A & P

John Updike - Published 1961

John Updike is one of America’s most prominent contemporary authors. He has written novels, short stories, essays, poetry, reviews, articles, memoirs, art criticism, and drama. His work has been adapted for television and film, and he has won numerous awards, including a National Book Award and two Pulitzer Prizes.

Updike was born on March 18, 1932, in Reading, Pennsylvania, and lived in nearby Shillington until he was thirteen. Many of Updike’s stories exhibit autobiographical elements, and his fictional town of Olinger is patterned after Shillington. When he was thirteen he moved with his parents and grandparents to a farm in Plowville, Pennsylvania, where his mother had been born. His father was a junior high school math teacher, and his mother a writer who wrote stories for the New Yorker magazine, as her son later did. Updike did well in school, graduated from high school as co-valedictorian, and attended Harvard University on a scholarship. In college, he wrote for the Harvard Lampoon.

In 1953 Updike married Mary Pennington, and the couple traveled to England on a Knox Fellowship. He enrolled in the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at Oxford, and for a while he considered a career drawing cartoons for Walt Disney or the New Yorker. In 1955 his daughter Elizabeth was born. For the sake of his growing family, Updike took a job at the New Yorker, which he held for two years before deciding to move to Ipswich, Massachusetts, and devote himself to fiction writing as an independent author. He and Mary eventually had four children before the couple divorced in 1977. He subsequently married Martha Bernhard.

The late 1950s were productive for Updike. He published his first novel, Poorhouse Fair; a collection of short stories, The Same Door; and a book of poems, The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures. In 1960 the first of his “Rabbit” books, Rabbit, Run, introduced the world to Harry Angstrom, a man whose life peaked at eighteen when he was a high-school basketball star. To Harry’s continued amazement and sorrow, he lives his life as a shadow of what he used to be.

Critics have praised the character of Harry Angstrom highly, and Updike has won two Pulitzer Prizes for his “Rabbit” books; one in 1982 for Rabbit Is Rich, and one in 1991 for Rabbit at Rest. Another of Updike’s most popular novels is The Witches of Eastwick, the story of three divorced women in New England who gain magical skills to attract men. Their enticements backfire when a devilish man moves into the neighborhood. The book was made into a film in 1987 starring Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon, and Cher. Throughout the many forms Updike’s writing takes—novels, stories, poems, and essays—the author’s primary concerns are Protestant, middle-class, contemporary American life, and the roles that marriage, divorce, sexuality, and religion play in it.


“A & P” was first published in the July 22, 1961 issue of the New Yorker and was published again the following year in the author’s collection Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories. Arthur Mizener’s review of the collection in the New York Times Book Review exalted Updike in terms that soon became commonplace for the writer: “his natural talent is so great that for some time it has been a positive handicap to him.” Almost 40 years later, “A & P” remains Updike’s most anthologized story and one of his most popular.

The story opens with Sammy, the teenaged narrator, describing three girls who have walked into the A & P grocery store where he works. They are wearing nothing but bathing suits. He is so distracted by them that he cannot remember if he rang up a box of crackers or not. As it turns out, he rings them up twice, a fact that his customer, “a witch about fifty,” lets him know quickly and loudly. He finishes ringing up the customer’s items as the girls, who have disappeared down an aisle, circle back into view. He notices that they are barefoot. He describes each: there is a “chunky one...and a tall one [with] a chin that was too long” and the “queen,” whom he imagines is their leader. She catches his eye for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the straps of her bathing suit have fallen off her shoulders.

Sammy watches the reactions of the other shoppers to the girls. He refers to the store’s other customers as “sheep” and “a few houseslaves in pink pin curlers.” Another clerk, Stokesie, a married 22-year-old with two children, trades innuendoes with him.

The narrator announces that he has come to what his family deems “the sad part” of the story, though he does not agree. The girls come to his checkout station, and the girl Sammy has dubbed “Queenie” puts down a jar of herring snacks and pulls a dollar from her bathing-suit top, a motion that makes Sammy nearly swoon. The store’s manager, Lengel, spots the girls and reprimands them for their attire, telling them that they should be decently dressed when they shop at the A & P.

Sammy rings up Queenie’s item, carefully handling the bill that just came from between Queenie’s breasts. Other customers appear nervous at the scene Lengel has made at the checkout, and the girls are embarrassed and want to leave quickly. Sammy, in a passionate moment, tells Lengel that he quits. The girls, however, fail to notice his act of chivalry and continue walking out of the store. Lengel asks him if he said something, and Sammy replies, “I said I quit.” Lengel, a longtime friend of Sammy’s parents, tries to talk him out of it, but Sammy folds his apron, puts it on the counter, punches “No Sale” on the cash register, and walks out.

