Updike is sometimes accused of misogyny in his work, and indeed his fiction often showcases problematic female characters whose function in the narrative serve to undermine the protagonist. However, these women rarely do so out of ill intent; rather, they simply misunderstand the hero's needs. And just as Updike's heroes, especially Fogel and Richard Maple, are inscrutable to the women who try to help them, so too are Updike's women inscrutable to his male characters. Fogel's wife is not given a name or any interests of her own, and Sammy never understands why Queenie and her friends entered the A & P so scantily clad. The inscrutability of these women serves to underscore the male protagonists' lack of insight and concern for others.
Commercialism and Consumerism
Updike unflinchingly recreates the vast influence of commercial culture in 20th-century America. His characters continually refer to brand names and money is a constant concern--though it is used for competition and for luxury, rather than for survival. However, Updike is cautious about his critique of consumer culture; Sammy tries to reject it in favor of a more "authentic" way of life, but Updike questions whether his rebellion is truly practical.
In the Cold War era, there was much international scrutiny placed on what was seen as America's post-war boom economy's excess. "Separating" includes some glimpses into the repercussions of the pursuit of luxury. The status purchase of the Maples' - the tennis court - becomes a metaphor for their ruined family. And the gas crisis that Judith alludes to during her welcome back dinner also symbolizes the internal family crisis in the Maple household. The culture of Consumerism is failing Updike's small-town America, and the characters suffer the emotional fallout.
Memory is often painful for the characters in these short stories. Ace, Richard, and Fogel all recall better days, although critical readers might infer that these characters never had truly healthy marriages or careers--hence their present downtrodden state. Even "A & P" and "Pigeon Feathers" seem to be about memories in the making--both deal with significant moments of bifurcation in their protagonists' lives, and Sammy and David both speculate on how their lives will be changed by the events of the plot.
Parents assume a crucial, almost Freudian significance in these stories. In "Separating," Dickie is profoundly affected by his parents' divorce, a devastation he attempts to repress, but ends up expressing quasi-sexually, kissing his father on the mouth "like a woman." "Pigeon Feathers" and "Ace in the Hole" both feature protagonists who are torn between the influence of their two parents, or between the influence of mother and wife. In each story, the relationship with one's parents is fraught and prevents the protagonist from pursuing his true desires.
Charlatans in positions of authority
Reverend Dobson from "Pigeon Feathers" and Lengel from "A & P" are both examples of what happens when petty people are allowed to rise to power. They make everyone around them miserable, but Updike insinuates that few others could do better; these people may in fact have been noble before, but power, he suggests, brings out the most mean and selfish of human impulses.
Destruction of the natural environment
The destruction of the natural environment features most prominently in "Pigeon Feathers," which devotes significant space to debates between Mr. and Mrs. Kern about organic farming. However, the degradation of natural spaces also plays into "A & P;" Sammy's entire neighborhood has been usurped by the giant supermarket and other businesses like it.
Adolescence and Adulthood
Several of the protagonists in these stories are exist in varying stages of adolescence. David Kern in "Pigeon Feathers" turns fourteen within the scope of the story, and is saddled with a deep religious crisis. His parents meets his questions with a look that makes him think he is not in on a secret. Sammy in "A & P" is a bit older, at 19, but is trapped in a delayed development that makes him rebel with only a thin notion of cause. Ace Anderson in "Ace in the Hole" also suffers in his transition into adulthood. Though in his mid-twenties with a wife and child, Ace fixates on his past as a high school basketball star and abandons responsibility at ever turn. The Maple children, all of varying ages and maturity levels, respond to the news of their parents split in "Separating" in different ways. The youngest somehow already knew of the tragedy, the younger boy acts out, the oldest boy is alternates between stoicism and profound sadness. And Judith, the oldest, drinks wine with her mother and seems to accept the news as a product of evolution. All of these characters struggle to find their place in the world, trapped in a consumerist society where they cannot be wholly comforted by religion or intellectualism. Updike's adults fare not much better, suggesting that the known turmoil of adulthood (the secret that David wants to learn) makes a prolonged adolescence the lesser of two evils. This is certainly evidenced by Fogel's slide into confusion, depression and irritation with both the brevity of life and those around him in "Short Easter."
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...