A&P and Other Stories Summary and Analysis
by John Updike
A & P, Part 2
Sammy decides that part of the shock of seeing the girls in the supermarket rather than on the beach is that, in the outdoors, the glare of the sun prevents people from looking at each other too much. Here they are on full display. He and Stokesie mutter about the women’s beauty. Stokesie is twenty-two and has a wife and family. He hopes to be promoted to manager, although Sammy doubts this will happen any time soon. Because of his managerial ambitions, Stokesie quickly changes the subject from the women back to their work as cashiers.
The A & P is located north of Boston, near the coast but in the center of town, so very few shoppers come there directly from the beach. In fact, many of the customers “haven’t seen the ocean for twenty years” (598). Sammy watches McMahon, the butcher, leer at the girls and begins to feel sorry for them.
Sammy warns readers that this is “the sad part of the story” (599). The store is empty because it is a Thursday afternoon, so he leans against the register and waits for the girls to come back to his area. They emerge out of the aisle devoted to records and knickknacks, with Queenie holding a gray jar. They appear to deliberate between checking out at Sammy’s slot and checking out at Stokesie’s. When an elderly woman goes to Stokesie’s checkout lane, they go to Sammy’s.
The girls have chosen “Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream” (599). Sammy wonders where they keep their money, a question that is answered when Queenie withdraws a dollar bill from the top of her bathing suit. Sammy is smitten. Just then, Lengel the manager comes in from haggling with a cabbage vendor outside.
Lengel is a straight-laced fellow who “teaches Sunday school and the rest.” He comes over and scolds the girls, saying “this isn’t a beach.” Queenie blushes and explains that her mother sent her to pick up the herring. Sammy is surprised by her “flat and dumb” voice, but is still attracted to her. He imagines himself in a surreal version of Queenie’s living room, surrounded by her parents and their friends in fancy clothes and holding hors d'oeuvres and cocktails. He thinks about his own family, who drink cheap beer or lemonade.
In this section, Updike continues to develop the story’s rich sense of space and place. He locates the town exactly, explaining that it is “five miles from a beach” (598) and “north of Boston.” Given his willingness to be specific, it is odd that he does not go a step further and specify the exact name of the town. However, leaving this small degree of ambiguity serves Updike’s satirical purposes. It makes it clear that the story’s critique of consumerism is not limited to a particular town or region, and it allows readers to more closely identify with the plot.
Sammy continues to distance himself from “adult” culture in this section. He laughs at Stokesie’s ambitions to become manager, and brushes off Langel’s moral seriousness, rejecting his manager as someone who “teaches Sunday school and all the rest” (599). However, a moment of relative candor reveals this distance as fraudulent, when Sammy admits that Stokesie’s family is “the only difference” (598) between the two cashiers.
In this section, Updike takes great pains to date the story. He alludes to the singer Tony Martin, and allows Sammy to speculate that in 1990, the A & P will be owned by the Russians. Although international politics are outside the direct purview of “A & P,” Sammy’s humorous fantasies suggest the extent to which the defensive mentality of the Cold War had permeated daily life by 1961.
By grounding his critique in the politics and culture of the time, Updike adds immediacy to his denunciation of consumerism. This critique begins to pick up speed in the second section of “A & P” as Updike recreates the jargon of commercial culture. Rather than simply herring, the girls buy “Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream” (599). The long brand name is only one example of the advertising language that Updike sends up in the short story. Here, the name of the snacks is seven words longer than it needs to be, but these words do nothing to clarify, only to obfuscate and dissemble.
In the analysis of the previous section of “A & P,” I suggested that Updike equates the commercialism of the supermarket with Sammy’s greed for sex. The events of this section only reinforce that reading. The young narrator begins to feel sorry for the girls after the supermarket butcher “pat[s] his mouth and look[s] after them sizing up their joints” (598). The comparison of the women with meat is driven home by the references to “joints” and “patting,” the latter of which sounds like “patties,” or sections of hamburger.
Similarly, Queenie keeps her money in the space between her breasts at the top of her swimsuit. The close proximity of money and sexuality in “A & P” culminates in this moment, when cash and human flesh are literally pressed together. Although Sammy presents himself as worldly and disaffected, he still bears the innocence of youth—it does not occur to him that a woman might keep money there.
This section also offers the story’s first glimpses into Sammy’s life outside the A & P. Sammy imagines an affair at Queenie's home that indicates a gulf in class between the beach-goers and the young man who works in the supermarket. The "sad part of the story" indicates that his parents are disappointed in Sammy when he quits his job; Lengel suggests this will be true. Sammy is 19 to Stoksie's 22 and both he and his co-worker seem saddled with dead-end jobs. Sammy's quitting of his job is, in a way, a rejection of the consumerism that is rampant within the A & P and also, financially, out of his grasp.
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