The short story “A & P,” by John Updike, tells the tale of Sammy, a nineteen year old boy who works in a small grocery store on the East-Coast, called an A & P. He works in the store as a check out clerk until a warm summer day when three girls wearing only wearing their bathing suits came into the store to buy herring snacks and sour cream for one girl’s mother. All was going well until–the owner of the store enters and puts down the girls for coming in the store in inappropriate attire.
In a pointless heroic move to try and win over the girls; Sammy quits his job to protest the treatment of the girls. This “selfless” act was in vain, for when he left the store hoping the girls would be there waiting for him, they were gone. Updike has painted a perfect picture of what is in the inner mind of a young man–SEX. He does this by the detailed description of each of the three girls and a “heroic” act to save the day. Updikes use of description of the smallest details of the three girls let the reader know where Sam’s mind is; right in the gutter.
In the first paragraph Sam’s thoughts of the first girl he sees, or as he calls her, “Plaid” are nothing but analyzing every curve on her body. As Plaid walks into the store Sammy begins to have a mental description, of oddly enough–her butt, “with a good tan and a sweet board soft-looking can with those two crescents of white just under it, where the sun never seems to hit, at the top of the backs of her legs” (480). Updike takes on this rule as a sex driven nineteen-year-old character very well.
Sammy seems to like another quality, “They didn’t even have shoes on” (480). This struck me as odd-at least by todays standards. Seeing girls without shoes is an everyday event. The girl that Sammy is most in awe of is “Queenie” the leader of the three girls. Being the leader of the three girls and the most flamboyant may be what attracted Sammy to her; “what got me, the straps were downoff her shoulders looped loose around the cool tops of her arms” (481). Sam’s only desire was simply sex and this blinded his judgment.
He quit his job and crossed his parents. He only had one goal and that was to impress the girls, and to do that, he thought it would be a good idea to quit his job. He knows that he would disappoint his parents, but he thinks that the goal to win the girls was more important. After he quits his job and goes outside to see the girls, and there is no one there; “I looked around for my girls, but they’re gone, of course” (484). This happens with many young men–a lot of work was put into trying to win a girl and it just didn’t work.
In a way this is heroic because Sammy takes a chance and it doesn’t work out the way he wanted, but he knows that there is no turning back and he can’t change the past–he just moves on. For that reason Sammy should be commended for not backing down. This story describes what it was like to be a young man for a few hours. The story could have gone without the precise detail of everything in the story, but it shows what Sammy is thinking and feeling very well. Updike lets us explore the mind of a young man with the thoughts and challenges that are not known to all.
This also helps the reader think about chances that we all take and how some will work out for us and some will not, but chances must be taken. Sammy knows what the consequences would be if he quit, but to him they were worth the risk. In some ways this shows courage, although he should use the courage on something more productive every once in a while. One could almost see this story in a black and white movie theater in the 50’s, even though it was written in 1961, it seems the idea came from an earlier time.