A&P

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Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Fawcett Columbine edition of A&P published in 1996.
A&P Quotes

She's one of these cash-register-watchers, a witch about fifty with rouge on her cheekbones and no eyebrows, and I know it made her day to trip me up. She'd been watching cash registers forty years and probably never seen a mistake before.

Related Characters: Sammy (speaker)
Page Number: 187
Explanation and Analysis:

This, Sammy's first sweeping judgment on a stranger, gives readers insight into his character and his age. Confronted with someone he knows nothing about who has caught him making a mistake with her groceries, Sammy pegs her as a very specific type of person (someone who watches a cash register like a hawk, longing for the cashier to make a mistake) instead of acknowledging that she was correct to point out that he was overcharging her for her groceries. From this, we understand that Sammy is judgmental in a way that young people often are when they do not understand the complexities of what makes up an adult life. We also learn that Sammy, though he sees himself as having adult understanding of the world (being able to intuit specific things about a person from a small interaction), also still sees himself as a child in some ways. Instead of acknowledging his own mistake and accepting responsibility for it like an adult would be expected to do, Sammy blames the woman's (imagined) stinginess and pettiness. His reaction shows that he still feels that, as an adult, she has power over him that he is incapable of contending with.

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You never know for sure how girls' minds work (do you really think it's a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar?) but you got the idea she had talked the other two into coming in here with her, and now she was showing them how to do it, walk slow and hold yourself straight.

Related Characters: Sammy (speaker), Queenie
Page Number: 188
Explanation and Analysis:

This is another example of Sammy's tendency to project personalities or motivations onto complete strangers, which shows a lack of humility and empathy. In fact, his only moment of uncertainty about the girls' characters (when he states that he does not understand how girls' minds work and then questions whether they have minds at all) betrays a dehumanizing sexism in Sammy. His description of the girls' bodies (which occupies him for the bulk of the story) combined with this offhand remark suggesting the girls lack intellect and complexity shows that he views them as objects, and that he does not consider them to be whole people independent of his desire for them. Even his consideration of their internal dynamic (who is the leader, who is following, etc.) is simply playing into his fantasy about the leader teaching the others to come into their own sexualities. This obsessive imagining of whether the people around him are asserting or bending to power betrays his own internal struggle, of which he is unaware, between the forces in his life that ask him to toe the line of emerging adulthood and his desire to shirk the responsibilities that come with his age and social position.

She must have felt in the corner of her eye me and over my shoulder Stokesie in the second slot watching, but she didn't tip. Not this queen. She kept her eyes moving across the racks, and stopped, and turned so slow it made my stomach rub the inside of my apron…

Related Characters: Sammy (speaker), Queenie, Stokesie
Page Number: 189
Explanation and Analysis:

This part of the story shows the odd power struggle that Sammy perceives regarding the girls walking around the store in their bathing suits. Sammy has some understanding that ogling them is a way for him to assert power over them, and he also understands that the girls pretending not to notice is a way for them to reclaim some of that power. Instead of viewing this as a serious contest for respect and dignity, though, he sees it as a sort of sexual game in which the girls' leader is further seducing him by refusing to acknowledge his bad behavior. This, again, shows how profoundly Sammy cannot intuit or empathize with the inner lives of the people around him, even though he seems to fancy himself a sort of expert at guessing what people are thinking and feeling while they shop for groceries. 

The sheep pushing their carts down the aisle—the girls were walking against the usual traffic (not that we have one-way signs or anything)—were pretty hilarious.

Related Characters: Sammy (speaker), Queenie
Page Number: 190
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage shows that Sammy views his blatant ogling of the girls as authentic action, in contrast to the boring and contemptible following of social norms that the other people at the grocery store perform. Sammy seems to relish his disrespectful behavior because he sees it as a kind of rebellion against stifling and boring aspects of society. In this passage, Sammy is mocking the people around him for pretending not to notice the girls. He contrasts this behavior with the behavior of the girls, who are wearing the wrong thing and walking the wrong way, and with his own behavior, since he seems to believe that he has the unique courage and insight to recognize the absurdity of the situation. Were Sammy truly empathetic he might consider that the other patrons' refusal to look at the girls might come from a motivation other than simple fear or inability to break from social norms; they might be trying to respect these girls, or trying not to encourage them to use sexual power in the world since that kind of power (as Sammy later learns) can be accompanied by vulnerability. 

I bet you could set off dynamite in an A & P and the people would by and large keep reaching and checking oatmeal off their lists and muttering "Let me see, there was a third thing, began with A, asparagus, no, ah, yes, applesauce!" or whatever it is they do mutter. But there was no doubt, this jiggled them. A few house-slaves in pin curlers even looked around after pushing their carts past to make sure what they had seen was correct.

