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John Updike

In: English and Literature

Submitted By bharrmann14
Words 1242
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Conformity vs. Individualism

The short story by John Updike, A & P, is about a young man named Sammy. Throughout the story, Sammy is trying to determine where he belongs in society by using his family and the individuals shopping at his work to figure out what he wants out of life and what he doesn’t want out of life. Sammy works as a cashier at a small town grocery store called A & P somewhere in New England. From the start of the story he comes off as a sarcastic teenager who observes and analyzes everything and everybody. The whole story starts when three girls walk into the grocery store in nothing but their bathing suits. Right away, Sammy is obsessed with these girls, going into detail with what they are wearing, how they are walking, and even by the way they wear their hair. It seems purely sexual at first. For example, he goes into extreme detail about the chunky ones ‘cans’ and Queenie’s breast. He describes all three of them but really focuses on their leader, Queenie. He illustrates her as a very attractive and confident girl who has no problem walking against the crowd and convincing her friends that it is completely acceptable to go into a small town grocery store in their bathing suits.
As the story progresses you get this sense that he envies her and the confidence she has to go against the social norms that the society has put there. His jealously becomes even clearer when his manager, Lengel, approaches the girls regarding their attire. He says that they want decently dressed people shopping at the store. Queenie tries to save face by saying her mother sent her to pick up a jar of herring snacks, and right away, Sammy loses himself to a fantasy of what Queenie’s parents are like. He fantasizes about the parties they must throw and compares them to the parties his parent’s throw. Queenies “father and the other men were standing around in ice-cream coats and bow ties and the women were in sandals picking up herring snacks on toothpicks off a big plate and they were all holding drinks the color of water with olives and sprigs of mint in them” (20). Then he goes on and describes his parents parties with lemonade or “if it’s a real racy affair Schlitz in tall glasses with “They’ll Do It Every Time” cartoons stenciled on” (20). This, of course, suggests that Queenie’s family has a higher social status than that of Sammy’s family. In reality, Sammy really has no idea what type of family Queenie comes from and what social class they are from. He is just sizing her up like he does with all the costumers at A&P by generalizations, even though he doesn’t have the faintest idea what their lives are really like. Eventually, when Sammy comes back from his fantasy, Lengel is telling the girls that the next time they go to A& P their shoulders must be covered because that is their policy, which is just a way of keeping everybody dressed within the lines of the social norms.
As a result of Lengel embarrassing the three girls, Sammy makes the slightly rash decision to quit his job. It may seem that he is just a teenage boy tying to impress a pretty girl, but it really is for a number of reasons that Updike has been implying throughout the whole story. Although, it is somewhat obvious that he is trying to differentiate himself from Lengel and his coworker to prove to Queenie and himself that he is not the same as them.
In addition to Sammy trying to impress the girls, it is clear that from the beginning of the story that he looks down upon and separates himself from the women and men who shop at the grocery store. At one point he refers to them as sheep and house slaves. Sammy says “I bet you could set off a dynamite in an A & P and the people would by and large keep reaching and checking oatmeal off their list” (19). Which portrays the men and women as zombie like people going about their everyday lives in a routine manner not having any idea that they have conformed and become exactly what the world has planned for them. Additionally, they are so set in their ways that three teenage girls dressed in bathing suits really shakes them up.
Sammy is even able to compare them to sheep another time when they cannot help but stop and stare at the scene Lengel has started regarding the girl’s attire. Sammy is also sure that he is not like his coworker Stokesie, who is married, has two kids and aspires to be manager of A & P one day. So, throughout the story you are already getting the sense that he doesn’t want to be another “sheep” following the orders that society has set up for us. In other words, he doesn’t want to wake up, put on his uniform, go to work at a lousy job, and then do it all over again for the rest of his life. For this reason, Sammy quits his job because he does not want to be subject to the corporate world that society has put us in. Even though Sammy wears a bow tie and apron to work and I do not necessarily think of a grocery store when I think of the corporate world, it is still a uniform and a business. Sammy could very well be wearing a suit and tie and feel the same type on constraint he feels as a cashier at a small town grocery store.
Furthermore, Sammy quits his job because he is completely intrigued with what he thinks Queenie’s life is like. He imagines it as vey sophisticated and most importantly different and better than his life. He sees her as a free person from a higher social status that is confident enough to go against social norms in a society and he wants that freedom. He is a young man trying to redefine himself and his future. He has seen that there is a better way to live than the conformed and routine way of life he has been experiencing so far. There is also a difference in the way he describes the young girls and the individuals shopping in the store. He finds the girls so interesting and does not quite understand them, whereas he is bored with the sheep-like shoppers signifying that he is bored with his own life. Also, he doesn’t want to be his parents, with their cheap beer; he wants to have the life he imagines Queenie’s parents have, with suit jackets, fancy snacks, and sophisticated parties. It ends up being a failed attempt at impressing Queenie because she and her friends walk away without acknowledging Sammy at all. He does liberate himself from the corporate world and the place society had placed him in even if it means he is not receiving a paycheck anymore. It is pointed out at the end by his manager that he is possibly making a mistake and that his parents would not appreciate the decision he just made. It is always hard to rebel against the social norms and the ‘acceptable’ way of life or at least what society has deemed acceptable.…...

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