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A&P

John Updike

Important Quotations Explained

Historical Context

How to Cite This SparkNote

1. You never know for sure how girls’ minds work (do you really think it’s a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar?).

Sammy speculates on the mental processes of girls early in the story, at the height of his confidence. Condescending and arrogant, he assumes that if he cannot understand the workings of a girl’s mind, it is because there is no mind there to understand. The opposite possibility—that it is his understanding that is limited—does not occur to him. Sammy’s male chauvinist attitude is mostly a pose, however, part of his idea of himself as the smart, sarcastic observer. This observation is actually linked to a close reading by Sammy of the body language and interaction of the three girls. Despite Sammy’s posing, he is deeply interested in women, both physically and mentally, although he is not as worldly or wise as he supposes.

2. But it seems to me that once you begin a gesture it’s fatal not to go through with it.

Sammy makes this resolution near the end of the story, as Lengel tries to dissuade him from quitting his job. The issue here for Sammy is one of authenticity. Sammy thinks that it would be “fatal” for him not to complete the gesture of quitting over Lengel’s treatment of the girls because the gesture in question has become a matter of self-definition. By quitting, Sammy intends to align himself with Queenie’s world, a world of sophistication, youth, and beauty, whose values seem opposite to those of the A&P. If he doesn’t go through with quitting, he feels he’ll be accepting the values he has come to associate with the A&P: conformity, authority, and shallow materialism. The problem for Sammy is that he discovers that going through with such a self-defining gesture is just as “fatal” as not going through with it—fatal in the sense of determining one’s fate. Sammy makes his dramatic gesture, but he must now live with the consequences.

3. His face was dark gray and his back stiff, as if he’d just had an injection of iron, and my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.

In this, the last sentence of the story, Sammy looks back through the window of the store at Lengel taking his place behind the register. Through the window, Lengel appears as cold and hard as metal, as inflexible physically as he was in his actions. Sammy connects the “hardness” of Lengel’s appearance with the hardness that awaits him in his future dealings with the world—there are a lot of Lengels out there, and they tend to do the hiring. In another sense, Sammy has discovered that the world can be “hard” in same way that a math problem can be hard. Sammy’s self-satisfaction has been deflated, and he has learned that he is not able to negotiate every difficulty successfully. Sammy has learned a little bit about the kind of person he is and the specific way in which the world will always be “hard” for and to him.

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