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John Updike’s “A&P:” A Critical Essay

Updated on April 22, 2019
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Rhylee Suyom has hopped in three different worlds: the academe, the corporate, and the media. He enjoys being with nature and his family.

John Updike's "A&P"


John Updike’s “A&P:” A Critical Essay

Heroism is doing ordinary things under extraordinary circumstances. All people can perform acts of bravery such as helping the needy without being asked to do so or standing up for something which is deemed right even if the consensus seem to have the exact opposite perspective. Some acts of heroism may require more or much of a person which may lead to a consecration of whole time, talent, properties, or even his very life is necessary. These acts are often featured in history, daily news, and literature. As heroism can be the greatest act of human activities, many often dream of becoming a hero especially in cases involving the possibility of being noticed or even immortalized. One such case is found in the literary piece written by John Updike titled “A&P.”

The Work That is A&P

A&P is a fiction short novel about a young man named Sammy trying to save the day by hurling himself in a situation which did not benefit him in the end. As a store clerk working in the A&P located in the middle of the town, he suddenly pulled the heroics when three lovely ladies clad in swimsuits entered the store creating a commotion due to their improper clothing. The store manager, Lengel, being an uptight by-the-book Sunday school teacher, decided to chastise the ladies to which made Sammy think of acting as if a ‘knight in shining armor’ and defended them. The story ends with Sammy quitting his job for the sake of being noticed by the ladies and ended up realizing he had made a horrible mistake making him worry about his future (Peden 1962). Indeed, his future can be but karma of what he had in mind since he may have pulled a heroic act, yet he was preoccupied with much sexual interest with the prettiest of the three ladies whom he refers to as Queenie.

A Keen Sight for the Right Site

The amount of imagination and logical analysis used by Sammy while trying to measure or scientifically guess the sexuality and personal information about Queenie seems to have been an extension of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘Sherlock Holmes’ novels. In fact, his deductive reasoning is truly reminiscent or perhaps taken from Doyle’s unique ability to probe and understand the connection between and among minute details to form a larger picture (Redmond, 2009). The only problem with Updike was that he used this special skill and ability in stripping the ladies naked of their clothes and as if performing a thorough physical and psychological check up with much focus on the sexuality side. When Sammy observed and theorized about the dangling bra of Queenie, this gave way for details which have nothing to do with heroism. He noticed and gave meaning to the ‘my girls’ breasts (even compared them), skin tone, hairstyles, body contour, and even their specific manner of walking. The stark contrast between heroic acts in literature, history, and news with that of A&P rests on the useless focus on details which overshadows the hero part only to be replaced by a dark sexually-starved persona. Such is the case of Sammy that he cannot be considered a ‘dark knight’ or the-man-with-a-black-mask but a sex maniac on the prowl (Beetz, 2001). Although in various modes and presentations have sex and romance always been used as the motivating factor in the drive to pursue the road to heroism, there was an absence of details leading to the very act of the (even) actual sexual intercourse in many cases. What Sammy portrayed was a presumed heroism on the guise for his sexual interests. Equally noteworthy would be the notion that Sammy is important in the story (projecting an image of the ‘knight-in-shining armor) when in fact he is nothing but expendable (Porter, 1972).

This dark knight illusion is evident in the story even before the three ladies entered the shop. Notice how he seemed to think that he has profiled all customers at A&P so much so that he brands and gives a tone every time he encounters someone, he thinks is inferior or predictable yet fell short with the anomaly presented by the three ladies. He exhibited the audacity to rebuke a customer who did not approve of their manly blatant verbal sexual advances on the ladies and the nerve to diminish the level of Stokesie and even Lengel. Sammy’s plunging into the scene to save the ladies is nothing but a facade which is made to gather interest from his target ----- Queenie. All the while, much of his thoughts are preoccupied with sexual desires and have nothing to do with heroism. This realization came as a knock on his head when he made haste to quitting only to solicit sympathy from the ladies yet failed miserably (Porter, 1972).

Much of the realizations by Sammy are deeply rooted in the symbolisms presented in the story. The fake notion that just because someone knows most of the people does not translate to knowing everyone is presented by Sammy’s mistake over the ladies. The ladies came to him as a puzzle since they are the anomaly in the grand picture inside A&P. They also removed his false image of grandness because he does not know anything about them. If he believed that he had profiled all the customers which gives him the feeling of control over them, the girls are an exemption because he knows nothing or very little about them. Second, the seemingly lewd or inappropriate dress of the ladies is merely a symbol of non-conformity considering that the historical backdrop is in the 1960s. Notice that people always long for mysteries. Having a form of mystery is a form of control. When people know everything about a person, place, thing, or an event, interest is already gone. The dress proved very useful in capturing the attention and drawing mystery in the monotonous world and life of Sammy and the rest of the people at A&P (Beetz 2001). Third, Lengel’s chastisement is the true act of heroism. Owing to the definition set in the introduction of this essay, heroism is doing ordinary under extraordinary circumstances. Observe that the ladies were trying to control the situation by their manner of dressing, behavior, and language yet it was only Lengel who stood up and rebuked the ladies for creating a stir in their quiet routinely daily life. The point of this is that it was only Lengel who realized the purpose of the ladies. To make it easy, Sammy fell victim and thus had to face the dilemma of quitting for nothing. Lengel knew about this as reflected in his statement when he told Sammy that the he would regret quitting his job (Beetz 2001).


The real culprits of error in the story are the ladies. The failure of Sammy to see beyond the aesthetics is a clear manifestation of his immaturity and lack of experience in life. In the end, Sammy’s heroic is nothing but his greatest failure.


Beetz, K.H. (2001). “Beacham’s Guide to Literature for Young Adults.” USA: Cengage Gale Group, Inc. pp. 346 – 367. Web. Retrieved from: <>

Peden, W. H. (1964). The American Short Story. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Pp. 70 – 78.

Porter. G. M. (1972). "John Updike's 'A & P': The Establishment and an Emersonian Cashier". English Journal. Vol. 61 (8): pp.1155–1158.

Redmond, C. (2009). “Sherlock Holmes Handbook” (Dundurn, 2nd ed.), Pp. 97 – 99. Web. Retrieved from: <>


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