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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.
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).