17 Sep 2022


John Updike's A&P: Summary and Analysis

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Academic level: College

Paper type: Research Paper

Words: 1498

Pages: 6

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John Updike’s “A&P” takes place in 1961, in an A&P grocery store situated in Massachusetts which is a small town in the United States. The narrator, Sammy, is a cashier who is keen on the store’s regulars. One day, during his daily routines he is distracted by a bevy of girls in their swimsuits, the ladies seem to have come from the beach that is nearly five miles out of town. Seemingly, they are a distinct contrast, to the plain store landscape and the regular customers that frequent the store daily. Minding their own business, Sammy takes up interest in the response given by the other shoppers to this specific group of ladies. The girls walked barefoot, still in their bathing suits, unlike the other customers who were in their normal footwear. They were boldly different, catching and rather grasping Sammy’s attention. He is observant on the detail, marking the leader of the group, their motions, and movement up till the time they check out of the store. At this point, the ladies meet Lengel, the store's supervisor, who goes ahead to reprimand their actions and their indecency. Sammy feels as though his managerial approach is a bit unnecessary and also embarrassing for the ladies and decides to resign his position as a cashier. Knowing that his decision is ill-advised, he decides to go through with it and refutes turning back. His departure is met with the realization that his actions did not attract the notice of the girls, despite carrying out his decision with a sound mind. The narrative is one that holds many themes such as symbolism, imagery, and conflict. Conflict comes in two forms. It may be external, or internal. Events that unfold would bring out how the character, Sammy faces conflict with himself and even with others. 

This story portrays the thinking process of a young man and shows what he is willing to stand for and what he is against. Sammy’s fascination with the bevy of girls is clearly identified in the text, with the author stating “she was a chunky kid, with a good tan and a sweet broad 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” (Farmer, 2017). This description was of only one out of the three ladies present in the store. The terminology used to define the girls may be regarded as provocative, especially where Updike refers to the girls’ part of their bodies as “cans.” The story brings out imagery and symbolism, especially through Sammy’s descriptions of the shoppers inside the A&P. The author describes the shoppers to be sheep pushing their carts down the aisles”. Seemingly, Queenie’s friends may be referred to as “sheep” as well as they constantly followed her every move. 

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Imagery is used when the description of the geographical location of the A&P is given, the store layout and the opinions of Sammy’s co-workers regarding what he does and his daily work routine. Sammy is nineteen years old but is considered to be of age by society. He is conflicted, deducing on whether to spend the summer working in the store or whether to head to the beach and spend his time checking out the ladies. The ocean is also a dull aspect of the town, with nothing special to give back to society. Most people in the town have not been to the ocean within the last 20 years (Bowers, 2018). The narrative is a stepping stone for Sammy, who is on the course to maturity despite the period it takes. This can be seen from the moment the ladies walk into the store, and he observes them, seeing only their bodies, their features and what attire they have on. At first, these could be sighted as his key concerns. As the story grows, Sammy realizes there are relations between girls, a peculiar hierarchy in the trio squad. He is key to observe their actions, and how these actions affect other shoppers in the store. He takes note of how the shoppers and bystanders are opinionated about these girls’ actions. He is beginning to resonate with the situation in a manner which an adult would internalize it. He has taken note of the “regulars,” and their daily routine which includes their routes in between the aisles, how they check out their lists, the course they take and how they eventually check out to go about their day. This monotony within the store is what arouses his interest in the group of girls, portraying their differences to the world, without a set routine or course to follow, unlike the other shoppers. They live in the present. With this realization, he begins to sympathize with the girls, especially now that they are being judged by the others. He does not feel he belongs to the store as it does not appreciate uniqueness. His point is made clearer when the ladies check out and Sammy comments on the rules and how the “kingpins” want them (Farmer, 2017). It is not something considerable; neither does he want to implement it. For the first time, Sammy feels that there is something better out there other than the store, and he is willing to find it. His hasty decision to quit his job is his first step towards making an individual choice, expecting unknown results. He decides to do it, venture on to his path. It is something he knows he must do, and despite the hesitation, he is not willing to turn back. This shows how Sammy has accepted to move on with his life. 

