Lengel repeats to the girls that the A & P is not a beach. Sammy grins to himself, provoking his boss’s ire, but Lengel is still too focused on the girls to bother much with Sammy. The heavy girl adds that they weren’t shopping at length; they just stopped in for one item.
The moment becomes tense. Lengel says that it doesn’t make a difference and the girls should be “decent” when they come into the store. Suddenly Queenie seems to “remember her place” (600), recognizing that the A & P manager is not someone to fear. She pouts and retorts that the girls are decent.
Lengel admonishes them not to come back to the store unless they have their shoulders covered. Sammy reflects that Lengel’s desires are “policy,” but his own desires are considered perverse. A crowd is starting to gather around the girls, and Sammy notices that Stokesie is loading bags very quietly so that he can hear what is going on. Lengel asks Sammy whether he has rung the girls up yet.
Sammy hasn’t, but he gets to it. Operating the cash register is complicated, and Sammy remarks that after you hear the machine enough times, it starts to sound like music. He makes change for the girls (delighting that he has touched a dollar bill that has just been between Queenie’s breasts) and hands them their herring snacks.
The girls seem like they are in a hurry to leave, so Sammy acts fast. He announces to Lengel that he is quitting, hoping that they will hear him and recognize that he is their hero. However, they leave without seeming to hear, and Lengel asks Sammy what he said. Sammy repeats that he is quitting, reprimanding Lengel for embarrassing the girls.
Lengel retorts that it was the girls who were embarrassing the staff of the A & P. Sammy responds with "Fiddle-de-doo," a nonsense phrase that his grandmother used to say. Then he removes his apron and moves to leave. Lengel warns him that he shouldn’t do this to his parents, who will have to provide for Sammy until he can get another job. Sammy knows that Lengel is right, but feels obliged to go through with his rebellion now that he has started it.
Lengel warns him that this decision will haunt Sammy for the rest of his life. He shrugs, pushes the “No Sale” button on the cash register for fun, and leaves the store. He is glad it is summer because he can make a dramatic exit, rather than fumbling around with his coat and boots. In the parking lot, Sammy looks for the girls but they are gone. He sees a family fighting because the children did not get the candy they wanted. Turning around, he can see Lengel checking out the customers that were waiting in Sammy’s checkout lane. His former boss looks grim, and Sammy realizes that life will be hard for him from now on.
In the final section of “A & P,” Updike explores the notion that policy is nothing more than enforced desire. As Sammy observes, “policy is what the kingpins want. What the others want is juvenile delinquency” (600). Those that make the rules demand they be followed and those who stand against authority are dismissed as radicals. For Updike, desire is merely a subset of the cultural power that influences all of our actions and drives us to conform. However, Sammy’s desire to rebel is also influenced by mainstream culture, and this tension - how can a person ever buck the influence of cultural power and be his own man? - drives the story’s denouement.
There are two primary readings of “A & P:” one in which Updike endorses Sammy’s criticism of society, and one in which he undercuts it. For the first two sections of the story, it seems as though the author agrees with Sammy’s criticism of the world around him. The familiar setting of the suburban supermarket is re-imagined as a sinister den of conformity, populated by overbearing managers and zombie-like customers. The descriptions of the harsh lights and shrill sounds of voices and machines suggest that Sammy’s loathing for his environment is warranted. Even if exaggerated and relayed in first-person, these attributes are rendered in such detail that the reader can recognize and perhaps agree with Sammy's despondence.
However, Sammy’s rebellion can also be read as immature and thoughtless; in this interpretation, his choice to quit his job is not a heroic act of defiance, but rather the inevitable endpoint of the character flaws that Updike has established throughout the story. Sammy is anxious to quit when the girls can hear him doing so, and considers returning to his job when he realizes that they have not witnessed his revolt. His decision to go through with it is not the result of real moral conviction, but rather the need to save face by finishing what he started.
Intellectual or political considerations don't fully factor into his decision-making; he is more concerned with immediate sexual gratification. His rebellion is abstract, against an authority he criticizes without good reason and mounted only when the girls are within earshot. He wants to be a hero to the girls not a radical against the mainstream. In fact, Sammy’s sexual desires—his tendency to dehumanize older, unattractive women; his melodramatic glorification of the rather insipid girls—are influenced by the same materialistic, commercial culture he rejects.
In this last section, Sammy’s childish naïveté becomes more obvious than ever before (although there have been hints earlier in the text). His reference to “juvenile delinquency” is striking given that he is nineteen. At the time Updike wrote “A & P,” 18 was the age of majority, and indeed most working- and middle-class youths were financially independent and living on their own by the time they were Sammy’s age. By making Sammy an especially juvenile young adult, Updike undercuts his critiques of society, suggesting that they are vitriolic ramblings of a person who has not contributed to society. Sammy's strain can be read as prolonged teen angst.
Sammy's insight at the end of the story is genuine, however. The world will be a difficult place for him if he chooses to attempt to buck the consumerism and small-mindedness he witnesses in the A & P. Sammy sets himself up for an uneasy road of dissatisfaction.