Analysis of The Theme of Immaturity in John Updike’s A& P

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Words: 1382 |

Pages: 3|

7 min read

Published: Dec 3, 2020

Words: 1382|Pages: 3|7 min read

Published: Dec 3, 2020

John Updike’s short story, “A & P”, which made its first appearance in The New Yorker in 1961, is arguably one of the shortest and funniest literary pieces found in college literature anthologies taught in American schools. Perhaps, its appeal and peculiarity stem from the fact that Sammy, who doubles up as the narrator and protagonist in the story, is trying to explain, from his point-of-view, his impulsive decision to quit his cashier job at the A & P supermarket. In the story, the author uses the protagonist to develop the theme of immaturity. Throughout the plot, Updike seems to suggest that Sammy’s childish behaviors, as is exemplified by his judgmental attitude, ill-mannered personality, and sexist thoughts, can explain why he impulsively quit his job. This paper analyzes the thematic concern of immaturity by focusing on the immature behaviors of the protagonist.

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Firstly, in his short story, A& P Updike portrays the main character, Sammy, as having an overly judgmental attitude towards those people around him, including his customers, co-workers, and family. Sammy metaphorically likens the shoppers in the supermarket to sheep. For instance, he loosely refers to the three girls shopping in the supermarket as “sheep pushing their carts down the aisle”. In doing so, he is implying that the act of the shoppers to follow each other behind, while talking in whispers, giggling and fumbling words, made them appear stupid. According to the author, the two girls were blindly following their ringleader down the aisle while looking for groceries in a similar fashion to how sheep follow each other while searching for pastures.

Moreover, Sammy’s judgmental attitude is also evidenced when he describes his co-worker’s reaction and seemingly attitude towards the girls when he sights them. When McMahon, a fellow old co-worker who works near “the meat counter” section trails the three girls with his eyes after they walk past him, Sammy looks at him in disbelief since he appears to be “sizing up their joints”. It is hypocritical of Sammy to immaturely judge his co-worker for ogling the girls, yet he himself has been doing so since the girls arrived. According to Dessner, it is rather ironic that Sammy finds his co-worker’s long gaze at the girls to be distasteful and bizarre, especially since he was old, yet he himself is shamefully driven by lust for the girls. For instance, Sammy admits his lust for Queenie when he says that she had “the smoothest scoops of vanilla” that he had ever seen. While the author ingeniously used symbolism in this case, it is clear that Sammy was referring to the breasts of the young lady. Interestingly, Sammy does not seem to deem his ogling as being wrong.

Lastly, Sammy’s judgmental attitude is also revealed when he refers to the leader of the girls, “Queenie,” to be of a higher social standing based on her gait. The nickname that was given to one of the girls clearly demonstrates the stereotypical judgmental attitude of Sammy. The protagonist inaccurately assumes that Queenie belongs to a higher social class. He visualizes a cocktail party being held at the girl’s home by her supposedly rich parents. He imagines the party is filled with guests drinking cocktails. By contrast, Sammy relates a party scene from his home and notes that his mother usually offers visitors a glass of “lemonade”. Such an excerpt illustrates that Sammy is convinced that Queenie comes from a rich family even though he has never seen her before. Moreover, according to Mcfarland, in his article, “Updike and the Critics: Reflections on 'A&P,'” Sammy is seen to associate himself with “HiHo crackers,” a behavior that symbolizes an ordinary middle-class. In contrast, Sammy associates Queenie with “Herring Snacks” to suggest to the reader that she belonged to the upper-class. Hence, it is clear that Sammy has a tendency to make childish and impulsive judgments about the people around him without even considering hard facts.

Secondly, Updike also portrays the protagonist as being disrespectful and lacking courtesy throughout the entire story. Notably, Sammy has neither demonstrated respect nor courtesy when dealing with his colleagues and shoppers. As the story unfolds, the author demonstrates how Sammy poorly handles a service concern raised by a customer. When the customer noticed that Sammy rang up her purchase twice, she immediately notifies him of gross error. While it is reasonable for any aggrieved customer to explain their grievances, Sammy did not even apologize for his mistakes. Instead, he calls her a “witch,” and wonders whether she had “never seen a mistake before”. For a lady, whom Sammy reports is about fifty years; he ought to have had the courtesy to apologize for the mistake and accord her the respect that she deserved because of her age, if not for being a customer. According to Dessner, Sammy’s outright disdain for the seemingly aged woman is clearly demonstrated. Not only does he accuse her of having malicious intentions, but he also equates her to a “witch.” Sammy appears to have studied history to know that Salem had once been associated with witches.

Again, Sammy appears to disrespect his co-worker, Stokesie, by arrogantly claiming that he has “two babies chalked up his fuselage”. Such a rudimentary reference to Stokesie’s virility is a blatant act of disrespect and an indication of Sammy’s lack of maturity. When the 19-year-old Sammy catches McMahon lustfully gazing at the girls, he sympathizes with the girls for being ogled by an “old” man. According to him, it was inappropriate for old people like McMahon to ogle girls. Finally, when Sammy decided to quit his job, not only did he speak rudely to his boss, but he also did not consider discussing such sensitive issues privately. Surprisingly, Sammy demonstrates no respect and courtesy for his boss, even though he is a family friend, who had assisted him to secure this job. He publicly contradicts his boss by choosing to defend the girls. Sammy refuses to listen to Lengel, who tries to talk some sense into him. All these pieces of evidence prove that Sammy is an immature 19-year-old who never considers the consequences of his actions, and how they might inadvertently affect others.

Lastly, Sammy’s immature behavior is also demonstrated by his sexist thoughts. When describing the three girls, it is evident that his description focuses on their physical attributes, particularly their breasts. He admits being mesmerized by Queenie’s “two scoops of vanilla”. In this sense, it is evident that Sammy has reduced the women to mere body parts. As a matter of fact, when he speculates what might be crossing Queenie’s mind, he sarcastically wonders if women do have a brain at all. According to him, women have no functional mind. Their brains only have “a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar”. Such objectification of women clearly depicts that Sammy do not regard women as functional human beings. Finally, Sammy’s bold but foolish actions towards the end of the story are equivalent to a boy who lacks maturity. Sammy foolishly acts as the self-proclaimed hero for the girls to rescue them from embarrassment. He gets into a quarrel with his manager, and this culminates into him quitting the job in an effort to impress the three girls, but only to realize that the girls were long gone.

According to Shaw, while Sammy appears to have no lust for most women shoppers, “he cannot cope with the sexy and nimble girl who strolls into his domain…”. He lusts for Queenie uncontrollably like a child would desires a toy, and eventually, he ends up quitting his job because of the girls, while immaturely thinking that this act will help him get noticed.

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In summary, Sammy proves to be indeed immature as depicted in his attitude, personality, and sexism thoughts throughout the entire story. As evidenced above, Sammy makes inaccurate judgments about other people based on his impression. In all the instances analyzed, he seems not to consider the repercussions of his actions, or even accept that he may be wrong. He lacks courtesy and respect for other people, including his elders. Lastly, it becomes apparent that he is sexist, who not only objectifies ladies, but is also misled by his lust. Hence, his impulsive decision to quit his job is seen as being motivated by immaturity and foolishness.

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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Analysis Of The Theme Of Immaturity In John Updike’s A& P. (2020, December 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 22, 2024, from
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