A&P

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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.
Sex, Gender, Power Theme Icon

The three girls walk into the store, and it seems that their sexuality asserts power in the way that they turn heads and capture the attention of the store-goers and employees. The girls are aware that others are watching them, but they act oblivious, and this dynamic seems to lend the girls a kind of unspoken power. However, this power proves to be something of an illusion, since the girls can't really harness it—as Sammy says, "Poor kids, I began to feel sorry for them, they couldn't help it"—and they can't adequately come to their own defense when Lengel asserts his own personal power within the store and shames them. He accuses the girls of being indecent, and in doing so asserts that the girls' attire goes against social norms, that the girls' sexuality is itself inherently indecent, and blames the girls for the men's sexual desire for them.

Sammy's response to defend the girls and sacrifice himself arises because he's both attracted to them and wants to be their defender. As he attempts to protect the girls from Lengel's power, however, Sammy actually objectifies them further in some sense—he renders them more helpless, as passive objects of desire who require his defense and can't act for themselves.

Sex, Gender, Power ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in A&P related to the theme of Sex, Gender, Power.
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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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. 

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. 

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. 

"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.