Conflict within the Narrative 

There are different kinds of conflict in the narrative. Sammy faces internal conflict, having to choose on whether he should quit his job and find a new venture or stay put and think it through. There is also an external conflict between Sammy and his manager Lengel, one that helped solve Sammy’s internal conflict, and resulted in him resigning his position as a cashier. A repercussion came about after the manager had reservations on the girls’ opinion of dressing, especially within a supermarket setting. Sammy is shocked that Lengal rebukes the girls for their scanty clothing (Shafer & Updike, 2018). On the inside, Sammy is also disputed, first by the look of the girls and also by how he should react given Lengal's embarrassing treatment towards the girls. This was especially after he saw Lengel embarrass the girls for walking into the store with bathing suits. Sammy also faces a conflict between teenagehood and adulthood, especially since he is at an age where society views him as a young man that can fend for himself and make his own decisions. Up until the incident at the store with the girls, Sammy was a teenager, and could not even resonate with the idea of quitting his job, as well as the consequences that would follow his choice. His decision was ill-advised, and it was one of those choices that were made in the spur of the moment. He allows his teenage mentality to overwhelm his age, blocking him from reasoning on a logical point of view and with more restraint rather than hastily deciding without thinking of the repercussions. He is trying to prove himself and make a man out of his choice despite trying to capture the attention of the girls (Shafer & Updike, 2018). His actions made him regret his choice later on, especially when he feels the hardship of adulthood, where he has to face the challenges that come along with the decision he made of quitting, especially after the girls did not even recognize his “heroic” act. However, this could be taken as a representation of Sammy's break from traditionalism and the realization of how difficult it is standing up for what one believes and going against societal norms. 

Sammy is also faced with internal conflict with himself before quitting, especially because he is aware of how disappointed his family, friends and the manager would be in him. The manager makes mention of the same and the implications it would have on his parents. This was when Sammy began to think for himself, his thought process visualizing the repercussions but opting to take up the decision anyway (Gale, 2016). Other than conflict, it also symbolizes that Sammy is coming of age, leaving his youthful life behind. This always has significant consequences for parents. It is normally hard for a parent to accept that their child is on the verge of adulthood and it is a key reason as to why most families are saddened by the choices their children made. However, Sammy took a key step in growth towards becoming a man.   


It is clear that external and internal conflict are both evident within the narrative and their presence is equally significant. However, Updike’s characterization of Sammy is wanting. The story concludes that Sammy ponders as to just how hard life would be for him after his choice to quit his job. However, would that portray as something negative? Despite Sammy’s choice being impulsive and illogical, it also represents his break from the reasoning given by society. He opted to stand up for the girls in the grocery store, and despite it going unrecognized, it also signified that Sammy could stand up for himself in the future without any worry of the world, especially since he would have gotten a clearer perspective of the world through the choices he makes. Much begs to wonder what the future holds for Sammy, holding an ambiguous future that was driven by what can be determined as a chivalrous act by defending Queenie. But the question arises, would he have done the same had it been any of the other two ladies? Nonetheless, it was a firm choice that showed how Sammy values principles despite the consequence. Perhaps the hard life that Sammy perceives is one that holds a great future ahead for him, making the challenge interesting to pursue. 


Bowers, T. N. (2018). The Significance of Sounds in Updike's “A & P”. The Explicator , 76 (4), 174-178. 

Farmer, M. (2017). Imagination and Idealism in John Updike's Fiction . Boydell & Brewer. 

Gale, C. L. (2016). A Study Guide for John Updike's" Oliver's Evolution" . Gale, Cengage Learning. 

Shafer, R. G., & Updike, J. (2018). John Updike Talks About Writing, His Life, and His Works: Vol. 57, No. 3, Spring/Summer 1995. CEA Critic , 80 (2). 

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