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Appearances and Inner Lives Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Growing Up Theme Icon
Sex, Gender, Power Theme Icon
Appearances and Inner Lives Theme Icon
Individualism and Ethics Theme Icon
Class Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A&P, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Appearances and Inner Lives Theme Icon

Sammy, as a store employee, judges everyone who walks through the store based on their appearances, what they buy, and how they act. He imagines what their inner lives might be like (the fifty-year-old woman, for example, who's been watching cash registers for the past forty years, looking for a mistake) and he analyzes the girls as they walk into the store, identifying their leader and envisioning their social backgrounds. The girls are dressed only in their bathing suits, and Sammy spends the entire first half of the story describing what they look like. Other customers and store employees react to their appearance too, which doesn't conform to the social norm of what one should wear into the town's grocery store. The conflict of the story arrives when the store's manager confronts the girls about their appearance, asking them to dress decently when they come in to shop—which embarrasses the girls and leads to the climax of the story when Sammy quits.

At the end of the story, Sammy, who has believed himself able to understand the inner lives of all the customers based on their actions and appearances, is suddenly faced with the realization that he doesn't quite understand why he just quit— in other words, his own inner self is something of a mystery to him. And part of his realization of the difficulty of the world may rest on his sudden understanding that his blithe, arrogant, and youthful way of looking at the world was wrong.

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Appearances and Inner Lives ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Appearances and Inner Lives appears in each section of A&P. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Appearances and Inner Lives Quotes in A&P

Below you will find the important quotes in A&P related to the theme of Appearances and Inner Lives.
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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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.

"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.

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.