“A&P” is set in an A&P grocery store in an unnamed town north of Boston, Massachusetts, around 1961, when the story was first published. The story takes place over a very short period of time—perhaps no more than five or ten minutes—on a Thursday afternoon, and is narrated by Sammy, a nineteen-year-old store employee.
Three girls in swimsuits walk barefoot into the store. Sammy is working one of the checkout registers. He catches sight of the girls when they are already in the store. He is so startled that he makes the mistake of ringing up a customer’s grocery item twice, to the lady’s annoyance.
He then observes the girls more closely. One is “chunky,” in a two-piece suit, another has black hair and is taller, and the third one is obviously the leader of the group. Her hair has been bleached by the sun, and the shoulder straps of her bathing suit are down on her upper arms. He immediately dubs the girls, Plaid, Big Tall Goony-Goony, and Queenie, respectively.
A&P, full name The Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, is a supermarket and liquor store chain in the United States, founded back in the mid-nineteenth century. It has many locations on the East Coast and elsewhere.
Updike wastes no time on preamble but gets the story moving in the very first sentence: “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits.” The first paragraph establishes the engaging voice of Sammy, the narrator: a sharply observant young man in his late teens who watches the goings on in the store with an eagle eye and who possesses a gift for quick characterization using colloquial, amusing language with some striking images. Most of the customers are considerably older than he is and he views them with a kind of amused derision. The woman who gives him a hard time for ringing up her purchase twice, for example, is described as “one of these cash-register-watchers, a witch of about fifty with rouge on her cheekbones and no eyebrows.”
Most of this opening section is given over to Sammy’s description of the three girls, who are likely members of well-off families who spend their summers at what Sammy later describes as “a big summer colony out on the Point.” Sammy looks them over carefully, noting the distinctive characteristics of each one. Sammy’s direct experience of the opposite sex may be somewhat limited, and he seems to think that girls are hard to figure out, as his comment (blatantly sexist by today’s standards) suggests: “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 glassjar?).” There is no doubt, however, that Sammy is interested in the girls sexually; he eyes them up and down and takes careful note of their bodies. It is a little bit of unexpected excitement for him on a slow day in a routine job.
It should also be noted that the story is told both in the past tense (“The one that caught my eye first was the one in the plaid green two-piece”) and the historical present tense, which is the use of the present tense to describe past events, as in this example: “I'm in the third check-out slot, with my back to the door, so I don't see them until they're over by the bread”).In this section, the past tense is used most of the time, but in other sections of the story, the tense changes within paragraphs and even within the same section. The use of the present tense helps to draw the reader into the story, as if he or she is a participant in the action.
Sammy watches as the girls move around the store, from the bread counter through to other aisles, walking in the opposite direction from the other customers. These customers are startled when they see the girls in their bathing suits but they say nothing and just carry on shopping.
Sammy’s colleague Stokesie, manning one of the other cash registers, makes a facetious remark to Sammy about the effect the girls are having on him, and Sammy shares in the joke. Stokesie makes a remark that shows he suspects that the girls are flouting some unspoken convention about appropriate dress in the store. Sammy notes that the store is five miles from a beach, in the middle of town, and that women usually put on a shirt and shorts before coming into the store.
Sammy continues to watch the girls, who have now reached the meat counter, where they ask some questions of McMahon, the employee there. McMahon watches them eagerly, even lustfully, as they move on.
Sammy catches sight of the girls once more as they emerge from out of the far aisle. Queenie leads, holding a small jar in her hand. Stokesie has a customer at his cash registers, and Sammy is manning the only other one of the seven that is open on this slack Thursday afternoon, so the girls go to him. Queenie hands Sammy the jar, which turns out to be of herring snacks, and pays for it by plucking a dollar bill from inside the top of her bathing suit, which Sammy thinks is “cute.”
