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Impact of Perception in "a&p"

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“A & P”, by John Updike, is a brief narrative that exhibits the difficulty and perplexity one experiences during the transition from adolescence to adulthood. The story begins one afternoon when three girls wearing only bathing suits walk into an A & P grocery store where the protagonist, nineteen-year-old Sammy, is employed as a cashier. Sammy analyzes the girls as they stroll through the store, and takes a strong liking towards the charismatic “leader”, which he dubs “Queenie”. While making their purchase at Sammy’s register, the girls are verbally insulted by Sammy’s manager, Lengel, about the way that they are dressed. In an attempt to be heroic, Sammy declares that he quits, but resigns only with the harsh realization that independent life will be substantially more difficult. In his story, Updike uses character, setting, and point of view to demonstrate differences in perception that aide Sammy in achieving his epiphany.

“In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits” (753; all pages refer to The Bedford Introduction to Literature, 8th ed.) is the first line in Updike’s story, spoken by Sammy as he recalls the events that occurred on that dull Thursday afternoon. Sammy is so pleasantly surprised by what he has just witnessed, that his fixation on the girls makes him unable to remember whether or not he has already scanned a customer’s box of crackers. Sammy scans the item again, and gets reprimanded by the female customer he describes as a “cash-register watcher” (753). He continues on, believing that the woman is comparable to a witch on trial in Salem, while failing to realize that he is truly the one at fault. The woman’s character is important because Sammy exaggerates her reaction and unattractive appearance in order to detract attention from his own act of negligence. Making the woman sound as if she overreacted, Sammy feels less accountable for his inattentiveness.

Sammy describes the girls’ appearances as he watches them wander through the aisles of the store. He first takes notice to the two girls on the outside; the chubby one with “one of those chubby-berry faces”, and the tallest one that is attractive, “but never quite makes it” (753). The way that Sammy describes the third girl is in greater detail about her demeanor than her physical features. Her prominent walk and delicate silhouette classify her as the leader. Her presence is much stronger than that of the other two girls, so Sammy appropriately calls her “Queenie”. Sammy becomes infatuated with Queenie because her type of prim beauty and radiating confidence is not typical of the customers that frequent the A & P. Sammy’s view of the grocery store is mundane and overly conventional, so when he notices the straps of Queenie’s bathing suit pulled down off of her shoulders, he comments that “walking into the A & P with your straps down, I suppose it’s the only kind of face you can have” (753). The setting is important because, in Sammy’s mind, its dullness is a way for him to glorify and revere the girls for their inappropriate and uncharacteristic behavior.

As for the other customers, they are solely concerned with the items they have come to purchase, and it is very strange for them to ever be distracted from accomplishing their errands. The way that Sammy stated it, “I bet you could set off dynamite in an A & P and the people would by and large keep reaching and checking oatmeal off their lists” (754). The fact that the “sheep” and “houseslaves” took immediate notice to the girls is another indication of the setting’s dreariness. Occurrences at the grocery store are so routine, that even proper aisle direction has inadvertently been established. The customers’ reactions to Queenie’s group, as opposed to Sammy’s, are obviously not as pleasant by the way that they all immediately directed their attention back to what they had been doing. Setting is used in the opposite of how it had been applied to Sammy’s experience with the girls. Sammy is the only one thrilled with the girls’ behavior, so instead of glorifying them, the conventional setting is used here to exhibit how truly shocking and odd their behavior is.

Sammy’s friend and colleague, twenty-two-year-old Stokesie, notices the girls and also feels and immediate attraction. “Oh Daddy, I feel so faint” (754) is what Stokesie told Sammy in reaction to the scantily clad teenagers. Stokesie is married and has already served in the military. Stokesie’s future achievement is to take over as manager someday, perhaps when, as Sammy phrases it, the grocery store will be renamed “the Great Alexandrov and Petrooshki Tea Company” by the Russians. Stokesie, being a married man, is better able to resist the urge to admire Queenie and her friends. Stokesie’s behavior foreshadows the way that Sammy feels later, when he sees his own behavior from a different perspective. Although the age difference between Sammy and his friend is exceptionally small, the fact that Stokesie is aware that he should not admire the girls shows the great difference in maturity between the two.

With Sammy and Stokesie still surprised at the girls’ presence, Sammy informs readers that the closest beach is five miles away from town. The town itself is very small, consisting only of two banks, the Congregational church, the news paper store, and three real estate offices. Sammy’s mention of how small the town is, and the far distance to the beach, makes the girls’ behavior seem even more peculiar, and perhaps more strategic. Even the typically unattractive women that do occasionally enter the store with their bathing suits still on, usually

put on shorts and a tee shirt before exiting their car full of waiting children. Sammy also

mentions that several people in the town have not seen the ocean in twenty-five years. That gives readers a sense of imprisonment or entrapment. The town’s environment is so uninspiring; most of the town’s citizens appear as if they are stuck in their repetitive lives, including Sammy with his job at the A & P.

After wandering around, when the girls reach the meat counter, is when Sammy’s

character begins to transform. Sammy watches as they approach McMahon behind the counter and ask him

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