From the moment the girls walk into the A&P, they attract the gaze of every man in the store, which demonstrates the power their sexuality gives them over the opposite sex. Although they make a point of acting nonchalant (Queenie more successfully than the other two), the girls are well aware of the eyes tracking their every move. As long as the girls do not acknowledge the men’s interest, they are in a position of power—inspiring desire but not subject to it. Their strategy works well, and the A&P’s male employees—even the unyielding Lengel—show some degree of sexual interest. However, Lengel ultimately undermines this strategy and tries to lessen their power. By confronting the girls so bluntly, Lengel calls the girls on their behavior, embarrassing them by suggesting that they are well aware of the inappropriateness of their attire. Queenie’s claim—“We are decent”—is an attempt to reestablish their superior position, implying that it is Lengel who is being inappropriate.
The girls have a profound transformative effect on the men in the A&P, especially Sammy. They inspire the men to act piggishly, as they stare at the girls while making lewd comments to one another. For these men, their response seems rooted in hormones, and Lengel’s attempt to get the girls to respect social norms is an effort both to control the desire of such young men and to protect the girls from it. In Sammy, however, the girls inspire a more profound reaction. Under the influence of his desire for Queenie, Sammy’s imagination is awakened, and he takes a dramatic step to change his life. Sammy’s actions are not purely motivated by his desire, but they are inseparable from it.
Throughout the story, Sammy exhibits prowess in both observing others and gleaning insights from those observations, but the girls suggest to him the true mystery of other minds. When a customer reprimands Sammy for a mistake, Sammy characterizes the woman as a witch straight out of Salem and thinks, “I know it made her day to trip me up.” For Sammy, the customers at the A&P are all too easy to understand. The same holds true for Stokesie and Lengel, who Sammy believes he has thoroughly figured out. When the girls enter the store, however, Sammy wonders what on earth they’re thinking. Although Sammy makes an effort to understand the girls, especially Queenie, and believes that he is successful, his confidence is undermined by his actions at the end of the story. His grand gesture of sympathy for the girls—his quitting—goes unnoticed, and his motivations are muddled and confused. He is left with a sense that, for all his ability to observe and understand others, he must now turn his inquisitive eye on himself.
Girl-watching is what sets “A&P” in motion, and Sammy provides copious details of the three girls as he watches them walk around the store. Sammy describes each of the girls in turn, noticing the details of their bathing suits, their hairstyles, and their bodies. His interest is explicitly sexual. Sammy appraises the first friend’s “can” and almost becomes faint over Queenie’s breasts. He notices the varied shades of their skin and even analyzes Queenie’s gait. Such detailed observations suggest the extent of Sammy’s rapturous appreciation of beauty as well as the underlying aggression in the male gaze. Sammy’s girl-watching leads to both a warm, imaginative interest in the object of his desire and a darker, more possessive feeling (at one point, Sammy refers to “my girls”). In the end, any possession of the girls Sammy has experienced is revealed to be an illusion. He has watched them, and that is all.
Brand names appear throughout “A&P,” setting the story firmly in the postwar period of American prosperity, when a flood of consumer goods hit the markets and advertising became a pervasive force. Updike tries to capture the sense of plenitude in a well-stocked market by referring to “the cat-and-dog-food-breakfast-cereal-macaroni-rice-raisins-seasonings-spreads-spaghetti-soft-drinks-crackers-and-cookies aisle.” But he also tries to convey some of the artificiality inherent in an environment dominated by marketing and branding by focusing on the cheesy labels on all the merchandise. He repeatedly invokes the brand names: Hiho crackers, Diet Delight peaches, Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream, and so on. They are all unified under the A&P logo and surrounded by cars such as the Ford Falcon. For better or worse, brands and labels are an important part of the cultural landscape, and their artificiality is one of the things against which Sammy ultimately rebels.
The bathing suits that the girls wear into the A&P are an emblem of the girls’ casual disregard of the social rules of the small town. They also represent the girls’ deliberate provocation, an attempt to attract the eye of every man they encounter. Sammy is initially drawn to the girls simply because they are scantily clad, young, and attractive. However, for Sammy, the bathing suits come to symbolize freedom and escape from the world in which he finds himself. What he ultimately finds compelling about the girls in their bathing suits is that they have disrupted the system of rules that he has been forced to observe, an observation that Lengel, the authority figure, underscores by trying to enforce the rules the girls have violated. When Sammy quits his job, he significantly removes the corporate uniform (apron and bowtie) that establishes his place in the system. However, the freedom of the bathing-suited girls remains unavailable to him. Sammy ends up alone, in a white shirt his mother ironed for him, wondering what to do next.
The Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream purchased by Queenie take on a symbolic value in Sammy’s eyes when he hears Queenie explain that she is buying them for her mother. Instantly, Sammy has a vision of the kind of party at which such herring snacks would be served, and it is a world away from the parties his own parents throw. Sammy mentally contrasts the white jackets, herring snacks, and sophisticated cocktails of Queenie’s social set with the lemonade, Schlitz beer (a working-class brew), and novelty glasses of his own parents’ group. Sammy understands that from Queenie’s perspective, “the crowd that runs the A&P must look pretty crummy.” Sammy’s sense of his own superiority to his surroundings is both heightened and humbled by this realization. But rather than resent Queenie for her social advantages, Sammy envies her freedom from the constraints he himself feels. Quitting his job, then, is both a doomed attempt to impress the girl and a gesture of self-liberation.