May 15, 2010
Eng 2510: Contemporary Literature
Conflict and Change in John Updike’s “A&P”
All of the events in John Updike’s short story “A&P” take place in a small town grocery store north of Boston, where Sammy, the main character, works as cashier. Sammy is nineteen, a late adolescent boy on the verge of adulthood. His fellow cashier, Stokesie, is twenty-two, married, with two young children. The store is managed by a much older man named Lengel, a friend of Sammy’s parents. The other characters include a customer at Sammy’s checkout slot and three teenage girls in bathing suits. It is an altercation in the aisles of the store between ...view middle of the document...
Lengel also represents Sammy’s distant future, the best he might achieve, if he stays in town. When he looks at Lengel, he sees not only the town, but an image of himself as he might be thirty years in the future.
The three girls are not residents of the town, merely vacationers from a wider world that exists somewhere beyond the imagination of most of the townspeople. Although the summer colony (a beach resort) is only five miles away, the two worlds, the town and resort, do not often collide. Sammy claims there are people in town that haven’t seen the ocean for twenty years and that the women from town would never come into the store in just their bathing suits, and even if they did no one would notice. He describes them in an unflattering light—“women with six children and varicose veins mapping their legs.” First and foremost, Sammy is an adolescent boy, attracted and distracted by the girl’s sexuality, but there is something else here, too, something that defines Sammy’s conflict.
The girls represent the wider world, a world of greater possibilities, one not bound by the rules and conventions of a provincial small town. They don’t come into the store dressed in bathing suits because they are daring. They come dressed that way because it never occurred to them that it might not be appropriate. The contrast between the two worlds, the one that Sammy lives in and the one just outside his reach, couldn’t be more stark. On the one hand, Sammy has a good job and a future in the small town; on the other, he dreams of wider horizons and greater possibilities. This is his conflict.
When Lengel (the town) confronts the girls (the outside world) about the way they are dressed, Sammy has to decide in which world he will live. This confrontation is the story’s “complication”—the event that forces Sammy to face and resolve...