Consumerist Society and its Impact on the Individual in "A&P" by John Updike

Essay, 2008

4 Pages, Grade: A


Consumerist Society and its Impact on the Individual in ”A&P” by John Updike

John Updike’s short story “A&P”, written in the early 1960’s, is considered to be a reflection of the structure of American society at that time. The action of the story takes place in a grocery shop. The choice of such a setting was not made at random. The regulations applied in this supermarket symbolize the norms of society in which the main character, Sammy, lives.[1] The protagonist’s encounter with the three young girls dressed in bathing suits reveals his attitude towards the social order he is unwilling to conform to. At the same time, despite Sammy’s scepticism, it cannot escape the reader’s attention that the character’s view of reality was undoubtedly shaped by the community he exists in.

First of all, the role of the grocery shop is worth mentioning. The place is situated “right in the middle of town, and if you stand at our front doors, you can see two banks and the Congregational church and the newspaper store and three real-estate offices (…)”[2] As Timothy Sexton points out, the supermarket is close to the financial, spiritual, informational and property centres of the town.[3] It is available to all the citizens regardless of their social status. Both the affluent and those with the lowest income consume the products offered by the supermarket. The grocery shop and all its commodities represent the American society in which all the primary needs are limited to consumption. The local customers of A&P supermarket exemplify the typical members of society that surround Sammy. The protagonist refers to them as “sheep”. The use of such an epithet suggests that these people do not give much thought to their position. In A&P they are guided in one direction and similarly, outside the supermarket, “they are led blindly through life by the structure of their society. They never question the norms or values that were presented to them by their parents.”[4] It seems that “the sheep” settle for what they possess and are resistant to any changes. The main character describes the situation in the following way: “I bet you could set off dynamite in an A&P and the people would by and large keep reaching and checking oatmeal off their lists (…)”[5] Sammy is aware of the general tendency to be passive. The decision the character makes at the end of the story shows his struggle not to become like “a sheep”. Moreover, portraying the customers as farm animals dehumanizes them. In fact, everybody who enters A&P loses their humanity. The three young girls, mentioned at the beginning, attract Sammy’s attention because of his possibility to concentrate on their physical attributes. The character’s description of the girl to whom he refers as “Queenie” suggests that he considers her as a tasty snack he would be ready to consume. When he mentions her breasts, he does not simply see them as the parts of her body but he describes them as “the two smoothest scoops of vanilla.”[6] Similarly, in his attempt to visualize her family, the character associates her relatives with groceries, imagining Queenie’s father wearing an ice-cream coat. Sammy examines the girls’ appearance in the same way as the customers are acquainted with the details concerning new products when reading information enclosed on a label. Furthermore, not only the customers of A&P are presented as those who are devoid of human qualities. The protagonist depicts one of the grocery’s employees, Stokesie, as if his colleague were an object. Sammy compares him to a fuselage of a plane. It seems that the value of all who are gathered in A&P is judged on the basis of their appearance. Transforming the human beings into objects and commodities deprives them of the right to take decisions concerning their choices. What is equally important, the community which is mainly intent on consumption, is not likely to have the courage to rebel.

Although Sammy appears to differ from the rest of society, it is obvious that he is not free from certain stereotypes that are omnipresent in consciousness of the members of his community. As Cynthia Scott points out in her article “A Feminist Perspective of Updike’s A&P”, Sammy’s view of a woman was typical of an adolescent in the early 1960’s. One of the females, he encounters at the beginning of the story is a fifty-year-old customer who gets irritated when the protagonist keeps her waiting at the cash register as he cannot resist staring at the three half-naked girls. Sammy is far from understanding the customer’s point and presents her as “one of these cash-register-watchers, a witch about fifty with rouge on her cheekbones and no eyebrows.”[7] Obviously, the women whom the main character devotes the largest part of his attention are the girls in bathing suits. While concentrating on their legs, breasts, bellies and buttocks, Sammy invents nicknames based on appearance for each of the girls. Erin Quigley quotes McFarland who states that the character’s use of such names as Queenie, Plaid and Big Tall Goony-Goony “indicates his immaturity and lack of compassion.”[8] What is more, the fact that the protagonist’s first impression of the girls’ bodies decides about the creation of the nicknames signifies his sexism and shallowness.[9] It cannot be denied that the character’s interest in women is only limited to the sphere of physicality. Sammy is not intrigued by female psychology or personality. He is full of contempt when he utters his view on women’s intelligence: “You never know for sure how girls’ minds work (do you really think it’s a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar?)”.[10] Cynthia Scott states that Sammy’s attitude may stem from the fact that he was brought up at the time when women were not considered as equal to men. The character’s brief remark concerning his own mother’s household chores clearly indicates women’s position in the community portrayed in “A&P”.

