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With the opening line, “In walk these girls with nothing on but bathing suits” (Updike 456), the direction of the audience is immediately turned by John Updike’s clever manipulation. Instantaneously the reader’s mind begins to shape the outlines of what might be coming up in the unfolding story. The opening words may be numbered as few; however, their content contains enough graphic imagery to initiate a developing mental picture. Sammy’s opening line sets up a monologue of his young male’s vivid, imaginative, carefree, and nonchalant observation of the world. Furthermore, his youth shows through with immature actions and reactions. His observations, such as “…two crescents of white just under it, where the sun never seems to hit…” (Updike 456) about the girl in the plaid green two-piece and his statement regarding the lady at his register “She’s one of those cash-register-watchers, a witch about fifty…” (Updike 456) also display a certain lack of immature couth. Sammy delivers in the paragraphs of “A&P” a considerable amount of observational psychology from a character who otherwise has demonstrated somewhat of a surface mentality. He notes the distance from
the beach to the store, how many of the towns people have not been to the beach in twenty years,and how most put on a shirt when they come to the grocery store. Interest from the reader piques with each of Sammy’s interpretations regarding the ebb and flow of the market and continues throughout the story’s progression all the while his eyes stalk the three bikini clad young women.
Glib elucidations continue with descriptions from Sammy, noting “…if she’d been born at the right time they would have burned her over in Salem” (Updike 456). It was as though his daydreams were tabloid fodder hanging on racks to be sold. Such vivid metaphors in a transitory state would be one thing, but as he works at his job throughout the story, he also continues to work out his fantasies. Sammy’s initial conclusions include the physique of the story’s three muses and their style and attitude while parading around the store, “…as if she didn’t walk on her bare feet that much…testing the floor with every step, putting a little deliberate, extra action into it” (Updike 456). In exploring his thoughts about how girls’ minds work and more importantly how these girls’ minds work in particular, Sammy displays what is typically thought of, especially now, as a 1960’s chauvinistic point of view. Within his mind-games, he portrays himself as their superior because of being male and further because he is in the authoritarian role of taking care of them. Consequently, he exhibits the traits of a shepherd, mentally guiding their way along. Obviously these behaviors were learned from society’s shaping and role-modeling determined by the actions and conversations between his peers and parents. As the transition of “A&P” continues, Sammy notes about the lead bikini clad young woman “…this clean bare plane of the top of her chest down from her shoulder bones…I mean it was more than pretty” (Updike 457). Sammy’s preoccupation where Queenie, the troupes leader, had the dollar bill stashed, “…having come from the two smoothest scoops of vanilla” (Updike 459) is also quite telling about his observations about women. This interpretation can only lead the reader to the summary that Sammy sees women more as a trophy than as individuals.
Sammy demonstrates his expansive imagination as his mind’s eye creatively makes assessments of each movement taking place around the store. The excisions from his mind’s fertile descriptions deliver to the reader a menagerie of stereotypes such as, “(do you really think it’s a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar?)”. Additionally he furthers his calculations about the nature of the shoppers with superficial word play such as “The sheep pushing their carts…”, “A few houseslaves in pin curlers…” and “…knock against each other like scared pigs in a chute (Updike 456, 457 & 460). While glaring upon the girls parading up and down the aisles Sammy becomes aware that the “queen” of the troupe realizes that he and Stokesie are observing their shopping adventure. Interestingly enough, inserted in a sentence is the word “meat”, which is an offensive slang for women akin to the way Sammy and Stokesie were glaring upon the three young women. Somewhere near the recesses of his mind while he remarks about being five miles from the beach, Sammy knows that he is away from the glare of the sun light at a beach and in a spot where his glaring is probably unwelcome and quite noticeable. Sammy’s dialogue with his co-worker displays Stokie as a married man approaching the level of adult responsibility and yet whose actions still draw from the immaturity of youth. Sammy’s statement comparing the varicose veins on women who have six children to a street map has some humor in it as well as a certain judgment that comprises basic insensitivity. He effectively is comparing the figures of married women with children to the young ladies with much of their bodies uncovered. His inconsiderate usage of the chauvinistic metaphor ‘meat’ returns when the girls stop at the meat counter and his observation is, “…old McMahon patting his mouth and looking after them sizing up their joints. Poor kids, I began to feel sorry for them, they couldn’t help it” (Updike 458). Sammy really does assess the opposite sex as not equal and also regards them very differently from how he perceives males. He almost is saying that it is the three bikini clad girls’ fault that the men in this story are ogling them, even though they are dressed quite scantily for the location and the historic time-frame. Somehow, Sammy fails to appreciate that it is he who is out of order.
Out of what seems to be boredom, Sammy then launches from his fertile conjectures of imagination the pretense that the store is like a pinball machine. “The whole store is like a pinball machine, and I didn’t know which tunnel they’d come out of” (Updike 458), draws from our main muse’s whimsical supposition that all of the shoppers are on some sort of journey that they are not totally in control of. Yet, with the false eloquence of Sammy’s surveillance commentary also comes descriptions of various items on the shelves that he finds not altogether useful. Watching as the three bikini clad girls come into view, once again our protagonist feels that it is his good luck and Stokie’s misfortune that “…an old party in baggy pants stumbles up…” (Updike 458). The only other register available with a cashier is Sammy’s, “so the girls [go] to [him]” (Updike 458). Now it is the cashier at register number one whose illusions alight as he wonders where the money is going to come from; then out from Queenie’s bikini top comes a dollar bill. Suddenly what Sammy has considered luck changes, just like the sands of an hour glass running out. The manager Lengel makes his first appearance as he returns from the parking lot having haggled about the price of cabbages. Lengel appears in Sammy’s awareness as a lackluster Sunday school teacher and some-one that also seems to be quite observant. Lengel then states the obvious by reminding the girls that they were not at the beach. When Queenie explains that she was just doing a favor for her mom by picking up the jar of herring, Sammy’s imagination again runs away from him when he hears he voice. His mind quickly places Queenie’s family as formal in their consuming of an after-noon snack and drinks while explaining his family’s idea of formal is “Schlitz in tall glasses with…cartoons stenciled on” (Updike 459). Lengel almost appears to be the life guard of the “A&P” and those within the store his wards. While he is responsible for upholding the stores policy which is based upon the community’s mores, he also comes across as an uptight, top button buttoned stick in the mud..
Sammy displays a certain maturation through-out “A&P” as the experiences dealt with by him seem to change his thinking processes, although by slow and minute amounts. Although he exhibits immaturity as he listens to Lengal’s dialogue with the girls about their lack of attire, the fertile stage of his young man’s mind has been set by what he perceives as disrespect from Lengel to the bikini clad troupe of three. He especially feels that Queenie, who he hands the change to and then the herrings in a top twisted bag, had been disregarded. The twist of the bag is a similar action to the wringing of hands. With the imminent departure of Queenie and her
subjects, Sammy throws down the gauntlet of chivalry and quits. This is an accomplishment of both considerable immaturity and maturity. The immature side of the coin is that he will be without a job and he is without such because of his principles. Lengel did not have to act the way he did. The mature side of it is that he does not seem to enjoy fully where he is and sees that it is time for him to move on. It may be the wrong way but Sammy is controlling his destiny. The road ahead will be different and there still is the matter of facing his parents.
Sammy’s act of gallantry was not to be appreciated by the young women as they were gone when he departed from the store. Even though freedom was just outside the door, “… [He] felt how hard the world was going to be to [him] from here on in” (Updike 460). Sammy’s departure was an end to what he knew; however, for him it was also a beginning to something different that he did not yet appreciate, except that it was going to be tough.
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