In memory of John Updike (1932-2009)
By the time I had learned of John Updike’s tragic passing at the end of January, I had already chosen my Story of the Month for February 2009. Not wanting to slight my favorite short story, “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver, I decided to stick with my choice and to recognize an Updike story for the following month. So, it gives me great pleasure to announce That’s Classic!‘s Story of the Month for March 2009, one of the best and most beloved stories of the past century, written by one of the premier writers of the 20th Century: “A & P” by John Updike. (I’ve included a link to “A & P” at the bottom of this post.)
“A & P” is told from the point of view of a nineteen-year-old grocery store clerk named Sammy. In the midst of the hum-drum of his late 1950s/early 1960s New England existence come three teenage girls, wandering into his A & P wearing nothing but bathing suits. The girls–whom Sammy refers to as Queenie, Plaid, and Big Tall Goony-Goony–walk around the A & P in search of herring snacks. Meanwhile, Sammy and his co-worker Stokesie–a twenty-two-year-old with a wife and two kids–stare at the girls, savoring the sight of their exposed curvy bodies and pale or tan-lined skin. When the girls finally head toward Sammy to make their purchase, the store’s manager Lengel approaches them and politely, yet firmly, tells them to dress appropriately if they want to shop at the A & P again. Queenie blushes, which angers Sammy. And as the three girls quickly rush out of the store, clearly embarrassed, Sammy decides to be “heroic” and quits his job, but his actions have harsh consequences.
I first read “A & P” when I was in high school at the age of seventeen, two years younger than Sammy. I immediately fell in love with the story, feeling that it was one of the best stories I’d ever read. But I didn’t really get it. I didn’t really understand it. I couldn’t understand why Sammy was willing to throw away his future (albeit a lame one) at the A & P for some girls that didn’t even know he “saved” them.
I read the story again almost two years later, when I was nineteen, the same age as Sammy. Suddenly I understood his character more. I didn’t exactly understand why his quitting mattered so much in the grand scheme of things, or even why he actually did quit, but the way in which he perceived the world, including the apparent contempt he held for his small-town life, felt similar to how I perceived the world at nineteen.
I read the story again two years after that, now two years older than Sammy. And, suddenly (again), it made more sense. The girls merely served as the catalyst for his rebellion against the hum-drum of life, against what everyone–including his parents and Lengel–expected him to do with his life. These girls were new and different, and they were met with outrage and criticism, but they were more in line with his way of thinking. It never really was about the girls, it was seeing how they reacted to the norms, and how he would react to the same norms.
And having read this story again before writing this post, I have come to understand Sammy even more. He knows that, like the girls, he won’t be accepted by his community for wanting more, for wanting to be different, and certainly not for quitting his teenage job, which clearly he was expected to keep until he 1) became manager or 2) died. Life would be hard on him from this point onward, and whether or not he would look back on the split-second decision to quit with remorse or not, his moment of satisfying rebellion would follow him the rest of his life. Yes, it was a rash teenager-like thing to do, to just up and quit his job, but his act of “bravery” would have a lasting impact on everyone involved.
It has a lasting impact on everyone who reads the story, too. And I find that the more I read it, at different stages in my life, the more I get out of it. I can use my own experiences with growing up and dealing with conformity and society and expectations to try to understand the complex character of Sammy. No matter how old I get, I know that I’ll never figure him out completely, but that doesn’t mean I won’t keep trying. So give “A &P” a read and see what Sammy has in store for you. If nothing else, he’ll make a slight rebel out of you.
To read a full-text version of “A & P,” please click here. (Thanks to tiger-town.com for posting this story.)