54 pages • 1 hour readJohn Updike
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“A&P” is one of John Updike’s most well-known and celebrated short stories, first published in The New Yorker on July 22, 1961, and later appearing in the author’s short story collection Pigeon Feathers. A Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Updike populates his realist fiction with small-town, middle-class Americans. Adaptations of “A&P” include a 1966 short film directed by Bruce Schwartz, starring Sean Hayes as Sammy and Amy Smart as Queenie.
The protagonist, Sammy, is also the story’s first-person narrator. While his narration shifts between past and present tense, some of his remarks will definitively reveal that he relays these events from a point significantly after their actual occurrence.
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The story begins quite suddenly with Sammy describing three bathing-suit-clad girls’ entrance into the A&P supermarket where he works. His narration provides intricate observations of his surroundings, including his spot in “the third check-out slot” (Paragraph 1), the exact color and design of one of the girls’ bathing suits, and the box of HiHo crackers he holds. As the girls pass through his line of sight, he mistakenly rings up the box of crackers twice due to the distraction; this earns the disapproval of his customer, whom he describes as “one of these cash-register-watchers” and “a witch” (Paragraph 1). He remarks, “By the time I got her feathers smoothed and her goodies into a bag—she gives me a little snort in passing […]—the girls had circled around” (Paragraph 2).
He sees the girls making their way around the bread display and notices they are not wearing shoes. He then becomes pointedly voyeuristic—describing the girls’ bathing suits, faces, hair, lips, chins, and heights—and makes some generalizing, far-fetched assumptions, describing one as “the kind of girl other girls think is very ‘striking’ and ‘attractive’ but never quite makes it” (Paragraph 2). He identifies the “queen” of the three (whom he privately nicknames “Queenie”) because the others seem to be following her and she carries herself confidently. Sammy imagines that Queenie is teaching the girls how to walk with confidence, and he questions how girls’ minds work: “[D]o you really think it’s a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar?” (Paragraph 2).
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Sammy describes Queenie’s dirty-pink bathing suit and especially notices how the straps are down. He observes the stunning whiteness of her shoulders and the “clean bare plane of the top of her chest” (Paragraph 3). The description of her naturally bleached hair implies that it is summer and that there is a beach nearby. Sammy is taken by her beauty, even looking past what he would otherwise see as imperfections: “The longer her neck was, the more of her there was” (Paragraph 4).
As Sammy watches Queenie, he feels certain she knows he’s watching but is unphased by his attention. He inwardly describes the aisle the girls travel down—“the cat-and-dog-food-breakfast-ceral-macaroni-rice-raisins-seasonings-spreads-spaghetti-soft-drins-crackers-and-cookies aisle” (Paragraph 5)—and the girls receive his similarly precise descriptions. He watches the “sheep,” meaning the other customers, who are momentarily taken aback by the sight of the girls before going about their business. Sammy’s inner narration quips that dynamite could be set off in an A&P and the people would continue reading their shopping lists. Yet, he feels there is something about the girls that causes all customers to feel “jiggled.”
Sammy marvels that seeing a girl in a bathing suit at the beach is somehow fundamentally different from seeing her in a supermarket, where the fluorescent lights and “checkerboard green-and-cream rubber-tile floor” make her stand out all the more (Paragraph 6). After watching the girls, Sammy and Stokesie exchange playful conversation, revealing that Stokesie is 22 and married with two babies, while Sammy is freshly 19. Sammy’s narration then explains—as though addressing someone who needs help understanding—that the town is five miles out from a beach and largely ordinary; there are two banks and a Congregational church, for example, visible from the front of the store. The town also borders a high-end resort called the Point and is thereby occasionally frequented by a higher-class crowd. Sammy assumes Queenie and her friends are from the Point. He reasons that they’re more attractive than local women, who would not, he believes, enter the store wearing only swimsuits.
Sammy watches the girls make their way to the check-out slots and is relieved when they come to his slot rather than Stokesie’s. Queenie places down a jar of “Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream: 49¢” (the equivalent of about $4.75 in 2022) (Paragraph 12). Sammy notes Queenie isn’t wearing any expensive accessories that would indicate wealth. Still, he believes, she must be wealthy. He is touched by the “cute” way in which Queenie pulls a dollar bill from her bathing suit top.
During this exchange, the store manager, Lengel, walks over. He comments disapprovingly on the girls’ improper attire. When Queenie insists that her mother sent her out to pick up the herring snacks, the tone of her voice startles Sammy, who expected a very different voice. Nevertheless, he immediately recalibrates. He feels that by the mere sound of her voice, he can divine the overall quality of her life: He imagines her parents throwing an expensive party in their living room with many well-dressed guests. The reverie is wistful as he thinks of how his own parents can’t afford such lavish festivity.
Sammy is amused by Lengel repeating the line “This isn’t the beach” as though it is a new thought (Paragraph 15). Queenie is fiercely blushing by now. Another of the girls tries to interject, but Lengel dismisses her and insists their dress is indecent. Queenie counters that they are decent—and, as Sammy watches her distressed facial expression, he is confident she believes the A&P is beneath her. She must, he fancies, think the lowly crowd is in no position to call her anything.
Lengel insists that proper dress is store policy as a crowd of “sheep” gather to watch the scene unfold, and the girls hurry to leave. After Lengel asks him if he has rung up the girls, Sammy says simply, “I quit.” He hopes the girls overhear this chivalric gesture before they exit.
Lengel asks if Sammy said something, and Sammy repeats that he quit, saying, “You didn’t have to embarrass [the girls]” (Paragraph 27). Lengel replies that it was the girls who were embarrassing the store. When Sammy still argues, Lengel tells him it will hurt his mom and dad if he quits and that “you’ll feel this for the rest of your life” (Paragraph 32). Sammy understands this is true, but he feels he must follow through on his decision nonetheless.
Stepping outside, he is disappointed but not surprised to see that the girls are gone and that they didn’t stick around to witness or thank him for his chivalry. He now sees the store from an outside perspective, watching Lengel through the window, ringing up the “sheep” and appearing stiff and serious. The story ends as Sammy says, “[M]y stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter” (Paragraph 33).
By John Updike