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A&P

John Updike

Conformity and Rebellion

First-Person Narration and the Unreliable Narrator

Historical Context

One of the things Sammy comes to understand during the course of “A&P” is how close he is to being assimilated into the corporate structure represented by the A&P. At the beginning of the story, Sammy is quite clear that he is unlike the “sheep” and “houseslaves” milling about the aisles of the store. Sammy is equally confident that he is neither a chump like Stokesie, who wants to climb the management ladder, nor a flunky like Lengel, who haggles over cabbages and hides behind his office door all day. As he surveys the scene, Sammy is comfortable behind his wised-up, sarcastic attitude. However, all this self-confidence is shaken by the three girls who enter the store in their bathing suits, and especially by the beautiful leader of the group. From the start, Updike emphasizes the disruptive effect the girls have on the usual order of the store. They immediately cause Sammy to make an error at his register, which he hardly ever does. They move against the usual traffic flow of the store, disturbing the other shoppers. And of course they completely distract all the male employees and eventually draw the disapproving attention of Lengel.

Although Sammy’s attention is riveted by the sexual display the girls make, their casual defiance of the standards of the community ultimately affects Sammy more strongly. Sammy is used to being a sarcastic, ironic observer of the rules, whereas Queenie and her friends simply ignore those rules. When Queenie defends herself against Lengel by insisting, “We are decent,” she is only trying to get out of an embarrassing situation. Sammy, however, decides that she is simply correct: youth and beauty are always decent, and natural grace should trump the world of brand names and money every time. Sammy quits because he is infatuated with the glamour and sophistication he imagines in Queenie’s life and wants to impress her. He also quits because he realizes that in a quarrel between rebellious beauty and stifling order, he wants beauty to win (even if that stifling order provides him with a paycheck).

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