Critics responded enthusiastically to “A & P,” and readers’ identification with Sammy’s predicament has contributed to the story’s continuing popularity. Though little action occurs in the story, Sammy’s character is finely drawn in the space of a few pages, and his brush with authority has large implications. He has been compared to Holden Caulfield, J. D. Salinger’s protagonist in The Catcher in the Rye, and Walter Wells in his essay “‘A & P’: A Return Visit to Araby,” has suggested that Sammy’s moment of protest is similar to the epiphany—or sudden moment of insight—experienced by the narrator in James Joyce’s story “Araby,” a comment that places Updike in the pantheon of the most accomplished writers of the 20th century. Negative reactions to the story center on what some readers perceive as Sammy’s misogynist views. Other critics consider “A & P” a slight story, though one into which a lifetime of dignity, choices, and consequences is compressed.

Updike was only in his twenties when he wrote “A & P,” but he had already gained a reputation for his concise and elegant prose. In a New York Times Book Review article on Pigeon Feathers, the collection in which “A & P” was reprinted, Arthur Mizener called him “the most talented writer of his age in America...and perhaps the most serious.” Having already published two novels and a collection each of stories and poems, Updike had familiarized reviewers with his propensity for capturing small moments in his fiction. Though many claimed he did so with grace, others criticized Updike because the moments were small, and in their opinion, insignificant. “A & P” originally suffered from this view. An anonymous reviewer in Time magazine remarked that Updike “says very little and says it well”—this critic echoes the sentiment of many of his contemporaries. The reviewer went on to say that “even the book’s best story—a young A & P food checker watches three girls in bathing suits pad through the store and quits his job impulsively when his boss reproaches them for their immodesty—is as forgettable as last week’s New Yorker.” Yet, “A & P” has become Updike’s most popular story over the years and has appeared in more than twenty anthologies. Young people especially seem to identify with Sammy and respond to the way he tells his story. Robert Detweiler surmised in his book John Updike that Sammy’s popularity is due to his “integrity, one that divorces him from his unthinking conservative environment.” M. Gilbert Porter, in an essay for English Journal, noted that Sammy’s overreaction “does not detract from the basic nobility of his chivalric intent, nor does it reduce the magnitude of his personal commitment.” Ronald E. McFarland, in an essay in Short Studies in Fiction, claimed that the story’s enduring popularity was due in part to the ambiguity of the narrator’s actions. This sentiment was first proposed by Suzanne Uphaus, who stated in her book John Updike that Sammy’s behavior is an attempt by Updike to reflect on his conviction that “the heroic gesture is often meaningless and usually arises from selfish rather than unselfish impulses.” Other critics are similarly interested in the character of Sammy. In an essay titled “Irony and Innocence in John Updike’s ‘A & P,’” Lawrence Jay Dessner lauded the story’s “brevity and its outrageously naive yet morally ambitious teen-age hero,” whom he called “boisterously inventive and rebellious.” Walter Wells discussed the story as a modern interpretation of James Joyce’s classic tale of adolescent initiation, “Araby.” Calling Sammy’s “the more ambivalent epiphany,” Wells drew comparisons between the sudden realizations of the narrator of “Araby” and that of Updike’s story, and speculated that the author’s purpose in updating Joyce’s story was “to contrast the spiritual value-systems and the adolescent sexual folkways of Joyce’s Dublin with those of suburban New England in the Atomic Age.” Donald J. Greiner, in The Other John Updike: Poems, Short Stories, Prose, Play, summarized the attraction many readers feel to Sammy: The end of the story suggests that all is not self-righteousness and slang. Sammy has sympathy and a sense of outrage. However ironic, his sacrificial gesture is as refreshing as his colloquial candor.... An observer of his social world, he resolves not just to record but also to act upon his impressions.


The action of “A & P” takes place in a grocery store in a town north of Boston that is five miles from the nearest beach. Updike told Short Stories for Students that he wrote “A & P” “in 1961, when I was living in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Driving past the local A & P, I asked myself, Why are there no short stories that take place inside an A & P?’ I proceeded to write one, based on a glimpse I had had of some girls in bathing suits shopping in the aisles. They looked strikingly naked.” Updike added: “Originally the story went on, past the ending it now has: Sammy goes down to the beach to find the girls, and never does find them. But the story’s editor at the New Yorker thought that the story ended where it now does, and I agreed with him.”