Aspiring writers would do well to study how Updike conveys feelings and emotions in this story, which presents some classic examples of how to “show” not “tell.” In other words, instead of saying that someone felt nervous, or surprised, or whatever, the author presents some kind of physical reaction, a sensation in the body that conveys the feeling in a much more vivid and convincing way for the reader. In this section there are two such examples. Sammy watches Queenie turning toward her two companions, and she “turned so slow it made my stomach rub the inside of my apron.” The physical reaction shows the effect she is having on him; it suggests almost a gasp as the stomach pushes out. Second, as Queenie plucks the dollar bill from the top of her bathing suit, Sammy is so surprised and finds it such an attractive gesture, that “The jar went heavy in my hand.” It’s as if, had it now been for the jar, his hands would have dropped down to his waist in surprise.
Also in this section there is once again a stark contrast between the usual customers at the store and these bright, underdressed young ladies who have just wandered in. Sammy is excited by the latter, which seems only to increase his dislike and contempt for the dullness and conformity of the other customers, who being older are far from thelate-teenage world Sammy inhabits. He cannot relate to them as human beings at all, thinking of them as “sheep” (because they always go round the store in the same direction, following each other) or as “bums,” muttering as they check off items on their lists. When they see the girls, the older customers, not used to seeing swimsuits in the store, “jerk, or hop, or hiccup,” all of which are extremely unflattering descriptions. The youth versus age theme is sounded here.
Sammy himself is contrasted with Stokesie. Stokesie is also struck by the girls’ appearance and watches them too, like any young man would. But he takes his job more seriously than Sammy does, and he is ambitious. As a married man with children he has responsibilities that Sammy has probably not yet even dreamed of.
Then the store manager, Lengel, catches sight of the girls. He comes to the cash register and says, “Girls, this isn’t the beach.” Queenie is embarrassed, and says that her mother asked her to pick up the snack. Sammy notes that she has a rather upper-middle-class accent, and that her family background must therefore be very different from his own more lower-class origins.
Lengel repeats his comment that the store is not the beach, upon which Plaid says they only came in for one item. Lengel says that does not make any difference. They must still be “decently dressed.” Queenie protests that they are, but Lengel tells them that in future, they must have their shoulders covered if they come into the store.
Prompted by Lengel, Sammy rings up the purchase. He puts the jar in a bag and hands it to Queenie. All the time he is thinking that the girls have been unjustly treated by Lengel. As they leave the store, he says to Lengel that he is quitting his job. He speaks loud enough for the girls to hear him, but they do not stop, hurrying out of the store and going to their car in the parking lot.
Sammy tells Lengel that it was unnecessary to embarrass the girls; Lengel responds that it was the other way round: they were embarrassing “us,” meaning the store. Sammy takes off his apron and bow tie; Lengel tries to persuade him not to quit, but Sammy is quite determined. After hitting the No Sale tab on the cash register in protest, he walks out of the store into the sunshine. The three girls have long gone. He sees a young mother screaming at her children, and then looks back into the store, where Lengel has taken over at the checkout. Sammy then realizes that from that point on, his life is not going to be easy—likely because he now knows that he is unwilling to accept the way things are and just go along with them.
The dour, respectable pillar of the community Lengel makes another contrast to Sammy. Lengel is completely in line with local community standards and thinks he knows what is acceptable and what is not. He is the voice of middle-class morality and conventionality. That is not to say that he is presented in a wholly negative light. He is just doing the job that no doubt the owners of the store would want him to do, and he is also concerned that Sammy’s impulsive actions will hurt his own family: “you don't want to do this to your Mom and Dad,” he says. Sammy does not listen because he is young, headstrong, rebellious, idealistic, and willing to act on principle, even if it is to his own disadvantage. He believes he has done the right thing. In this interpretation, Sammy is to be congratulated: he sees what he thinks is an injustice and protests about it in the strongest way that he can. He strikes a blow for individual rights and freedom, a necessary action in a world dominated by the kind of narrow conformism that is apparent at the A&P. Unfortunately for him, his grand gesture goes unnoticed and unrewarded by those on whose behalf it is made (the girls). Some might also feel that Sammy’s actions constitute an overreaction: quitting his job is out of proportion to the incident that prompts it. Sammy’s motives may also be a little less noble than he thinks or wants others to think: romantically and sexually attracted to Queenie, he wants to impress her and get her to notice him.