, is revealed as a hypocritical twenty-two-year-old with “two babies chalked up on his fuselage already” who “thinks he’s going to be a manager some sunny day” (Updike 2).

He aspires to be part of the American corporate structure because he sees himself as a “responsible married man” (Updike 2). Sammy treats him with just as much condescension, but at the same time, remains cognizant of the fact that there is not much difference between them (Updike 2). Lengel and Stokesie are two people who have already abandoned their sense of self for the sake of a stable salary, and to Sammy, they represent his worst fears of what his life could turn out to be.

Sammy feels bored and resentful because he presumably comes from a working-class family and has been forced to work in a grocery store to contribute to the family budget. He mentions that if his parents have somebody over, “they get lemonade and if it’s a real racy affair Schlitz in tall glasses”, and that the “crowd that runs A&P must look pretty crummy”, hinting at his lower-middle-class socio-economic background (Updike 3). Once Sammy quits, Lengel sighs and tells him, “you don’t want to do this to your Mom and Dad”, showing us that Sammy has accepted this job out of duty to his parents (Updike 3). Therein lies the conflict for Sammy up to the moment the three girls walk in – he does not want to participate in American working-class consumerist society but has been forced into this position to support his family.

Then, three girls in bathing suits walk into the store and immediately shift the settled dynamics of the store. The protective urge and sexual desire the girls awaken in Sammy finally push him out of his comfort zone and incite him to quit the job he hates. However, the girls come from a presumably upper-middle-class background and can challenge Lengel’s authority without repercussions – the “prim” leader “remembers her place,” and they simply leave the store (Updike 2).

By quitting, on the other hand, Sammy has deprived his family of a salary, and he will have to face their disapproval. He cannot bring himself to become Lengel and enforce meaningless store policies: “policy is what the kingpins want. What the others want is juvenile delinquency.” (Updike 3). His stomach falls as he feels “how hard the world is going to be to [him] hereafter” (Updike 3). His parents are not rich, and his life is now destined to be a struggle for survival since he is not ready to compromise his morals. Sammy has made the fatal decision to diverge from the safe path of American capitalism, and although the decision was a spur-of-the-moment attempt to impress girls, there is no going back now.

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I believe the author intended to criticize American society and simultaneously show how hard rebellion is for the working-class population. For Sammy, being a cashier is mind-numbingly boring and soul-crushing, but unfortunately, a necessary evil to help his family. He is inspired by the dissent of three girls from a better socio-economic background that presumably do not have or need a job. Standing up to Lengel costs no effort for them, but it means subjugation to a life of hardship and disappointment for Sammy. Furthermore, Sammy is a nineteen-year-old without any responsibilities beyond his duty to his parents; that is also a privilege that enables him to quit.

Lengel’s advice at the end reveals that he is conscious of the compromise he has been forced to make. The main takeaway of the story is that although one out of two choices may be morally preferable, ultimately, it is our life circumstances and not our moral character that enable us to pick the better one.

In conclusion, A&P is a short story by John Updike that explores the themes of consumerism and class resistance. Sammy is trapped in the American corporate machine but makes the fateful decision to quit after witnessing a workplace conflict at a high personal cost. The author showcases that capitalism functions largely because the working class is forced to compromise their beliefs to earn a stable salary, and anybody who refuses to do so without economic privilege must accept a life of struggle and hardship.

Works Cited

Updike, John. “A&P.” English 10 Honors Summer Reading, 2015, pp. 1-3.

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