The encounter of Sammy, a checkout clerk at an A & P supermarket, with a trio of swimsuited girls encompasses many of the themes central to adolescence, including accepting the repercussions of one’s choices. When Sammy quits in protest of how the girls were treated by the store’s manager, he perceives that from now on, the world will be a more difficult place. As Sammy tells the story his language indicates that, at age nineteen, he is both cynical and romantic. He notes, for instance, that there are “about twenty-seven old freeloaders” working on a sewer main up the street, and he wonders what the “bum” in “baggy gray pants” could possibly do with “four giant cans of pineapple juice.” Yet, when Queenie approaches him at the checkout, Sammy describes her “prim look” as “she lifts a folded dollar bill out of the hollow at the center of her nubbled pink top.” “Really,” he says, “I thought that was so cute.” He vacillates back and forth between these extremes of opinion during the story. He considers some of the customers “houseslaves in pin curlers,” yet he is sensitive enough that when Lengel makes Queenie blush, he feels “scrunchy inside.” At the end of the story, he quits his job in an effort to be a hero to the girls and as a way of rebelling against a strict society. Experiencing an epiphany, he suddenly realizes “how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter” if he refuses to follow acceptable paths.

Sammy most pointedly embodies an important theme in “A & P”: that of choices and consequences. While all of the main characters in the story must make a choice and endure the consequences of that choice, Sammy makes the most obvious and most meaningful choice, and on some level he is aware of the consequences. When he chooses to quit his job, he knows that this decision will have ramifications in his life that will last for a long time. His family is affected, and it causes him to recount the situation as “sad.” Because he has stood up for something on principle—he acted in protest of the manager’s chastisement of the girls—he knows life will be difficult for him. If Sammy quits his job every time he encounters a situation he dislikes, his life will become extremely complicated. In the short term, the consequence of quitting is having to find another job, and with his rash decision comes the possibility he will be branded a troublemaker or misfit by the community in which he lives.

“Queenie” is the name Sammy gives to the pretty girl who leads her two friends through the grocery store in their bathing suits. He has never seen her before but immediately becomes infatuated with her. He comments on her regal and tantalizing appearance. She is somewhat objectified by Sammy, who notes the shape of her body and the seductiveness of the straps which have slipped off her shoulders. When the girls are chastised for their attire by Lengel, Queenie, who Sammy imagines lives in an upper-middle-class world of backyard swimming pools and fancy hors d’oeuvres, becomes “sore now that she remembers her place, a place from which the crowd that runs the A & P must look pretty crummy.” Sammy becomes indignant at Lengel’s treatment of the girls and tries to help them save face by quitting his job. Queenie, however, appears not to notice and leaves the store promptly, diminishing the impact of Sammy’s gesture.

The three girls must suffer the consequences of having gone to the grocery store in their bathing suits. It is hard to believe that they had no idea they were improperly dressed. In the early 1960s women still wore dresses, hats, and gloves most of the time when they were in public. In their youthful exuberance to push the limits of propriety, the girls have been reprimanded by an adult. They have also made quite an impression on two young men, Sammy and Stokesie, which was, perhaps unconsciously, their intention in the first place. Nevertheless, because of their choice to violate community standards, they suffer embarrassment by being reprimanded by an authority figure. Even Sammy’s attempt at solidarity with them is not enough to salvage the situation; they make a hasty retreat from the store and disappear without taking a stand, unlike Sammy. From the girls’ meek reaction, one can surmise that the girls will not take many more risks of the same sort in the future. Such a brush with authority will likely hem them in, successfully socializing them to accept community norms. Sammy, however, because of his quick defiance, is less likely to blindly adhere to arbitrary rules for the sake of maintaining peace.

Lengel’s choice to confront the girls has the unforeseen consequence of losing an employee when Sammy resigns in protest. Lengel spends most of his days in his office. Entering the story near the end, he represents the system: management, policy, decency, and the way things are. But he is not a one-dimensional character. He has known Sammy’s parents for a long time, and he tells Sammy that he should, at least for his parents’ sake, not quit his job in such a dramatic, knee-jerk way. He warns Sammy that he will have a hard time dealing with life from now on, should he quit. He seems truly concerned even while he feels the need to enforce store policy.

When he comes into the store after “haggling with a truck full of cabbages,” he could have ignored the three girls. They were, after all, standing in the checkout line, and he is “about to scuttle into that door marked MANAGER.” Instead, he makes the choice to confront the girls in front of Sammy. If he considers any consequences to his actions, he does not show it. He is merely enforcing the social codes of his time and place. He expects that the girls will comply and that Sammy, and anyone else within hearing, will agree with him.