Related Characters: Sammy (speaker)
Page Number: 190
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage shows a continued expression of Sammy's disdain for people who follow normative, middle-class, American values. By proposing that the shoppers wouldn't react if dynamite exploded in the store, Sammy implies that he believes these people to be so conditioned by social rules that they entirely lack awareness and individuality. He also continues to betray a particular meanness towards women by mocking the "house-slaves." He believes that the "house-slaves" are disturbed by the presence of the young girls (his reference to the older women's pin curlers indicates that Sammy believes that part of their disturbance has to do with jealousy of the girls' youth and beauty) but he thinks that they hide their feelings in order to not make a scene. This is doubly cruel of Sammy, as he projects a scandalized sense of inferiority onto the older women at the same time as he imagines them to be so powerless that they cannot express the insecurity and anger that Sammy imagines that the women feel.

"Oh Daddy," Stokesie said beside me. "I feel so faint."

Related Characters: Stokesie (speaker)
Page Number: 190
Explanation and Analysis:

Sammy's interactions with Stokesie are crucial to understanding how Sammy understands himself. In this interaction, Sammy and Stokesie are ogling the girls together, and their mutual acknowledgement of the activity is, paradoxically, the kind of social reinforcement of behavior that Sammy seems to detest in others. It shows a dynamic among men in which sexism is accepted and perpetuated by this type of unexamined mutual reinforcement. In other words, Sammy is himself falling into the prescribed role of men ogling beautiful young women—thus following a category of social behavior rather than asserting true individualism by questioning his own motives and morals and considering the young women as full people deserving of his respect. 

It is also important to consider that Stokesie's comment and Sammy's narrated thoughts indicate that they believe that the girls are exercising power over them. A more nuanced understanding of the situation would force them to acknowledge that, by staring at these girls and projecting fantasies onto them, the men are exerting their own power over the women. The men avoid responsibility for their bad behavior by framing their actions as resulting from the power the girls are exercising over them. 

Stokesie's married, with two babies chalked up on his fuselage already, but as far as I can tell that's the only difference. He's twenty-two, and I was nineteen this April.

Related Characters: Sammy (speaker)
Page Number: 191
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Updike manages to convey something crucial about Sammy through a tiny interaction. Sammy tells the reader that Stokesie is married and has a family, but says that he believes that otherwise the two of them are just alike. Sammy is flippant about the profound importance of Stokesie's family to his life and experiences, treating it as almost a superficial detail of his character instead of something that structures Stokesie's life. If Sammy's shallow pronouncements about the middle class families in the store didn't already show us that Sammy does not understand the complexity of adult responsibility, then this interaction cements our understanding that Sammy's outlook on the world is more youthful than adult. Updike tops off this complex interaction by allowing Sammy to narrate the moment when Stokesie turns away from the girls and seems not to want to see them anymore. Sammy is dismissive of this gesture, chalking it up to Stokesie being a "responsible married man" and then rolling his eyes at Stokesie's ambition to become manager. 

All that was left for us to see was old McMahon patting his mouth and looking after them sizing up their joints. Poor kids, I began to feel sorry for them, they couldn't help it.

Related Characters: Sammy (speaker), Queenie
Page Number: 191
Explanation and Analysis:
In this passage Sammy is startled by seeing the butcher, who is an older man Sammy seems not to respect, engaging in the same ogling that Sammy and Stokesie have just been doing. While Sammy lacks the self-awareness to feel ashamed of his own behavior after feeling disgusted at McMahon's behavior, his disgust does open him up, for the first time, to feeling empathy towards the girls. Seeing McMahon eye them makes Sammy realize that there is probably something gross about being eyed by older men at the supermarket. Tellingly, for the first time he refers to the girls as "kids," showing that he is taking a more adult position towards them. The enigmatic "they couldn't help it" seems to be Sammy's complex expression of the feeling that, while the girls can't help attracting male attention, they also are somewhat responsible for it. While this is a more mature attitude than simply ogling them and mocking everyone who doesn't, it still shows some sexism. 

"My mother asked me to pick up a jar of herring snacks." […]All of a sudden I slid right down her voice into her living room. Her father and the other men were standing around in ice-cream coats and bow ties and the women were in sandals picking up herring snacks on toothpicks off a big plate and they were all holding drinks the color of water with olives and sprigs of mint in them. When my parents have somebody over they get lemonade and if it's a real racy affair Schlitz in tall glasses with "They'll Do It Every Time" cartoons stenciled on.

Related Characters: Sammy (speaker), Queenie (speaker)
Related Symbols: Herring Snacks
Page Number: 193
Explanation and Analysis:

In this moment, Sammy is beginning to realize how much more complex these girls are than he imagined. For one, he realizes their upper-class status and imagines the differences between their experiences and his own. While he is still projecting his imagination onto them, it is at least a more nuanced projection that acknowledges that they have lives to which he can't quite relate. In this interaction, Sammy also relays being startled by the girl's actual voice, since it is not like what he imagined. Throughout the story he has imagined this girl as somebody confidently exercising her power over men, and it startles Sammy to see her in a situation in which, confronted by the store manager, the girl tentatively brings up her mother to justify her presence in the store. Seeing her confidence falter helps Sammy to understand the complex negotiations of power at play, and also helps him to see that this girl is wavering between youth and adulthood in a way that mirrors his own experience.

"We are decent," Queenie says suddenly, her lower lip pushing, getting sore now that she remembers her place, a place from which the crowd that runs the A & P must look pretty crummy. Fancy Herring Snacks flashed in her very blue eyes.