Last but not least, the protagonist’s struggle to remain independent is worth mentioning. As stated above, the impact of society on Sammy’s views cannot be denied. However, the hero possesses qualities untypical of the rest of his community. He detests the monotony and ordinariness of his life. His active imagination makes him perceive the reality in a more colourful manner. For instance, the character describes the grocery shop as a pinball game. Furthermore, he is likely to envisage how his future life could look like if he continued working as a cashier in A&P. Sammy is conscious that he might achieve nothing and be forced to work in a supermarket for the rest of his life like Stokesie, who is obliged to provide for his family. As Erin Quigley suggests, the protagonist shows an aspect of his romantic personality taking the side of the three girls when Lengel, the manager of the shop, criticizes them for wearing bathing suits in public. Although the hero acts on impulse when he resigns his job, his behaviour reveals such features as responsibility and sensitiveness. Sammy disapproves of the way in which the manager addresses the three customers and is likely to imagine their embarrassment. When Lengel warns the character that he is going to suffer the consequences of his choice for a long period, Sammy agrees with him. At the same time, he realizes that his decision is justified when he recalls “how he (the manager) made that pretty girl blush”[11] which affects the character feeling “so scrunchy inside”.[12] At the moment of the protagonist’s resignation, he notices the contrast between him and the customers waiting in a queue to his cash register – “(…) customers (…) begin to knock against each other, like scared pigs in a chute.”[13] Erin Quigley states that this scene presents Sammy’s inclination to risk versus the customers’ fear of confrontation.

To sum up, the character like Sammy is not likely to find his place in the society of commodities and consumption. As he is not capable of staying quiet and waiting passively for the changes, he should do his utmost to discover the reality that exists beyond A&P. However, the character ought to be prepared to reshape his views and get rid of his prejudices towards females. The first steps toward Sammy’s transformation were already taken at the moment he felt empathy with the three girls, gave up his unsatisfactory job and “untied his apron strings, actually cutting the strings that linked him to the structure of his society.”[14]


Primary Sources

1. Updike, John, “A&P,” In: Pigeon feathers and other stories. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1962, pp. 424-428.

Secondary Sources

1. Quigley, Erin, “One Arm Bandit Wannabe,” 2006, Watermarks, 18 Nov. 2006.
2. Scott, Cynthia, “A Feminist Perspective of Updike’s A&P,” 2006, Associated Content, 19 Nov. 2006.
3. Sexton, Timothy, “John Updike’s A&P: Selling False Hopes and Promises,” 2006, Associated Content, 16 Nov. 2006.


[1] Timothy Sexton, “John Updike’s A&P: Selling False Hopes and Promises,” (2006): 16 Nov. 2006

[2] John Updike, “A&P” in Pigeon feathers and other stories (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1962), p. 425

[3] Sexton, “John Updike’s A&P: Selling False Hopes and Promises.”

[4] Sexton, “John Updike’s A&P: Selling False Hopes and Promises.”

[5] Updike, “A&P,” p. 425

[6] Updike, “A&P,” p. 427

[7] Updike, “A&P,” p. 424

[8] Erin Quigley, “One Arm Bandit Wannabe,” (2006): 18 Nov. 2006

[9] Quigley, “One Arm Bandit Wannabe.”

[10] Updike, “A&P,” p. 424

[11] Updike, “A&P,” p. 428

[12] Updike, “A&P,” p. 428

[13] Updike, “A&P,” p. 427

[14] Sexton, “John Updike’s A&P: Selling False Hopes and Promises.”

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Consumerist Society and its Impact on the Individual in "A&P" by John Updike
American Literature
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ISBN (eBook)
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consumerist, society, impact, individual, john, updike
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M.A. Anna Dabek (Author), 2008, Consumerist Society and its Impact on the Individual in "A&P" by John Updike, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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