First-Person Narration and the Unreliable Narrator
The voice that Updike creates for Sammy is both deliberately casual and poetically descriptive, alternating between common slang and sharp wit. Sammy is clearly intelligent, although still uneducated at nineteen, and capable of creating striking images, such as calling a girl’s hair “oaky” and describing the sunlight as “skating around” the parking lot. Updike keeps Sammy’s language colloquial, beginning sentences with “You know” and “Really” and including asides and hesitations in an attempt to keep the language natural. The effect of Updike’s technique in handling the first-person narration in “A&P” is to ensure that the reader will not mistake Sammy’s voice for Updike’s. That is, Sammy is not meant to function as a stand-in for Updike or as a spokesman for the “authorial” point of view.
Sammy is a classic example of an “unreliable” narrator—that is, a narrator who is a full-fledged character in the story and whose opinions must be analyzed rather than simply accepted. For example, Sammy’s comment on the unknowability of the female mind should be taken as a statement in a character’s voice and not as a statement of Updike’s feelings on the topic. A more significant example is Sammy’s statement that “once you begin a gesture it’s fatal not to go through with it.” This is by no means a message statement by Updike. Rather, it is a highly debatable proposition by an impulsive young man who may have reason to regret the gesture he completes. An understanding of Updike’s subtle handling of his narrator is key to grasping the true action of the plot of “A&P”: the slow revelation of a young man’s character.