The girls inevitably stop their protestations, as Lengel expected they would, but Sammy quits—an act that Lengel could not have imagined ahead of time. To Lengel’s credit, in spite of his stuffiness and self-importance, he shows Sammy patience. He does not yell or order him immediately out of the store, but warns him of the very real consequences of his act. Yet, it is Lengel’s adherence to the social code—which says that this behavior must go into Sammy’s personnel file—that cause those consequences. It is, in a small way, like classical tragedy. The players in this drama are helpless to act other than the way they do, but it is not the gods who set the parameters of their behavior, but society, with its written and unwritten list of expected behaviors and consequences for deviating from that list.

A related theme in “A & P” is individualism. Sammy asserts his individuality when he quits his job. He knows that Lengel has every right, according to the standards of the time, to speak to the girls as he does. However, by standing up for the girls, Sammy questions those standards and asserts that there is a higher standard of decency that says one should not embarrass others. In deciding which rules of conduct are more important, he asserts his individuality, unlike the girls who slink away because they know they have violated the rules of conduct.

Sammy is the only character in this story who asserts his individuality. Two of the girls are simply following their leader, and Queenie is easily embarrassed and capitulates to Lengel. The other shoppers in the A & P are only “sheep,” nervously herding together at Stokesie’s cash register to avoid the confrontation. Lengel is the enforcer of policy, a term often used for rules that cannot be easily explained with any degree of rationality. He blindly follows the dictates of society, unable to articulate the reasons for those dictates beyond saying that the A & P “isn’t the beach,” an observation so obvious and so lacking in reason that it causes Sammy to smile—a small, but definite step toward his rebellion.

Stokesie, the young, married man who works with Sammy at the A & P checkout, has little to say or do in this story, though, like Sammy, he observes the girls in the store with interest. Only three years older than Sammy, he provides a glimpse of what Sammy’s future might be like; Stokesie’s wife and two children comprise “the only difference” between them, Sammy comments.


Sammy narrates this story in the first person. His voice is colloquial and intimate. His speech is informal, a factor that highlights his individuality and propensity to question authority. His use of slang, like describing a dollar bill that had “just come from between the two smoothest scoops of vanilla I had ever known” characterize him as a fairly typical teenage boy. Using the present tense to make the story seem immediate, he speaks as if to a friend—“I uncrease the bill, tenderly as you may imagine”—drawing the reader immediately to his side. Everything that happens, the reader sees through his eyes. When the girls in bathing suits disappear from his view, they disappear from the reader’s view, as well.

Sammy’s diction indicates that he is probably not a well-educated person. “In walks these three girls,” he says at the very beginning of the story. He also uses a kind of wisecracking slang when talking to Stokesie. Yet, because of the immediacy of his voice, he seems to be a reliable narrator, telling the truth even when it does not flatter him.

“A & P” is rich in symbolism. The HiHo crackers Sammy is ringing up at the beginning of the story are an exclamation. When he rings them up the second time, he is saying “Heigh-ho! Something out of the ordinary is happening!” And the older woman takes him to task for it. The other shoppers are described as “sheep” who follow blindly up and down the aisles, finally entering the chutes where they will check out. Near the end of the story, they bunch up in Stokesie’s chute, crowding together like the nervous sheep they are.

The girls themselves are associated with bees, from the moment that Sammy notices one of them is the “queen,” leading the others around the store. Shortly after that, he wonders what goes on in their minds, if it is “just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar.” Like buzzing bees, they make everyone just a little bit nervous. They are the catalyst in the story, stirring things up as they buzz around the store. Of course the girls, especially Queenie with her shoulder straps hanging loosely, symbolize sexual freedom. It is a sexual freedom that is bottled up rather quickly when Lengel arrives. At the end, Lengel tries to talk Sammy into staying, but Sammy cannot get the picture of the girls’ embarrassment out of his mind, so he rings up “No Sale” on the cash register. He is not buying.

In literary terms, an epiphany is an instance of sudden truth brought about by a mundane event. What began for Sammy as an ordinary day results in the realization of an important truth: “I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.” This final statement of “A & P” is the culmination of the fairly minor event of witnessing three inappropriately dressed girls reprimanded for their appearance. In presenting this epiphany, Updike illustrates how average people grow and change. Prosaic events become significant as people examine their motives and reasons for their decisions and behavior. At nineteen, Sammy is ripe for experiences that will define who he is going to be. He discovers, as “his stomach kind of fell,” that he prefers not to be a sheep who blindly follows the dictates of society. Like the protagonist in James Joyce’s “Araby,” in which an adolescent realizes the futility of romantic quests, Sammy learns, in the words of Walter Wells, that “the whole chivalric world view [is], in modern times, counterproductive.”


