The A & P
A short story by John Updike

I have long been a fan of John Updike. His book Rabbit Run was magical. Why? His metaphors were daring. "March blue sky." (And then there was the fly on the ceiling that moved around haltingly like it was amazed it could be on the ceiling without falling.) It seemed a lot of his metaphors were mystically concocted. It appeared he took extraordinary risks with some of his metaphors but he always seemed to pull it off.

Some of us unathletic types would still enjoy playing basketball in the fall. I lived in a subdivision where every house had a driveway and every driveway had a basketball hoop above the garage. There was a type of shot that we all tried, especially when we were bored and the score didn't matter. It was called a "glory shot." The chances of making the basket were very slim but in the moment it sailed off the boys hand (it was usually a one hand shot) up until it had definitely missed the hoop, there existed the fantasy that it might make it. And if it did make it, then it would be something to take from the game, the thrilling memory of seeing the impossible. You had to have been there to believe it, and we would have been there. A thrilling sight in a dull game, to take home with you at end of a dull day.

Now Updike, who doesn't give us characters we can be fond of, like Saroyan can, is like having a rather unlikable kid playing in your driveway who not only attempts a "glory shot" every time he gets the ball, but makes it every time. You don't tell him to go home. You keep allowing it and you wonder how he does it. Part of you hopes he misses; part of you hopes he makes it. And you admire him but in a cold way.

When I first read A & P I wondered what Updike was up to. Is he just seeing if he can find the voice of this main character to show what a versatile writer he is? The story presented me with questions which made me want to dig in deeper.

There is humor here, but how much?

What is the protagonist's attitude toward women? If he is fascinated because he's attracted to them, why does he describe them in derogatory terms? Wouldn't you call somebody voluptuous rather than chubby? The protagonist's feelings toward the women is consistently and humorously ambivalent.

It can't be because the protagonist is uneducated that he would describe them in his consistently crude and unflattering manner. And just how uneducated can somebody be who describes such minutia? What kind of person would be so drawn to the opposite sex and yet describe them this way?

I don't have a clear answer but I have some guesses. It could be that in the culture of his north of Boston neighborhood, women are described in these terms.

To say a woman has a "nice ass" or a "great set of jugs" is disrespectful yet complimentary but this isn't the nature of his description. "Nice ass" is a stock expression. What this protagonist seems to be doing is using his own terms which are consistently uncomplimentary.

So, Updike has me wondering, is the main character working out some serious ambivalence about women? The bulk of the story seems to be dedicated to describing a strong attraction in unflattering terms. Sex can be like that and sex is something that Updike thinks a lot about. (I imagine it improves sales.)

My guess is that Updike probably is not limiting himself to this theme. There is the whole point of the protagonist quitting his job.

I find it interesting that this act of rebellion climaxes with the protagonist saying "fiddle de dee." Being so flippant to a friend of your parents is extreme, and quitting your job on the spot is extreme, yet, what kind of rebel quotes his grandmother? And imagines his grandmother would be proud? That seems awfully contradictory.

The store manager, Lengel, a flat character, is somebody who is responsible for all of the goods being in the proper rows. The protagonist demonstrates he's memorized where everything goes. Where everything goes is where everything belongs. There's nothing ambiguous about where you can find the Hi-Ho crackers. And Lengel is a Sunday School teacher. In Sunday School you learn all the answers. There is right and wrong. Everything has it's place. All questions have correct answers.

Sammy, the protagonist, is restless. Unlike his co-worker, he doesn't have a wife and family. His view of those exposed shoulders will be the only exposed shoulders he sees that day. In the A & P he's boxed in. The store is rectangular and everything is divided in numbered rows and lettered sections. If there isn't a place for it, it doesn't belong. The A & P is confining and it's no place for bare shoulders.

The three young women who come into the store in their bathing suits are probably not very attractive in a sexual way. I imagine Sammy's descriptions are fairly accurate. I imagine that they have an attraction because they are different and they are violating the rules of the store. It's liberating in such an ordered, predictable environment.

Sammy can't take his eyes off them and can't stop thinking about them. This would be a lame story if they were particularly sexual attractive. Sex would nudge out the other reasons that Sammy focuses on them. They're different, they're violating the rules, yet they are innocent.

I wish Updike hadn't mention that Lengel teaches Sunday school. And he mentions it twice. That seems an awfully easy way to give a character rigidity. And to remind us how rigid he is, we're told he keeps his back straight as if he got a shot of iron.

What Updike does with the archetypal symbol of light is a key to understanding the theme. The A & P has the cheap, functional, unnatural, less-than-full-spectrum fluorescent lights. The girls, in contrast, have sunburn which mysteriously and seductively, might not be sunburn. And the light on the outside of the A&P which Sammy sees as soon as he leaves, is not one he expected or can easily manage. It skips about on the asphalt. If it is indeed a day to visit the beach, the sun could be much brighter outside than in a fluorescent lit store. Light could really skip around on the black asphalt and I think Updike mentions it because Sammy's act of rebellion doesn't result in a happy ending. He doesn't enter in to a bright, warm light of understanding. He's abandoned order, rules, and convention but what he gets is uncertainty, not paradise. The sun doesn't glow warmly on him. He's still a long way from the beach. And the swimsuit clad girls don't embrace him. They don't even turn their heads.

As a story of initiation, it reminds us that coming of age isn't comfortable or predictable or sudden. And at first there's reason for doubt that things are ever going to turn out right. (The same is evident in the initiation stories of The Grave and The Man Who Was Almost a Man.)

Updike makes this fairy tale conform to the dreariness of real, daily life because the princess is plain looking, the prince isn't heroic and the dragon is just a low key, basically decent friend of the family. Whether in an enchanted kingdom or an A&P, the prince is going act and act decisively. Sammy's stomach fell when he was out on the asphalt. At the end of this story, it's not clear who, if anybody, is going to live happily ever after.)

This story would not be appropriate for my 7th grade class due to the sexual ambivalence and the lengthy fun that Updike has with the character's diction and the interplay of the store's products and the young women's charms.

Morrill Books