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A P John Updike Theme Essay Prompts

Analysis Research Paper of A&P by John Updike

A&P is a popular and influential short story by John Updike. It examines themes of middle-class life and values, youth and age, consumer culture, and sexuality. It’s also quite funny, mostly because of the wit and personality of the protagonist, Sammy, who narrates the story.  The story involves a brief but significant event for Sammy, when three teenage girls come into the grocery store where he works. They are dressed for the beach. Sammy checks them out and fantasizes about them, speculating about their personalities and private lives. His manager Lengel confronts the girls and says that their dress is inappropriate for the store. The girls leave embarrassed, and Sammy decides to quit in protest over their treatment. He hopes that this grand romantic gesture will make an impression on them, but they don’t even see him do it. The story ends with Sammy realizing the consequences of his rash decision and feeling “how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.”

Doing a literary analysis requires close reading with careful attention to details, and thinking about how each detail contributes to the whole. What does this mean? Why is it there and what is it doing? You need to look beneath the surface events for potential larger meanings to emerge.  Your goal in this close reading will be to come up with a specific thesis about the text, which you will use quoted evidence to support. Here are some things to think about to get you started:

  • Is Sammy’s gesture, quitting his job, selfish or a sacrifice? How much does he really care about the girls’ dignity?
  • How reliable is Sammy as a narrator? Since we are only in his head, can we know anything about the truth of his narration?
  • How does the appearance of the girls affect different men in the store, and what might the story be saying about male sexual desire?
  • Sammy describes one woman as “a witch straight out of Salem.” We know that they live north of Boston, and thus not far from Salem. What is the significance of this reference?
  • Think about the themes of conformity, authority, and freedom.
  • How does the setting of A&P stand in for society as a whole?
  • How do the events in A&P reflect social changes that were happening when it was written, in 1961?

"A & P" Updike, John (Hoyer)

The following entry presents discussion of Updike's short story "A & P."

Often depicting middle-class, Protestant America, Updike's short fiction focuses on the feelings of loneliness and isolation that lead the "common man" to seek some form of higher truth or ultimate meaning. "A & P" represents one of Updike's most successful coming-of-age narratives; the story articulates a teenaged boy's sudden awareness of the split between his inner feelings and society's values. Like much of Updike's fiction, "A & P" first appeared in The New Yorker before being published in the collection Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories (1962).

Plot and Major Characters

"A & P" is narrated by Sammy, a nineteen-year-old boy who is a cashier at a local A & P grocery in a conservative New England town during the summer tourist season. When three adolescent girls enter the store wearing only their bathing suits, Sammy is mesmerized. He describes the appearance and actions of the girls with elaborate detail, observing that something about their demeanor suggests a remote, upper-class lifestyle that contrasts with his own. As the girls prepare to make their purchase, the store manager reprimands them for what he perceives as their indecent appearance. Hoping the girls will notice his chivalrous gesture, Sammy abruptly quits his job in protest. Realizing that he might later regret his impulsive action, Sammy nevertheless follows through with his decision to quit, and walks off the job. By the time he walks outside into the parking lot, however, the girls are already gone. The story ends on a melancholy note as Sammy reflects upon "how hard the world was going to be for me hereafter."

Major Themes

"A & P" concisely sets up oppositions between several motifs: the individual versus the collective, conservatism versus liberalism, the working class versus the upper class, women versus men, and consumerism versus Romanticism. Interpretations of "A & P" depend to some degree upon the reader's understanding of the reason for Sammy's hasty decision to quit his job: some argue that he is truly rebelling against the disparagement of the young women by the Puritanical manager, while others feel that he quits due to misguided self-interest, in hopes that the girls will notice him. Critics have often viewed Sammy's gesture as quixotically romantic, since he gains nothing through his decision except the loss of his job.

Critical Reception

"A & P" is one of Updike's most anthologized and most popular stories. While the narrative style of the story has been widely acclaimed, critical opinion is split between those who declare the piece a work of genius and those who find it devoid of profound content. Much critical discussion has focused on the significance of Sammy's actions: while many reviewers interpret his behavior as admirably honest and authentic, some argue that his inappropriate judgement of his town's standards leads to his isolation and loss at the conclusion. Commentators have found possible literary sources for the story in Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," Joyce's "Araby," and Emerson's "Self Reliance."

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