An Essay on A & P by John Updike

Prompt: How does the setting of the story shape the initiation and its meaning? How do details about the merchandise or space contribute to the story?


A & P is set in one of the eponymous supermarkets in the 1960s in suburban Massachusetts. The initiation in the story takes place when the narrator and protagonist, a 19-year-old boy named Sammy, impulsively quits his job at said supermarket. He instantly regrets his decision but feels like he has to follow through with it, because “once you begin a gesture it’s fatal not to go through with it” (par. 31). As Sammy stands in the parking lot of the A & P after walking out, he thinks about “how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter”, and the thought makes his stomach drop (par. 32). The reader can assume that Sammy’s stomach is dropping with the realization of the gravity of his impulsive action and dread about what is going to happen to him now. Part of becoming an adult is realizing that your actions, especially your mistakes, have consequences. Sammy immediately feels the consequences of his decision, which was not thought out at all, and is so initiated into adulthood.


Ultimately, Sammy’s actions are meaningless. That is to say, they do not have the meaning that he wanted them to have. The situation that spurred Sammy’s rash decision was his witnessing his boss being rude to three attractive teenage girls who were shopping in the store. The reader is constantly reminded of the fact that the girls are attractive, because this fact is so important to Sammy. The first four paragraphs of the story are spent on Sammy describing the physical appearances of the girls in great detail. The first one he describes is “a chunky kid, with a good tan and a sweet broad soft-looking can” (par. 1). The second girl is “a tall one, with black hair…the kind of girl other girls think is very ‘striking’ and ‘attractive’ but never quite makes it” (par. 2). Finally, he describes the third one, “the queen” (par. 2). He is so enamored with her that she gets two full paragraphs just to herself. She has “long white prima-donna legs” (par. 2) and the way her body looks in her bathing suit is “more than pretty” (par. 3).


The setting of the supermarket is important, because gorgeous teenage girls in nothing but bathing suits wandering down the aisles is an anomaly. Sammy is shocked to see them there. He is used to seeing worn housewives and shabby townspeople wandering through the store, buying mundane groceries. Some of the unattractive customers, who Sammy describes with disdain, provide contrast to the girls.

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