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American Novels: “A&P” by John Updike Essay


In his short story A&P, John Updike describes the experiences of a person who cannot fully accept the norms established in the society and conformity of other people. By depicting the behavior of a teenager named Sammy who works in the supermarket chain, the writer illustrates the way in which an individual responds to the culture dominated by consumption and rigid norms that are taken for granted. Furthermore, A&P is the symbol of this world, which does not enable a person to deviate from the existing tradition.

This short story can be analyzed from different viewpoints; for instance, one can examine character development, symbolism, and the use of stylistic devices. It is possible to argue that Sammy does not accept this culture and even rebels against it; however, he almost immediately understands how naïve he is.

The main character sees that his protest is not rewarded or even recognized by others. As a result, he is overwhelmed by disappointment when it becomes clear to him that conformity is quite acceptable to other people. The main problem is that people like Sammy cannot properly articulate the goals that they want to attain. These are the main aspects that should be discussed in greater detail.

One can say that John Updike highlights the role of consumer culture by incorporating the names of brands into Sammy’s inner monologue. The protagonist works as a cashier in A&P, and the names of products have become almost inseparable parts of his vocabulary.

For example, one can mention “Diet Delight peaches,” “Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks,” and so forth (Updike 95). This is one of the details that can attract readers’ attention. In order to describe the environment, John Updike uses the following phrase, “the cat-and-dog-food-breakfast-cereal-macaroni-rice-raisins-seasonings-spreads-spaghetti-soft-drinks-crackers-and-cookies aisle” (Updike 94). This description is important for highlighting the world of prosperity, which is readily accessible to everyone.

However, at the same time, this world is extremely monotonous, especially if a person has to work as the cashier in A&P. Additionally, in this world, any deviation from the behavioral norms is not accepted. In many cases, these norms can be enforced by people like Lengel, who is the manager of the local A&P store. Thus, one can say that the world of consumption does not bring him any enjoyment because this social environment is both rigid and monotonous.

One can say that Sammy cannot accept this conformity. This is one of the reasons why he tries to sound like a very cynical person who can see the flaws in other people’s behavior or even physical appearance. Furthermore, he tries to invent insulting nicknames or descriptions while portraying clients. For instance, he depicts one of the customers as “a witch about fifty with rouge on her cheekbones and no eyebrows” (Updike, 93).

Yet, Sammy cannot fully explain his hostility towards this woman. Furthermore, he depicts many customers as “sheep” (Updike, 94). He can use less denigrating metaphors, such as “house slaves” (Updike 94). So his word choices indicate that the protagonist does not want to become one of these people.

To a great extent, his cynicism acts as the shield against this conformity. Nevertheless, deep in heart, Sammy realizes that it will be quite difficult for him to avoid this destiny. Moreover, he cannot accurately state why he dislikes the visitors. The key problem is that people like Sammy cannot properly define the goals that they wish to achieve. This is one of the issues that should be taken into account because it underlies Sammy’s sense of helplessness.

At a certain point, Sammy decides to reject the world of A&P when he does not agree with the manager’s decision. In particular, Lengel scolds girls who enter the store wearing only bathing suits. In Sammy’s opinion, this scolding is hypocritical. It is quite clear that Sammy empathizes with these girls. In order to express his protest against Lengel’s decision, he chooses to quit his job.

This behavior seems to be completely irrational to Lengel because, in this way, Sammy can upset his parents. Admittedly, Sammy does not want to do it, but he thinks that he has already crossed the point of no return. Overall, the protagonist believes that Lengel acts in a conformist way. Nevertheless, it is difficult for him to justify his behavior in a logical way. This is why he simply chooses to avoid this conversation. To a great extent, Sammy takes this decision on the spur of the moment, but it has certain underlying causes such as long-lasting discontent.

Sammy believes that his decision to quit A&P will be appreciated by girls who were criticized by Lengel. However, his actions go unnoticed. At this point, he understands that this rebellion was quite useless.

The girls who he tried to defend leave without taking any interest in Sammy. So, the protagonist is overwhelmed with disappointment. Furthermore, his disappointment can be partly explained by the fact that his protest produced virtually no impact on A&P. Its functioning has not changed in any way. Moreover, a society driven by consumption is not likely to be affected by people like Sammy. This is one of the details that should not be overlooked since it is important for understanding the causes of this character’s frustration.

It is also possible to argue that in this short story, a large retail chain such as A&P represents consumer culture and prosperity, but at the same time, this organization represents conformity and monotony. By leaving this company, Sammy tries to escape this world; but it becomes clear to him that such actions are eventually futile because the world of A&P is readily accepted by other people.

One can argue that the protagonist despises such individuals. This argument is particularly relevant if one speaks about Stokesia, who wants to climb the career ladder. In his turn, Stokesie does not know why any person should protest against the manager’s decisions and the culture of A&P. So, these characters represent different worldviews.

On the whole, John Updike depicts the experiences of many teenagers who can aspire for some greater ideals. Furthermore, they cannot easily accept the world dominated by consumer culture, rigid norms, and conformity. Sometimes, these people can rebel against this monotony, expecting that this behavior can be encouraged by others. Nevertheless, these expectations are not realistic.

The key issue is that such people are not able to identify the goals that they want to attain. This is why they cannot oppose anything to consumer culture and conformity. One can say that John Updike is able to portray the experiences of many young people. These are the main arguments that can be put forward.

Works Cited

Updike, John. “A&P.” Fiction: Reading, Reacting , Writing. Ed. Laurie Kirszner and Stephen Mandell. New York: Paulinas, 1993. 93-99. Print.

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