John Updike’s “A & P” is an often reprinted short story, appearing in numerous readers and anthologies. In it, a young man relates a significant incident that occurred while he was a cashier at a grocery store. It’s a popular short story for students.
Summary of “A & P”
Sammy, nineteen, relates an incident from a Thursday afternoon that happened when he was a cashier at a supermarket. Three girls come in wearing bathing suits—a chunky one, a tall one and a shorter one he calls the queen, who seems to be the leader. He gets distracted, ringing up a box of crackers twice, causing a customer to get upset with him.
Queenie, as he calls the leader, walks straight and slowly, her head held high without looking around. Her bathing suit is dirty pink/beige and the shoulder straps are hanging down. He notices the whiteness of her shoulders and thinks she’s a pretty sight.
The three girls walk back toward the front of the store, then head down an aisle toward the meat counter. The other customers notice them, some trying to ignore them and others sneaking a second look. The fluorescent lights of the store make them stand out all the more. Sammy and another cashier, Stokesie, comment on the girls’ attractiveness.
The store is in the middle of town, five miles from a beach. The women who come to the store after are usually older, less appealing and wear something over their swimsuits.
At the meat counter, the girls ask McMahon something and he points out a direction to go, watching them as they walk off.
Sammy waits for the girls to reappear from an aisle. They eventually emerge with Queenie carrying a little gray jar. They come to Sammy’s till. Queenie takes a dollar bill out of her top.
The manager, Lengel, comes over and tells the girls they’re not at the beach. Queenie blushes and they try to explain themselves. They argue a little, and Lengel tells them to have their shoulders covered next time. It’s store policy. He stands there as Sammy rings up the item.
As the girls leave, Sammy quits. He takes off his apron and bow tie and puts them on the counter. Lengel tries to convince him to reconsider. Sammy walks outside and looks for the girls, but they’re gone.
Looking back inside, he sees Lengel at his old till checking customers through. Sammy feels the world is going to be hard on him.
Theme: Choices & Consequences
Several characters in the story make decisions and face the consequences of their actions.
The three girls choose to go into the supermarket in their beach attire. The story is probably set around the time it was published, 1961. There’s no doubt the girls know that being dressed this way at a supermarket is considered inappropriate. Queenie is particularly bold, as she lets her shoulder straps fall down around her arms. They are intentionally trying to draw attention to themselves.
At first, the consequences of this is probably what they expected and wanted. The male employees look at them admiringly. The other customers look with surprise and feel a little awkward. They’re getting a reaction and no one challenges them.
The consequences change when Lengel, the manager, sees them. He publicly confronts the girls over their attire, embarrassing them in front of everyone. We know this because Queenie blushes and they all leave quickly after checking out.
Sammy is the most obvious example of this theme. He makes a snap decision to quit his job in protest over how Queenie was treated.
Clearly, he doesn’t have to do this; he could simply make his dissenting opinion known, or keep his thoughts to himself, using the experience to guide how he reacts to people and how he lives. Sammy experiences the consequences of his actions in a few ways.
First, he loses his employment. We don’t know how significant this is for him, but at the least, it’s an inconvenience. The way he quit could make it harder to get another job.
Secondly, he has to deal with the judgments of others. His parents likely disapprove of what he did. Before revealing what he did, he says, “my family says it’s sad.” Lengel also points out the disapproval coming his way when he says, “You don’t want to do this to your Mom and Dad.” Sammy agrees that he doesn’t, but he has to keep going.
Living in a small town, and knowing Lengel’s connection to Sammy’s family and the religious community, this story is going to get around. Sammy could be labeled a “quitter”, or be viewed as immature.
Third, Sammy faces the consequences of his principled stand when he doesn’t get any accolades for what he did. Outside, in the parking lot, the girls are gone. They didn’t stay around to thank him for the support, let alone anything more, like inviting him to hang out with them.
Sammy realizes the consequences of his course when he feels the world will be hard on him. (see Sammy’s Epiphany, below)
Theme: Rebellion & Conformity
This theme is similar to choices and consequences, with many of the same incidents applying.
The three girls rebel against the decency standards of their day by wearing clothing into a supermarket they know society doesn’t approve of. When Lengel says they need to be decent, Queenie points out the superficiality of the standard by saying they are decent. How someone is dressed doesn’t necessarily tell us something important about their character.
Sammy rebels against the status quo when he quits in protest. Before he does this, his dissatisfaction with a normal life is clear.
He refers to the customers as “sheep”, implying they’re mindlessly going through the motions (to their eventual death), not thinking for themselves. This is reaffirmed later when he says you could set off dynamite in the store and everyone would just keep getting the items from their lists. Sammy doesn’t think much of the average person and feels he’s way ahead of them.
The difficulty of going against the grain is apparent in the final scene where Sammy goes into the parking lot. There’s no reward for the stand he took. The girls are gone and he only sees the normal world with its “sheep”—Lengel taking his place at the till, and a young married woman yelling at her kids.
Sammy’s rebellion is contrasted with Stokesie, who has conformed, living a standard life. At only twenty-two he’s already married and has two babies. He serves as a preview of what Sammy’s life could be if he conforms.
Sammy acknowledges their similarity, saying that Stokesie’s family is “the only difference.” Of course, Sammy’s rebellion against the status quo doesn’t mean he won’t get married and have kids. Perhaps he won’t, or perhaps he just won’t start as young as Stokesie. His actions and attitude suggest he might explore other possibilities first, before becoming a “responsible married man”, if he does that at all.
Lengel represents societal standards and conformity. Not only is he the manager of a giant supermarket chain store, he’s also a Sunday school teacher, a long-time friend of Sammy’s parents, and is described as “dreary”. In Lengel, we have a symbol of big corporations, the regular working man, religious standards and community standards.
When it’s all over, Sammy has this epiphany about life: “. . . my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.” What does he mean by this? It can’t be said for sure, but let’s look at a few possibilities.
Perhaps the simplest explanation is that Sammy plans on continuing to rebel against a normal life, and this will necessarily make things hard on him. It doesn’t seem likely that Sammy, on reflection, regrets his actions, as he says of the incident, “I don’t think it’s so sad myself.” If he plans on quitting his job whenever someone isn’t being treated the way he thinks they should be, it’s going to be impossible for him to stay anywhere.
Another possibility is that the world will be hard on Sammy, but not in the way he believes. It might be hard because he’s going to find he’s not as special as he thinks. He’s critical of the “sheep” but it’s not clear how he’s going to break free from conformity, whether he has any traits or abilities that will allow him to blaze his own trail. Sammy might find he’s not equipped to do anything to distinguish himself from the “sheep.”
It’s not exactly uncommon for young people to feel superior to others. If Sammy’s principles really interfere with his life when the stakes are higher (he still lives at home), they might not be as important to him anymore.
How admirable is the stand that Sammy makes?
One possibility is that it’s not admirable at all based on a few things:
- Sammy doesn’t seem to care much about people, calling one woman a witch, and referring to every normal person as a sheep.
- Sammy’s focus is on Queenie as the most attractive girl in the group. It could be argued he’s only trying to impress a pretty girl.
- He could also have been impressed by Queenie’s status as a hard-to-attain rich girl. Her jar of herring snacks and voice give Sammy the impression she’s from a higher social class.
Completely dismissing Sammy’s stand, though, depends on making a harsh judgment on his motives. Keeping in mind he’s only nineteen, nothing in his attitude or thoughts deserves condemnation. Even if he’s too critical of people and motivated by superficiality, he could still be well intentioned, and thus, taking a principled stand as he comprehends it at the time.