A&P Summary

John Updike


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A&P Summary

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The 1961 story “A&P” by John Updike opens with little introduction of the main character, who is, as we find out later in the story, named Sammy. The narrator works at a small grocery store in a little town that borders a high-end resort called the Point. We also find out that the setting of “A&P” is just north of Boston, thus the reader can imagine that it is a tiny seaside village amid more expensive areas. Throughout the short story, class tensions created by this setting become clearer.

The narrator is working at the check-out of the A&P when three girls, obviously from the wealthy nearby Point come in. They are wearing nothing but their bathing suits and are making a spectacle of themselves as they saunter through the aisles, clearly aware that their presence is creating a stir. The narrator, Sammy, describes the physical appearance of the girls in extraordinary detail, which makes the reader feel that he is probably ogling them—staring them down and letting his eyes freely wander all over them as they walk around. In fact, a great deal of the story, at least well over half of it, is taken up by physical descriptions of the girls and how they contrast with the ho-hum citizenry, including “house slaves in pin curlers” who are at the store.

Stoksie, another clerk at the store, exchanges words with Sammy as they admire the physical beauty of the girls but he quickly gets back into his “married man” mode and back to work. Sammy is particularly taken with the one girl he nicknames “Queenie” due to the elegant way she carries herself.

The narrator of “A&P” by John Updike continues his story, which has up until this point in the story, been a blow-by-blow summary of what the girls were doing in the store until a paragraph breaks and he says, “Now here comes the sad part of the story, at least my family says it’s sad but I don’t think it’s sad myself.” The reader pays close attention for something that might be saddening, only to find that he goes on to talk about how empty the store is. Queenie and her friends come to the counter and hands a jar of Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream (a product that the narrator spells out completely, signifying and reinforcing how out of the ordinary and “fancy” it is) to Sammy to be rung up. She then reaches into her bikini top and pulls out a dollar, which Sammy thinks is “cute” and makes the jar feel heavy in his hands.

During this subtle exchange, the manager Lengel comes in, a man that Sammy describes, saying “he hides all day when the girls touch his eye. Lengel’s pretty dreary, teaches Sunday school and the rest, but he doesn’t miss that much.” As Sammy is checking Queenie and company out, Lengel says, “Girls, this isn’t the beach” referring to the immodest way they are dressed.

This makes Queenie blush and she responds saying that her mother sent her out for herring snacks with a voice that surprises Sammy and makes him suddenly able to slip into her luxury world and then to compare it to his own in a split second. This explanation does not appease Lengel, who simply repeats what he said the first time with his “sad Sunday-school-superintendent stare.” Queenie counters him, saying they weren’t shopping and Lengel says it makes no difference and that “we want you decently dressed when you come in here.”

Invoking the word “decent” puts Queenie on the defensive and she begins to pout. Sammy suddenly sees how, to a girl from her world, this little “A&P” must be like a crummy place run by crummy people. He then tells her its policy as a crowd of locals, whom Sammy refers to as “sheep” (he often equates the townpeople to herd or pack animals) gather to see the action. Lengel asks Sammy if he’s rung the girls up and he replies and suddenly, just as the girls are getting ready to leave, he says “I quit.”

Lengel asks him if he said something and he repeats that he quit, saying “you didn’t have to embarrass them.” Lengel says the girls were the ones embarrassing them. The narrator mentions Lengel is friends with his parents and to make him think about his decision, Lengel tells him how disappointed his parents will be, saying, “you’ll feel this for the rest of your life.” The narrator says he knows it’s true—that he will, but follows through anyway, trying to appear cool and collected, but feeling a little trapped and locked into his decision.

He walks out and looks for the girls but they’d left, not bothering to see his chivalry—and even if they did they probably would not have cared. He sees the store from the outside with Lengel, looking hard and cold, and says, as the last lines, “my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.”