This story is narrated by Sammy, a young cashier at the supermarket A & P. One day, three girls in bathing suits stop in to buy some snacks. Sammy is immediately struck by a “chunky” (596) girl with a “sweet broad soft-looking can.” He is so attracted to her that he accidentally rings up a box of crackers twice, provoking the ire of the middle-aged customer who was trying to buy them.
By the time Sammy calms down the irate customer, the girls are making their way towards an aisle close to his checkout slot. He notices that the girls are barefoot. None of them are particularly beautiful; he characterizes the first as chunky and “pale” and the second as “the kind of girl that other girls think is very ‘striking’ and ‘attractive’ but never quite makes it.” However, he quickly identifies the third as their leader, noticing that she walks slightly ahead of her friends and almost seems to be showing them how to command attention. He infers that it was her idea to come to A & P in the first place. He calls her the "queen" or, later, "Queenie."
Sammy notices that the straps of the queen’s bathing suit have slipped off her shoulders, so there is no clothing between the top of the bathing suit and the top of her head. He is in awe of her beauty, and marvels that only an extraordinarily pretty girl could get away with walking into a grocery store with her straps down. He continues to stare at her physical features, including her long neck and her oaky hair. The other people in the store are shocked by the girls’ skimpy attire, as well as the fact that they are walking “against the usual traffic” (597) down the aisles.
Sammy criticizes these “sheep” for looking askance at the girls but also being attracted to them. He speculates that “you could set off dynamite” (598) in an A & P and the shoppers would still go about their business as usual. Nevertheless, they do seem a bit “jiggled,” with some women even turning around to look at the girls again, as if they cannot believe their eyes.
Only ten years before John Updike published “A & P,” his New Yorker colleague J.D. Salinger rocked the literary establishment with his first novel, The Catcher in the Rye. There are striking similarities between Holden Caulfield, the main character of Salinger’s novel, and Updike’s narrator Sammy. Both hold a deep-seated contempt for authority and hypocrisy. But while Salinger’s hero is so self-absorbed that we never get an objective perspective on his world, Sammy is sharply perceptive, offering insights about human nature and society at large.
The main action of “A & P” unfolds not in the grocery store but in Sammy’s mind. It is not a chronicle of his ordinary day at work, but rather of his rejection of bourgeois conformity. Some critics trace Sammy’s heritage not to Holden Caulfield but to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who advocated for non-conformity and moral self-reliance (Porter 1155). In the early pages of “A & P,” Sammy establishes his contempt for conformity and consumerism, insinuating that the people who shop at A & P are “sheep” (597) who can never be roused out of their daily routines.
This critique is cemented by his detailed description of the store. Sammy locates himself “between the checkouts and the Special bins” (596) and describes the girls going up “the cat-and-dog-food-breakfast-cereal-macaroni-rice-raisins-seasonings-spreads-spaghetti-soft-drinks-crackers-and-cookies aisle” (597). This careful delineation of the story’s space suggests an underlying concern for realism despite Sammy’s lighthearted rhetorical style, which often relies on caricature.
Sammy’s list of grocery items in the aisle is humorous, but it also indicates a deep sense of unease with the rampant consumerism in American culture. None of the foods Sammy lists are nutritious. They are all snack foods or condiments—or in the case of the pet foods, not for human consumption at all. Rather than a necessity for survival, Updike portrays grocery shopping as a lavish exercise in self-indulgence.
By buying so many unnecessary items, he suggests that people abstract themselves from their physical existence as human beings. Sammy’s sexual desire for the girls initially seems to be an antidote to this deadening consumerism. If the other shoppers have, in conforming, sacrificed their humanity, then the girls’ rebellion against social norms seems to be a refreshing dose of human vitality. This interpretation is reinforced by their nakedness; by forgoing regular clothing and the conformity that comes with it, they embrace their fundamental human nature, and the beauty of this spectacle is stunning to all who witness it.
However, there is an alternate interpretation of the girls’ nudity. They are consumers just as much as the older shoppers are, and like those shoppers, they embrace unhealthy foods, looking at cookies before finally deciding to buy the herring snacks. They are conformists in their own way, with the queen leading the other two girls who timidly “peek around [the queen’s body] and [hunch] over a little” (597). Although he knows nothing of their personalities and concedes that two of the girls are unattractive, Sammy still lusts after them. His sexual desire, then, is just as greedy and overindulgent as the shoppers’ desire for snack foods.
Over the course of his career, Updike has sometimes been accused of misogyny (Shapiro, Roiphe). Based on his descriptions of the women in the story, Sammy certainly seems to have a misogynist worldview. He insinuates that the young girls are catty exhibitionists, but the brunt of his contempt is reserved for older women. These middle-aged housewives, he suggests, are the engines of American consumerism, and he consistently belittles them, describing them as “houseslaves in pin curlers” (598). His account of the middle-aged woman at the beginning of “A & P” is dehumanizing; he calls her a witch and compares her to a bird, calming her down by “[getting] her feathers smoothed and her goodies into a bag” (596). Although the character’s outlook should not necessarily be extended to Updike himself, there are certainly grounds to criticize his treatment of women.