Sammy, the narrator of “A&P,” is an opinionated, sarcastic, disaffected teenager with a healthy interest in the opposite sex and a keen observational sense. Sammy notices everything around him, and he drinks in every detail of the girls’ physical appearance, from the texture and patterns of their bathing suits to the different boundaries of their tan lines. Sammy goes beyond the surface details to glean insights about the people he observes. For example, Queenie’s dangling bra straps are intensely interesting in a purely sensual way, but they are also clues from which he begins to construct an image of her inner life. Once he hears the girls speak, his image becomes even more detailed, as he is able to get an impression of Queenie’s social status. Sammy’s focused observations and descriptions reveal his own prejudices and blind spots. For example, Sammy’s frankly lustful ogling of the girls reveals a certain immaturity, and he is dismissive and contemptuous of the A&P customers, seeing them as “sheep” and “houseslaves.” He is equally dismissive of his coworker Stokesie, whom Sammy sarcastically presents as an unimaginative drone.
The irony of Sammy’s sense of superiority is that he realizes that, in the eyes of the rich, carefree Queenie, he must seem just like Stokesie and the straight-laced Lengel. His desire to set himself apart from them—to prove that he is different—compels him to quit his job. However, he announces, “I quit” primarily because he wants the girls to overhear him, and the gesture loses resonance when he realizes they didn’t notice it. It seems less wise when he is left not with admiration but with a vague guilt and doubt about his rash action. Sammy’s desire for Queenie, which begins merely as a young man’s interest in a pretty girl, ends up as a desire for escape from the A&P and, in effect his own life. The world he imagines through Queenie—a world of sophisticated parents, summer vacations, and the freedom to disregard the social norms of places like the A&P—makes him hunger for opportunities beyond his limited experience. In resigning his position, Sammy is trying to signal his desired membership in this glamorous alternate world and exercise his desire to make a new life.
Queenie is a mixture of precocity and innocence, testing the boundaries of allowable behavior without fully grasping the implications of her actions until she is confronted and embarrassed by Lengel. Queenie is the leader of her group of friends, and she has clearly induced the other two girls into making a spectacle of themselves by walking into the A&P wearing only their bathing suits. While the other girls seem awkward and abashed, Queenie is undaunted by the disapproving glances of the other shoppers and the eager gazes of the male employees. Although she simply goes about the task of finding her herring snacks, her confident stride reveals her awareness of being observed: she seems to be putting on a performance of both independence and sexual power. When Lengel challenges her behavior, however, her self-confidence weakens slightly. Called to task for her skimpy garments, she hovers between her desire to be sexually provocative and her knowledge of the vulnerable position in which she has put herself. No longer a self-assured sexual being, her response—that she is buying something for her mother—reveals that she has not yet quite reached adulthood. The combination of her brazenness and vulnerability ultimately spurs Sammy to shun the rules that bind him.