John Updike, in his short story A & P, has made the excellent choice of making an unpretentious nineteen-year-old boy the narrator. Sammy, the check-out counter boy provides an honest and unequivocal look at the other characters the way young boys can be.
As a narrator, Sammy is able to give the readers a background of what the other characters are like, by describing their interactions and the inclinations of the grocery’s patrons. The narrator’s honest and casual style creates a vivid picture of the society involved in the story, which in turn discusses the traditional and the unconventional.
“It is in this setting that Updike reveals, through what is almost a prose dramatic monologue technique, the sensitive character of a nineteen year old grocery clerk named Sammy, who rejects the standards of the A & P and in so doing commits himself to [a] kind of individual freedom” (Porter 1155).
Sammy does not make observations according to consequences or what may be thought of as “right”; instead, he thinks without editing his thoughts, thus producing an accurate account, according to his point of view, of what has happened.
He is a character who has no reason to embellish the tale because he is already separating from the views of the majority.
Sammy has an eye on everyone coming in and out of the A & P. He is able to observe people passing by the doors, paying for their purchases and even selecting products. There is no ambiguity in the way he describes people.
“She’s one of these cash-register-watchers, a witch about fifty with rouge on her cheekbones and no eyebrows…She’d been watching cash registers forty years and probably never seen a mistake before” (Updike). In his thoughts, he is not afraid to describe one of the patrons the way he perceives her.
Later, he describes the reactions of the other shoppers towards the three girls who enter the A & P in their swimsuits: “You could see them, when Queenie’s white shoulders dawned on them, kind of jerk, or hop, or hiccup, but their eyes snapped back to their own baskets and on they pushed.
I bet you could set off dynamite in an A & P and the people would by and large keep reaching…But there was no doubt, this jiggled them” (Updike). Sammy recognizes the level of propriety practiced by the patrons of the A & P, and most likely by the small town itself.
He knows the people’s reactions toward the three girls who have become representations of unconventional behavior; Sammy is amused with these reactions which he finds typical of the people he regularly sees at the A & P.
Sammy, though distracted by the unprecedented entrance of the three girls, is still able to report what has been going on with the other characters. This means that as a narrator he is at least able to portray the general mood of the “event”.
If he were completely focused on the girls alone, he will not be able to make an adequate comparison between the girls’ carefree behavior and the more rigid attitude of the rest of the characters, especially his boss Lengel’s.
Even the lustful reaction of Stokesie, the other clerk, does not escape Sammy. So, he is not just drawn towards the completely conventional and unconventional characters; he is aware of those who are caught in between, admiring the different but staying with those who remain the same.
The perspective of an adolescent is that of someone trying to find his or her place in the world. The teenage Sammy is still open to new ideas unlike the older characters in the A & P, who have judged the three girls harshly based on their appearance. “Girls, I don’t want to argue with you. After this, come in here with your shoulders covered. It’s our policy…
That’s policy for you. Policy is what the kingpins want. What the others want is juvenile delinquency” (Updike). Moreover, their attire has automatically given them the label of juvenile delinquents. Though apparently the rest of the characters think the same way, Sammy steps away from the general opinion and has become the girls’ defender.
Though Sammy openly admires the girls, his youth and his previous commentaries on some shoppers show that whether the girls have come to the A & P in swimsuits or not, he will still be critical of the attitudes of the conventional people.
He is ready enough to scrutinize each person he encounters partly because he does come across as a bored young man who is waiting for something exciting to happen.
Updike’s Sammy has proved to be a reliable narrator; his youth provides free flowing and interesting narrative. The reader becomes privy to the young man’s thoughts and his strong opinions of people provide a clear idea of what kind of society he is living in.
Porter, M. Gilbert. “John Updike’s “A&P”: The Establishment and an Emersonian Cashier.” The English Journal (1972): 1155-1158.
Updike, John. “A & P.” 9 February 2008 <http://www.tiger-town.com/whatnot/updike/>.
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