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A&P by John Updike Literary Analysis

John Updike was an American poet, novelist, art critic, and an excellent short story writer who wrote “A&P,” which is discussed in this paper. Updike, who was always passionate about writing until his efforts were rewarded in the early 1950s when he sold his first story to The New Yorker. His writings focused on his own personal life experiences. The majority of his writings were of literary realism, in which he chose to paint a picture of everyday and usual experiences and activities. He mostly told stories about life in a small American town, and his protagonists were generally imperfect and placed in challenging moments. A&P, an abbreviation for “The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company,” was an American grocery store chain which operated from the late 1850s to 2015. The title of the story is a direct depiction of John Updike’s personal experience in life. This literary analysis will aid in a thorough understanding of the story by focusing on the plot, theme, and use of symbolism.


On a hot summer day, Sammy, a teenager, is working as a clerk at A&P grocery when three young girls (seemingly in their teenage) in swimwear and barefooted stroll into the store to buy herring snacks. The store was not near a beach and the three ladies’ attire draw the attention of almost everyone in the store. “It’s one thing to have a girl in a bathing suit on the beach, where nobody can look at each other much anyway because of the glare, and quite another to have her in the cool of the A & P, under the fluorescent lights,” (Updike 1205). Sammy and other in the store stares suggestively at the girls as he begins to point out each girl’s characteristics based on their outward appearance. Sammy’s attention is drawn to the leader of the trio, Queenie, a stunningly beautiful and elegant lady. His impressions of her are shaken when she speaks in a voice that is completely different from the one he had previously perceived in his mind.

The store manager, Lengel, tells off the girls for their revealing attire that is against the store’s policy. He informs them that they should dress decently the next time they visit the store. Sammy seems not concur with his manager because he believes his outbursts embarrass the girls. Sammy, moved by the manager’s lack of respect for the clients’ dignity, ceremoniously downs his tools, steps down, and departs. “It appears that once you start a gesture, it is fatal not to finish it” (Updike 1206). He tries to catch up with the girls, expecting them to acknowledge and appreciate his action of affection, but they have already left. Lengel does not agree with Sammy’s behavior and actions, calling the decision rash and one that should be reconsidered. Knowing Sammy’s parents, he remarks that Sammy should not have done anything that would cause them social embarrassment.


The short story has a variety of themes. The conflict between reality, ideals, and the inevitable repercussion of an action is a major theme. Sammy finds himself in a compromising situation because he believes his manager is wrong to condemn the young ladies for their attire, which clearly violates the store’s policy. The manager, Lengel, is correct to condemn the dressing, but he should have done so with dignity. Sammy blindly follows his personal ideals by opposing his manager in order to please the ladies, especially Queenie, who is unaware of his actions. Reality sets in when Sammy loses his job while his actions fail to attract the attention of the ladies. Reality also dawns on him that he should not have attempted to defend the ladies who had violated the store’s dress code. Choices have consequences; Sammy missed out on Queenie and loses his job as a result of his decision to defend the ladies who had violated the store’s dress code.

The short story clearly demonstrates the theme of desire. When the girls walk into the store, Sammy’s attention is completely drawn to them, to the point of making mistakes while attending to other customers. His coworkers are also staring at the girls, who appear to be aware that they are drawing the attention of the store. The young girls enter the store dressed provocatively, knowing that the store is not near a beach.


Bathing suits are used in the story to represent opposition to social norms. Lengel informs them, “I don’t want to argue with you, ladies. Come in here with your shoulders covered in the next time as it’s our policy,” (Updike 1205) Individuals in the small town are expected to dress decently. Nevertheless, the young ladies go to the A&P store in their swimsuits to defy the society norms. The swimsuits also portray the girls’ aim to provoke men. Sammy admires the girls because of their attire. Again, the swim suits are used as a symbol of Sammy’s liberation and flee from a restrictive world.

Sammy’s corporate uniform is used to symbolize bondage. He takes off his apron and bowtie to break free from his “chains” and begin a new independent life. He believes that by laying down his tools, he will be able to experience the freedom that the girls are experiencing. Sammy gets the freedom to pursue the lady he admires by taking off his uniform.

To bring out the themes of the short story, John Updike draws on his own life experience. The themes of desire, conflict between reality and ideals, and the inevitable consequences of action all stand out. The author’s use of symbolism is consistent. The swimsuit is being used to represent defying social norms. Sammy’s corporate uniform represents the bonding that people have in their jobs. A&P short story is a brilliant example of postmodernism literary works. Updike produced an incredible work of writing that is still relevant today.

Work cited

Updike, John. “A&P”. Connections: Literature for Composition. Ed. Quentin Miller and Julie Nash. USA: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. 1204-1210. Print.


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