Related Characters: Sammy (speaker), Queenie (speaker)
Related Symbols: Herring Snacks
Page Number: 194
Explanation and Analysis:
Queenie has now publicly gone from exuding confidence, to faltering, to seeming embarrassed, to seeming indignant about the way she is being treated. When the manager tells her she needs to dress decently (as in, she needs to be sufficiently clothed) she seems to take it as an attack on her status and personhood, as her response is a defense that she is, in fact, a decent person. Sammy, meanwhile, assumes (correctly or incorrectly, we can never know) that Queenie's reaction is based on her feeling that, because of her class, she should not be talked down to by the lower-class employees of the A&P. When he says that "fancy herring snacks flashed in her very blue eyes" he is using the herring snacks as an emblem of the upper-class world that does not belong at the A&P. Sammy's intuition that Queenie is having a moment of realizing that she is above everyone else in some way mirrors Sammy's feeling of superiority throughout the story. 

"Girls, I don't want to argue with you. After this come in here with your shoulders covered. It's our policy."

Related Characters: Lengel (speaker), Queenie
Related Symbols: Bathing Suits
Page Number: 194
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Lengel is changing tactics in his confrontation with the girls, which reveals his own confusion about his values and motivations. While his first attempt to chastise the girls rested on his moral conviction that the girls should be decently clothed in public, here he pivots and claims that he is merely enforcing store policy. This appears to occur in reaction to the girls' embarrassment, which may have left Lengel conflicted about whether or not he still had the moral high ground—but also in response to Queenie's indignation, which suggests that she comes from a place of privilege and is immune to punishment. It is this shift to claiming the importance of policy that disgusts Sammy, who frames his reaction not in terms of the moral mismatch between policy and the distress it causes, but in the much more youthful and simplistic terms of old people having power and young people wanting rebellion. Still, Sammy is moved by this interaction that causes the young women's emotions to modulate in a way that reveals to him some of the nuances of their inner lives. 

The girls, and who'd blame them, are in a hurry to get out, so I say "I quit" to Lengel quick enough for them to hear, hoping they'll stop and watch me, their unsuspected hero. They keep right on going, into the electric eye […]

Related Characters: Sammy (speaker), Queenie, Lengel
Page Number: 195
Explanation and Analysis:

This is the climax of the story, in which Sammy, moved by the interaction he has just witnessed, impulsively quits his job. In keeping with his youthful lust, his initial motivation for quitting seems to be to impress the girls, but he frames it to himself as solidarity, in that he feels he is quitting to protest their poor treatment. This is obviously a muddled chain of logic, since his attempt to stand up for their dignity is conflated with his sexual desire and longing to impress them. It also seems that Sammy's motivation is partly personal, in that, by quitting, he is proving to himself that he lives by the individualism that he admires instead of bowing to social norms and continuing to ring up customers. When Updike shows the girls walking out the door as Sammy is quitting, though, he gives readers a sense that all the muddled things Sammy is standing up for are unattainable.

"Sammy, you don't want to do this to your Mom and Dad," he tells me. It's true, I don't. But it seems to me that once you begin a gesture it's fatal not to go through with it. I fold the apron, "Sammy" stitched in red on the pocket, and put it on the counter, and drop the bow tie on top of it.

Related Characters: Sammy (speaker), Lengel (speaker)
Page Number: 196
Explanation and Analysis:

With the girls gone from the store, Sammy has to face the reality of what he is doing. Since it does not seem that he has successfully impressed the girls, this moment is a test of whether his conviction that individuality is more important than bowing to social pressure is strong enough to make it worth quitting his job. The answer is inconclusive here; Sammy's rationale for following through is not that his belief in what he is doing is strong, but rather that he must finish what he has started, or that he feels he cannot now take it back. Ironically, this mindless continuation of action mirrors the sheep-like behavior of the people Sammy has criticized. It is also important that in this passage, for the first time, Sammy recognizes that he has a responsibility to others. His mom and dad seem to depend on him, perhaps to help the family financially, and his quitting will have an effect on others besides himself. Though this consideration does not keep him from quitting his job, it foreshadows the complex adult realities that his decision will usher in.

I could see Lengel in my place in the slot, checking the sheep through. His face was dark gray and his back stiff, as if he'd just had an injection of iron, and my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.

Related Characters: Sammy (speaker)
Page Number: 196
Explanation and Analysis:

By the end of the story, Sammy is identifying with the character he would have, at the beginning, seemed least likely to identify with. Lengel, the stand-in for mindless authority and for the cruelty of social systems, now seems pathetic and almost sympathetic to Sammy. It is important that Sammy sees Lengel through the window after he has already gone out into the parking lot to check on whether the girls are still there. The girls are not there--the parking lot is devoid of the objects of desire that, in part, motivated him to quit--and now Sammy is left with only his uncertainty about what he has done. Here, in this last paragraph of the story, it is clear that Sammy has had a revelation, however vague, about how complex the lives and responsibilities of adults are. Updike leaves us to understand that this moment has broken in Sammy some of the innocence and arrogance of his childhood, and that he now understands that the world is more complex than his simplistic worldview permitted just moments before.

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