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Individualism and Ethics 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
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Individualism and Ethics Theme Icon

When Sammy quits, he asserts his individualism. The other characters in the story all follow someone or some code of conduct. Lengel enforces the polices of the store and general social norms without being able to explain why they exist, only responding, "This isn't the beach." Stokesie follows the normal path of ambition to become the next store manager. The customers, who Sammy refers to as "sheep," avoid confrontation and choose not to disturb their usual routines. As Sammy says, "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."

Sammy, in contrast, confronts the authority figure, Lengel—the store manager and a Sunday school teacher who represents all the conservative moral and social codes of conduct of the town—and presents him with his own ethical code, saying that Lengel shouldn't have embarrassed the girls. The girls in their bathing suits, and Queenie in particular, represent the sort of willingness to break social norms that Sammy admires ("Policy is what the kingpins want. What the others want is juvenile delinquency"), even if the girls' breaking of those norms is more in line with a prank or game than a real rebellion. When Lengel disagrees, Sammy does something completely unexpected and quits, as the customers nervously back away, uncertain how to proceed in this unforeseen turn of events. Yet the end of the story provides a further comment on individualism, as Sammy realizes how hard the world will be on him, how hard the world is on anyone who resists its rules and norms.

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Individualism and Ethics ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in A&P related to the theme of Individualism and Ethics.
A&P Quotes

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.


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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.

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.