A Message Of Pursuing A Sense Of Identity In John Updike's A&P

According to M. Gilbert Porter’s article John Updike's 'A&P': “The Establishment and an Emersonian Cashier in John Updike’s story,” “Sammy knows that in choosing to follow the dictates of his conscience he will often be at odds with the 'kingpins' and policy-makers; but he knows a more important thing: That not to follow the voice of conscience is to be false to one's own integrity and therefore to live a lie, and Sammy has chosen to live honestly and meaningfully”. In “A &P” the protagonist, Sammy, a nineteen-year-old cashier at a small-town grocery store quits his job unexpectedly because he is a nonconformist in a conservative town, he finds his job at the store stifling and rejects a predictable future.

Notably, Sammy is a nonconformist in a conservative town. The town’s residents are proponents of decency and their values are apparent in the fact that they have little in the way of business but real estate offices, banks, a Congregational church, and the newspaper store. The A & P grocery store, which stands in the center of it all, is a representation of the mores which the town holds and in it languishes Sammy; the antithesis of conservative middle-class American values. Conformity is defined as sharing the same beliefs, values, and standards of behavior as those in your social environment. In Updike’s story, much of Sammy’s monologue is indicative that he goes against the grain. For example, Sammy uses the terms house slaves, sheep, and witch to describe his customers and expresses a disdain for the sense of security they feel in their banal lives. Sammy says, “I bet you could set off a dynamite in the A & P and the people would by and large keep reaching and checking oatmeal off their lists”. It is evident in the line “there’s people in this town haven’t seen the ocean for twenty years”, that he finds the way people around him have lost their sense of adventure disdainful. Sammy essentially quits his job because of the conflicting views he possesses. The town he lives in and its uninspired residents cannot sustain him.

Furthermore, Sammy finds his job stifling. He is under the authoritarian thumb of his manager Lengel and feels stagnant and outcasted. In this town with minimal job prospects, ambition is illusory. Here, dreams are bank-teller and A&P-manager-tall. Those who stay settle for a life of complacency. Sammy’s life is a stark contrast to the big city where endless opportunities are just a threshold away. The appearance of the three bikini-clad girls is cathartic for Sammy as well as arousing. “From the third slot I look straight up this aisle to the meat counter, watching them all the way”. The girls release inhibitions that were likely dormant in an amusement-less town. As Lengel attempts to chastise the girls’ appearance something stirs in Sammy. “That’s policy for you, Policy is what the kingpins want. What the others want is juvenile delinquency”. In this line, Sammy and Lengel’s values clash. He sees that similarly to the three girls; he too does not identify with the town and its orthodox values. Sammy is reminded that there is excitement beyond the A & P. Essentially, three girls walk into the A & P in bikinis and communicate to Sammy the value of spontaneity and arouse him to quit a job which was stifling his potential.

Finally, by quitting his job Sammy rejects a predictable future. Sammy realizes that staying in the A & P would be the premature death of his identity, values and motivation. Updike’s message in this story is nonconformity even if the world is against you. This is reminiscent of Dylan Thomas’ attitude towards death in the poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Both works speak of death and resistance to it, the death in Updike’s “A & P” however is not physical, but of the death of the soul. The soul dies when it is stifled for too long and Sammy’s resistance to this was to quit his job and free himself of the safety-net that was future manager of the A & P. If he did not quit, he would’ve become Lengel’s successor and snuffed out any traces of adventure and the arousal that comes with spontaneity.

The essential message of the story is to pursue a sense of identity even if it dubs you an outcast. Sammy does this by quitting his job because he is a non-conformist, he finds his job stifling and rejects predictability. In doing so, he ends up at odds with Lengel, who is the kingpin/policy maker which Porter’s article refers, but he is true to his integrity. It is clear by Sammy’s recount of the story that he now lives a fruitful life. One where his humor and free-spirited nature have a sense of belonging. 

09 March 2021
Your Email

By clicking “Send”, you agree to our Terms of service and  Privacy statement. We will occasionally send you account related emails.

close thanks-icon

Your essay sample has been sent.

Order now
Still can’t find what you need?

Order custom paper and save your time
for priority classes!

Order paper now