This essay was written on April 30th, 2018 for ENGL 221: American Short Story, taught by Dr. AnaMarie Seglie. The intention of this essay was to take a deeper look into John Updike’s short story, “A&P.” This piece comments on how difficult life can be for teenagers because of the misunderstandings that surround them and their own misunderstanding of life.
A&P: A Place For Teenage Rebellion
Life of a teenager is filled with angst and rebellion. For each person, this will be expressed in different forms through different actions. For Sammy, rebellion is seen as he dramatically quits his job at the local A&P grocery store in order to stand up for a couple of teenage girls. Teenage rebellion occurs when someone of the teenage age questions and acts against authority. John Updike accurately encompases what it means to be a naive “teenage rebel” through the thoughts and actions of Sammy. In doing so, he is able to create more of an understanding of the teenage mind and what it means to feel like an outcast to the adult world. This meaning helps others to dive into the mind of a teenager to begin to understand the thought process of an angsty grocery clerk.
Jumping into the mind of a teenager can be difficult for those who have grown out of that stage in their life. Gilbert M. Porter claims that Updike chose to portray Sammy as naive in order to assist in the understanding the mind of a young person. He also claims that Updike chose to compare Sammy to the other characters in A&P to help gain knowledge in the ways Sammy views himself in comparison to other people. Sammy, due to his naive age, has a more judgemental tone in his observations of other around him. Porter states, “Sammy has chosen to set himself against the majority,” (Porter 1158) which is something who is looking to rebel against the norm would do. Because Sammy chooses to naively set himself away from authority in rebellion, he continues to live his life in the teenage mindset.
In agreement with Porter is Lawrence Jay Dessner, who also believes Updike made Sammy absurdly naive which leads him to making an irrational decision in the end of the story. Because of Sammy’s teenage mindset, Sammy believes that life is going to be difficult for himself. Dessner believes that it is due to his teenage mindset and lack of understanding as to how the world works. Therefore, Sammy has an unrealistic view of life. This view of life is relatable to most teenagers in that they do not yet understand that their actions have consequences. Dessner says, “How grand it must be knowing nothing at all about marginal employment or implacable constipation!” (Dessner 316) He believes that Sammy is unaware of the difficulties in working a real job as an adult. Because of this, the actions that Sammy exemplifies would not be acceptable in the real world. Sammy, due to his young age, makes decisions based on the present situation instead of looking at the big picture that is life.
Updike dives into the teenage mindset through the character Sammy. The story begins with Sammy’s observations of shoppers in the A&P grocery store. The characters that really catch his eye and are his main point of focus are a group of three girls. As a young, hormonal, teenage boy, he immediately becomes encompassed in their every move and becomes distracted with his immediate job. This can be seen as he observes one of the girls.
The one that caught my eye first was the one in the plaid green two-piece. She was a chunky kid, with a good tan and a sweet broad soft-looking can with those two crescents of white just under it where the sun never seems to hit, at the top of the backs of her legs. (Updike 499)
This observation displays that Sammy first notices the appearance of the girls. In calling one of the girls a “chunky kid,” the reader gets an understanding of Sammy’s naive and judgemental mindset. Also the fact that Sammy becomes so enamoured with these girls that he becomes distracted from his task at hand also shows that he prioritizes these girls rather than his job. This is his rebellious teenage mind coming to play in that he is unable to accept accountability for his actions. Updike brings understanding to his audience of the way a teenager thinks through Sammy.
Sammy’s rebellion to authority is shown as he, in his mind, sasses back to a customer. Due to his distraction from the girls that walked into the store, Sammy neglects the customer in front of him. As the customer grows impatient, so does Sammy. I stood there with my hand on a box of HiHo crackers trying to remember if I rang it up or not. I ring it up again and the customer starts giving me hell. (Updike 499) Sammy is unable to accept that he was in the wrong in the situation because he was so charmed by the presence of the three girls. This can be related back to Porter in that Updike chose for Sammy to thinks this about a customer for his audience to get an understanding of how an irritated teenager might think. This low level of patience portrayed through Sammy shows rebellion as a result of being an outcast from the adult world.
Teenagers, in the stage of their lives when they are no longer children but not yet adults, become easily flustered in certain situations. For Sammy, this situation came as the leader in the group of three females was in line to pay at Sammy’s register. “Still with that prim look she lifts a folded dollar bill out of the hollow at the center of her nubbled pink top. The jar went heavy in my hand. Really, I thought that was so cute” (Updike 501). Due to the naive, teenage mindset, Sammy quickly became perplexed in this simple interaction. As Porter would suggest, Updike included this interaction in order to display the naive mind of a teenager. For Sammy, this interaction was enough to convince him that this girl was interested in him. Realistically though, he was reading too much into the situation as this girl had not fallen head over heels for Sammy. This scene causes Sammy to grow even more naive to the reality around him.
As Sammy’s grip on reality begins to decrease, so does his ability to think clearly. Sammy witnesses his boss tell the three females that they must leave the store because they are not properly dressed. Because in Sammy’s mind he’s grown attached to them, he makes an attempt to impress them and win them over. “The girls, and who’d blame them, are in a hurry to get out, so I say ‘I quit’ to Lengel quick enough for them to hear, hoping they’ll stop and watch me, their unsuspected hero (Updike 501-502).” Sammy, with the combination of his naive mind and his rebellious nature, decides to quit his job. He does this because he believes it will give him acceptance from the girls that he is heroic and mature. Unfortunately though, his action of bravery goes unnoticed by the group of girls. As Porter would say, Updike chose to use this interaction to compare a rebellious teenager to a person of authority. This shows the struggles teenagers face in acting in a way that they may believe to be “mature” yet, to an adult come off as childish. Sammy’s action was not only disappointing to him, but he also let his boss down.
As Sammy has come to realize that his bravery was a mistake in the grand scheme of life, he learns an important life lesson in that his actions have consequences. As Sammy walks out of the A&P, disappointed that he was not praised by the girls, he realizes that he has lost the battle against authority. As he looks back at his old place of business one last time, he notices his boss. “His face was dark gray and his back stiff, as if he’d just had an injection of iron, and my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter” (Updike 502). The disappointment his boss displayed in his stance sent Sammy into a shock of defeat. Sammy realizes that the mistake he has made is irreversible and believes that because of this, he is going to have a difficult time in life. Dessner believes that a naive teenager would view this situation as one that would deter the rest of his life. His rebellion against authority has lead him to have a negative view on adults at this point in his life. It is going to take for Sammy to grow older for him to hopefully realize what it really means to stand up to authority and take responsibilities for his actions.
Within “A&P,” John Updike brings understanding to what it is like to be a naive, rebellious teenager. Through his character Sammy, Updike compares interactions between Sammy and other characters within the story. In doing this, the reader gains an understanding of what it is like to have the mind of a teenager. Teenage rebellion goes hand in hand with the awkward stage in between not being a child but not yet reaching adulthood. Sammy’s naive actions are supported through analysis of Porter and Dessner in that these actions were very intentional for teenage rebellion to be understood by Updike’s audience. Although Sammy’s life is not ruined by this small mistake, it is the naive, teenage mind that makes it difficult for him to understand accepting the consequences of his actions.
Porter, M. Gilbert. “John Updike’s ‘A&P’: The Establishment and an Emersonian Cashier.” The English Journal, vol. 61, no. 8, 1972, pp. 1155–1158. JSTOR, JSTOR.
Updike, John. A&P. American Short Stories. 8th ed., Pearson Longman.