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of the Theme of Immaturity in Updike’s A& P

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 explores 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” (2). 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” (3). 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 (315). For instance, Sammy admits his
lust for Queenie when he says that she had “the smoothest scoops of vanilla”
that he had ever seen (Updike 4). 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” (Updike 3). 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,'”
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 (97).
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” (Updike 1). 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” (Updike 1). 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 (Dessner 317). 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”
(Saldivar 7). 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” (Updike 1). 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…” (323). 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. 

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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