Today it is common for businesses to post signs stating the rules of their premises: “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service,” or for movie theaters to run service announcements reminding people not to talk during a film. Society has become so informal that reminders of basic decency and courtesy are commonplace. This is in sharp contrast to the era in which “A & P” is set, when standards of appearance and behavior were more rigid and more accepted. Women were required to wear hats in church, and men were required to take theirs off. In the office, rules were largely unwritten, but rarely broken. Women wore dresses, nylons, and girdles. Men wore gray, blue, or black suits and never left home without a tie. During the 1950s and early 1960s, conservative dress mirrored conservative social values. Conformity was a measure of popularity as well as a measure of moral rightness. Most people, particularly members of the middle class, wanted to fit in with their neighbors. Suburbs were constructed of identical houses, and the American dream was to have a family, a car, and the modern conveniences that would make one equal to others of one’s social standing. Those who bucked the trends were frequently labeled eccentric or bohemian. The rebellion of many young people from the mid-1960s onward stemmed from what they perceived as the oppression of the staunch rules their parents imposed upon them. In the story Sammy is a good example of this. He knows what the rules are, but he does not admire the “sheep” who so willingly follow them. When he quits his job at the grocery store, he has upset the status quo, an event that Sammy’s parents deem “sad.” In refusing to smooth over his behavior and return to his job, Sammy takes a stand that makes him aware of “how hard the world was going to be...hereafter.” In such a rigid society, he knows he may be relegated to the status of an outsider or troublemaker for disagreeing with the unwritten code of acceptable behavior.

There was little positive incentive for Sammy to act as he did. In the late 1950s, the culture had its iconoclasts, but they were never sanctioned by the mainstream. In Nicholas Ray’s 1955 film Rebel without a Cause, starring James Dean, a teenager’s quest for love and warmth in a cold and loveless world turns to tragedy. All movies were subject to censorship from the Hayes Office before the current rating system was devised in the late 1960s. Not only were sex, obscene language, and violence strictly curtailed, but characters of low morals were required to suffer negative consequences of their actions within the course of the film. Jack Kerouac’s seminal novel On the Road, published in 1957, tells of beatnik outcasts Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty who drive across the United States listening to jazz and smoking marijuana while trying to find something authentic in American culture. It was also during this era that Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl was published. In it, Ginsberg condemns a conformist culture for crushing the creative spirit of artists: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.” Such strong language was not received warmly by mainstream society. The poem became the subject of a landmark obscenity trial, and the poem’s publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Books, was jailed by the San Francisco Police Department.

Rock’n’ roll music got its start in the 1950s. At best, it was dismissed as a fad, at worst, it was considered the devil’s work. The new music was filled with a sensuality that middle America vehemently condemned, if only because it was causing young people to swoon with emotions previously kept largely in check. Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry were considered suspicious for their wild movements, flashy clothes, and for beguiling American youth away from the path of safe, decent, sexually modest entertainment. This is the world into which Updike introduces the three teenage girls in bathing suits in “A & P.”


1. If three girls in bathing suits walked into your local supermarket, what do you think the reaction would be today? Has society’s attitude towards such issues as dress changed or remained essentially the same in the past 40 years?

2. Consider the events in the story from the girls’ point of view. Why do you think they went to the grocery store in their swimsuits?

3. If you were to make this story into a film that takes place today, what song would you have playing over the store’s speakers? Think of the themes involved in both the story and the song as you make your decision.

4. At the end of the story, Sammy says “I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

5. Try to put yourself in Sammy’s place. Would you have defended the girls’ behavior? Would their humiliation be worth losing your job?

6. Originally Updike continued the story with Sammy looking for the girls at the beach. In your view, what happens next in the story?


1. Rewrite the first paragraph of this story in the third person. Why do you think Updike wrote it in the first person?

2. Compare and contrast Sammy’s epiphany in “A & P” with that experienced by the protagonist in “Araby” by James Joyce.

3. Describe some similarities between Sammy and Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of J. D. Salinger’s controversial coming-of-age story, The Catcher in the Rye.

4. Identify which symbols you consider richest in adding meaning to the events in the story. Why?

5. Discuss the impact of the events in the story on the characters other than Sammy.

6. Research teenage life of the late 1950s and early 1960s and compare that with life today. Consider such aspects as education, employment and marriage prospects, family and parental relationships, peer pressure, unsupervised leisure activities, and consumer buying power. Relate what you find to the characters in “A & P.”


Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories (1962) by John Updike. “A & P” is one of the stories in this collection which contains stories about characters making choices and living with those choices as they grow.

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