John Updike's A & P
John Updike's "A & P" could appear to have many different themes. Some people might see a story about integrity and standing up for what one believes is right. Others may find the actions of the hero, Sammy, to be reckless and foolhardy and, therefore, consider the theme to be about enduring things that one might find unjust simple because one has to in order to survive. I, however, find both of these to be missing the mark. Both of them are true to certain degrees and are present in the story. But the true theme is actually quite simple. This is a story about an average boy in the midst of various adolescent stressors such as hormone, job anxiety, and distain for authority that work together to cause him to quit his job.
Hormones are the strongest of the three examples I gave for forces that play heavily in Sammy's action. Hormones are part of his physiological nature, and so they naturally carry the most weight in his young psyche. Sammy's hormones are always on and are always searching for an outlet for the sexual tension that they produce in him. When Sammy sees the three girls in bathing suits enter the A & P where he works, his the introduction of three scantly clad young girls gives him an opportunity to ogle them, thus releasing some of that pent up tension and giving him a slight rush in his otherwise monotonous life. Many psychologists say hormones are like drugs and can be addictive. I think that they are more like the withdrawal from drugs; they create a pain inside of men that pushes them to find their next fix, to do anything to feel even the slightest bit of release from the pressure. And Sammy presents a quintessential example of this addiction to release when he quits his job under the pretense of sticking up for the girls when his manager embarrasses them. He had no plan of action after that. He wasn't trying to get a date. He simply wanted them to look at him and notice that he was trying to be heroic so that he could be granted that ever so slight release from the tension of his hormones.
Job stress can be a hilarious thing, and though it takes back seat to hormonal raging in Sammy's life, it is still quite prevalent. The type of stress Sammy faces is one that many would not consider stress at all: he is very bored. He sees his job as an uninteresting chore that he must tolerate with no stimulation other than watching the customers walk through the highly organized isles in an almost hypnotic fashion, and this under-stimulation can produce a great amount of mental strain for a young man seeking adventure. One might miss just how much Updike writes about the hassles of having a service job, but he demonstrates that he must have had a similar job as Sammy that he remembered quite clearly even after becoming a writer. He refers to customers as "sheep." He mocks them for the things that probably run through their heads. I think the best example comes from the part where the girls are picking which line to go to: "Slots Three through Seven are unmanned and I could see her wondering between Stokes and me, but Stokesie with his usual luck draws an elderly party in baggy pants who stumbles up with four giant cans of pineapple juice..." Having myself worked several service jobs and having written several articles about them, I can say with some confidence that only a person who understands the service industry well could have written something as subtly humorous as that excerpt. It's clear that Updike wanted the readers to understand the day to day frustration that Sammy was feeling to better understand the theme of why he quit and what it all meant to him.
Finally, we have the rebellious attitude shown by our hero against his stodgy boss, Lengel. Lengel is not just an authority figure and Sammy is not just a rebel without a cause. That is to say, I don't believe that Sammy rebels simple because he despises all authority figures, but rather, Lengel is a very special authority figure in the sense that he represents everything that Sammy hates. He more than once refers to the man as "gray" and as having a Sunday school teacher demeanor. Lengel, unsatisfied to be merely an obnoxiously boring person, takes it upon himself to ruin the one thing that has broken up Sammy's detestable boredom. Sammy finally was able to see the girls upclose and speak with them. He even received a dollar from the queen that came out of her bathing suit from between her breasts. But Lengel "comes over and says, ‘Girls, this isn't the beach'" and ultimately keeping Sammy from his goal of breaking the monotony of the A & P. So here, we have Sammy's hormones being placated like they've never been placated before, when suddenly work frustrations and authority come crashing down and wreck the situation for no good reason. And so Sammy quits since he is too fed up with the situation.
"A & P" is more than just a story about a foolhardy boy quitting just to impress some girls who were embarrassed by his boss. It's more of a story about the stressors young men must face. The setting is a service job, specifically a supermarket, where many young men find themselves working at some point in their lives. There are mostly annoying stimuli in such settings like customers who seem no smarter than sheep, or rude authority figures, and so teens find themselves looking for something exciting to end their boredom. And sometimes, something nice enters the young man's life and relieves him of his unpleasant tedium. In Sammy's case, the girls are this relieving nicety. But sometimes, somehow, the unpleasantness does not want to be hindered in its work of annoying the boy and it finds a way of removing any pleasantry so that the boy can return to his misery. It is under these circumstances that an 18 year old male may make some of the brashest decisions in his life.
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