“He hoped she wouldn’t get too mad, because when she was mad he wondered if he should have married her, and doubting that made him feel crowded. It was bad enough, his mother was always crowding him.”
Here, Ace ponders how his wife will react when she finds out that he been fired from his job. By comparing her "crowding" to that of his mother, he alludes to both his general misanthropy and his specific fear of women. Although he is ostensibly the authority figure in his household, he views his wife and mother as moral authorities that prevent him from doing what he really wants; for example, his mother constantly interferes in his relationship with Evey, and Evey herself laughs off his dreams of basketball stardom. In both cases, Ace wishes to evade responsibility--the small duty of owning up to his firing, or the larger one of holding a 9-to-5 job--but the women in his life "crowd" him into behaving like an adult.
“Do you really think it’s a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar?”
Sammy's casual, direct address to the reader marks a dramatic difference from the distant third-person narration of Updike's other stories. The conversational tone is a stylistic rebellion that parallels Sammy's own rebellion against conformity; by rejecting a 'highbrow' style in favor of Sammy's narration, Updike is committing his own act of revolt. This passage also illustrates the character's contempt for women; he characterizes older women as conformist "houseslaves" (598) and these younger girls as mindless sexual objects.
“I bet you could set off dynamite in an A & P and the people would by and large keep reaching and checking oatmeal off their lists and muttering, ‘Let me see, there was a third thing, began with A, asparagus, no, ah, yes, applesauce!’ or whatever it is they do mutter.”
Sammy's flight of fancy illustrates his immaturity as well as his distance from the adults that he criticizes so viciously. His idea of setting off dynamite is childish and whimsical, but also shockingly violent. His addendum at the end of the tangent--"or whatever it is they do mutter"--indicates that despite his perceptive social critique, Sammy is very removed from his targets, a position that lends him moral authority but also calls the accuracy of his critique into question.
“I forgot to say he thinks he’s going to be manager some sunny day, maybe in 1990 when it’s called the Great Alexandrov and Petrooshki Tea Company or something.”
Part of the humor in Sammy's burlesque prediction about the future of A & P (whose real name is The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company) comes from the fact that the events of the story have so little world-historical significance. Importantly, he predicts a commercial, rather than a military, takeover by the Russians, a view that was uncommon when "A & P" was written in 1961. This suggests that his rejection of authority is not a rejection of hard power from the government, as in Orwell's 1984, but rather the soft power that corporations exercise through advertising.
“Policy is what the kingpins want. What the others want is juvenile delinquency.”
By this point in the narrative, Updike has undercut many of Sammy's criticisms of society. In the paragraph before this quote, he writes that Lengel is no kingpin at all, and indeed his job looks "pretty crummy" (600) to the supercilious Queenie. Sammy categorizes his own desires as "juvenile delinquency," a choice that is jarring because Sammy is nineteen years old and more or less an adult. Although this passage initially seems to elevate Sammy's "delinquent" sexual desires to the same level as Lengel's arbitrary rules, in fact it brings Lengel's rules down to Sammy's level.
"The human animal, after thousands and thousands of years, learned methods whereby the chemical balance of the soil may be maintained. Don't carry me back to the Dark Ages."
The long discussion about organic farming in "Pigeon Feathers" reflects the concerns of the time. The story was published in the same year as Silent Spring, Rachel Carson's indictment of DDT and similar chemical pesticides. Ironically, the pesticides do the exact opposite of what David's father ascribes to them, ruining the chemical balance of the soil beyond repair. His stubbornness on this topic reflects his general character and also represents a combative relationship between humans and nature that David must decide whether or not to follow.
"A he fitted the last two, still pliant, on the top, and stood up, crusty coverings were lifted from him, and with a feminine, slipping sensation along his nerves that seemed to give the air hands, he was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever."
David Kern's crisis of faith is resolved at the end of "Pigeon Feathers" after a moment of brutality. After shooting a family of pigeons roosting in the family's barn, David sets about to bury them, feeling as if he alone has created them by killing them. He is taken by the intricate designs of the feathers and is at last assured of God's hand. David had been unsatisfied by intellectual or dogmatic answers to his questions about mortality and the afterlife. But the natural beauty he witnesses in these feathers cements what his mother attempted to tell him about God - that, despite who made Him, the evidence is all around them in the form of the sun or the soil. The design of the feathers is evidence of God and that David notices is evidence, in his mind, that he divinity lives in him. He is a Creation of God.
“What was the point of that sinister Darth Vader-like mask over a grille? No point, just pure intimidation and pretension. Which were, he had come through sixty years to realize, the aim of almost all human behavior.”
This passage, which describes Fogel's animosity toward young drivers, includes one of many references to the wisdom he has accumulated over the years. Later in the story, Updike undercuts this 'wisdom' by suggesting that Fogel is in fact a confused old man, terminally set in his ways. His dogmatic adherence to this misanthropic worldview helps explain his irritation at other characters' innocuous comments. The reference to Darth Vader is representative of the story's focus on pop-cultural ephemera. Together, these allusions help explain the elderly Fogel's sense of alienation, since they date the story and demonstrate how dramatically culture can change over a short period of time.
“This monologue, he recognized, was a matured version, hardened into jagged edges and points that prodded and hurt, of the young woman’s feathery, immersing discourse across the airplane aisle—a version of that female insistence upon getting male attention, a force as irresistible as the ability of freezing water to split rocks.”
Updike has occasionally been accused of misogyny in his work (Roiphe), and passages like this one (along with his explicit sex scenes) are largely the reason why. In this case though, the opinions are Fogel's, related to us by a distant third-person narrator. His comparison of his nagging wife with the lighthearted woman on the airplane compresses the slow process of aging. This parallels Fogel's feelings about old age in general, which has arrived more quickly than he expected.
“His eyes checked the items of the room—shiny posters, vacant fireplace, light plug, bookcase of abandoned schoolbooks, rack of obsolete cassettes, stolen ‘No Parking’ sign, stuffed rabbit wearing a vest—one by one. Everything seemed still here, yet something was immensely missing.”
The final sentence of "Short Easter" reflects Fogel's intense sense of alienation in life. "His eyes" check the room rather than Fogel himself, emphasizing his sense of distance from his own physical body. The list of his teenage son's possessions reminds us that Fogel is surrounded by the trappings of youth, but is no longer young himself, a point that is driven home by Updike's reference to "obsolete cassettes."
"Why. It was a whistle of wind in a crack, a knife thrust, a window thrown open on emptiness. ... Richard had forgotten why."
All of "Separating" builds toward explaining the reasons for the Maples' separation. The characters allude briefly to an affair; Updike reveals vague pieces of information about past disagreements. However, there is never a concrete reason for the dissolution of a marriage. Updike's conclusion suggests that all intimate relationships are unstable and irrational, and that inertia is the driving force behind many people's life decisions.
A&P and Other Stories Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for A&P and Other Stories is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
I bet you could set off dynamite in an A & P and the people would by and large keep reaching and checking oatmeal off their lists and muttering "Let me see, there was a third thing, began with A, asparagus, no, ah, yes, applesauce!" or...