The Power of Language: a Critical Analysis of John Updike's 'Ap'

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Words: 1132 |

Pages: 2|

6 min read

Published: Dec 3, 2020

Words: 1132|Pages: 2|6 min read

Published: Dec 3, 2020

“A&P”, written by John Updike, is a short story in which the narrator, Sammy, tells the events that happen at his workplace after three girls wearing bathing suits walk into the store. Sammy is a typical, 19-year-old teenager who works at an A&P grocery store as a cashier in a conventional town where he has become accustomed to observing customers and assuming things about their lives. In the story, Sammy uses a colloquial and descriptive language to demonstrate his relations with and attitudes toward other characters, making us sympathize with him and see him as observant, judgmental, egotistical, impulsive, and vulnerable. In the first half of the story, before interacting with the three girls, Sammy presents himself as a normal boy since he uses a casual language to give detailed descriptions about customers and express his feelings toward his life and job. Using the first-person point of view, Sammy begins the story narrating the time when he meets the girls, watching them closely and noting small details about their physical appearance and actions. For instance, he explains the girls were walking, “letting the weight move along to their toes as if they were testing the floor with every step, putting a little deliberate extra action into it”; names them “Queenie and Plaid and Big Tall Goony-Goony”; and describes them as “the queen,” “the chunky kid,” and the tall one with “chubby berry-face,” respectively.

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Sammy seems to be very judgmental because he juxtaposes the three young girls with old customers; for example, he praises Queenie’s beauty but criticizes a customer who is “a witch about fifty with rouge on her cheekbones and no eyebrows.” By providing these descriptions of the girls being pretty and the customers being unattractive, Sammy influences the reader to see him as an observant, overcritical character who, like any other young man, has a positive attitude and perception toward cute customers. Additionally, Sammy employs metaphors in the story to refer to the customers as “sheep,” “houseslaves,” and “pigs in a chute,” implying they are followers in a uniform town, and he is different from and superior to them because they do not share the same perspectives about life: all the customers have a conservative behavior and consider the girls’ actions unacceptable — this is seen when they look “around after pushing their carts past to make sure what they had seen was correct” — whereas Sammy has a liberal behavior, which he cannot openly express due to his egocentric views that no character understands, and sees the girls’ actions as a form of expression. This shows that Sammy is a judgmental, egotistical character since he considers his conventional town to be a place where everyone conforms to established rules, acting and thinking the same; the reader can understand Sammy’s feelings because he is a reticent character who is somehow unhappy with his life.

Moreover, Sammy explains his coworker Stokesie is “married, with two babies” and is “going to be manager some sunny day, maybe in 1990.” He includes this detail about his coworker because he, unlike Stokesie, does not see himself working at the store in the future, suggesting he is an egotistical character who deserves more and feels trapped in a job he does not like. In other words, in this part of the story, Sammy utilizes a basic language to show his relations with other characters to create a realistic tone that makes the reader sympathize with him since he is young, observant, judgmental, and egotistical. Similarly, in the second half of the story, when Lengel shows up, Sammy continues using a conversational language to present his attitudes and feelings toward other characters, allowing the reader to learn more about his impulsive, vulnerable personality.

Showing excitement, Sammy begins the turning point of the story describing the way the three girls speak and the things they buy since they approach his checkout line so that he can ring their things up. For example, he explains that Queenie’s “voice kind of startled him, the way voices do when you see the people first, coming out so flat and dumb yet kind of tony, too,” becoming more interested in her, and as a result, “all of a sudden he slides right down her voice into her living room.” These details portray Sammy as a dreamy, young man who is infatuated with Queenie because he imagines her life is perfect and better than his — he thinks her family is rich because they can afford to buy “herring snacks”— making the reader sympathize with him because his thoughts, similar to those of teenage workers, implicitly reveal he wants to be in a better position and learn more about Queenie. However, the reader gets a better insight into Sammy’s immature personality after Lengel, the “dreary” store manager who has been working there for a long time, appears reproaching the girls for wearing bathing suits.

Sammy suggests he dislikes Lengel after he judges the girls saying they are not at the beach and are dressed indecently, causing the girls to feel offended and forcing them to leave as soon as possible. This incident affects Sammy by influencing him to act irrationally and quit his job; his ego not only makes him think the girls are vulnerable but also makes him believe he is the only person who can defend the girls so that he can be noticed and be their “unsuspected hero.” He feels exasperated because he believes Lengel has embarrassed the girls by calling them out and destroying their dignity. Sammy’s colloquial language creates an absurd tone — he is upset yet concerned — that makes the reader understand his reactions: it is common to see an immature man being impulsive after someone has judged the girl he likes. Furthermore, at the end of the story, the reader learns that Sammy cannot retract his decision about quitting his job because he explains that “once you begin a gesture it’s fatal not to go through with it,” and as a consequence, he must feel “how hard the world is going to be hereafter.” This situational irony illustrates that Sammy is prideful, immature, and, indeed, vulnerable because he loses his job for defending the girls who do not even notice him, so now he feels apprehension about his future, influencing the reader to feel sorry for him because he has made a bad decision and now must face hardships.

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In conclusion, throughout the story, Sammy is presented as a common teenager who reveals his personality and attitudes toward other characters through his observations and his descriptive, colloquial language, creating a sympathetic tone. As the readers learn more about Sammy, they become more aware that Sammy is a critical, egotistical, naive, immature man who feels unhappy and disconnected from his traditional community and job.

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This essay was reviewed by
Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

Cite this Essay

The Power of Language: A Critical Analysis of John Updike’s ‘AP’. (2020, December 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 22, 2024, from
“The Power of Language: A Critical Analysis of John Updike’s ‘AP’.” GradesFixer, 10 Dec. 2020,
The Power of Language: A Critical Analysis of John Updike’s ‘AP’. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 22 Feb. 2024].
The Power of Language: A Critical Analysis of John Updike’s ‘AP’ [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2020 Dec 10 [cited 2024 Feb 22]. Available from:
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