Better Decisions, Better Life sample essay
John Updike, who is known for his brilliant prose style and the sensual details in his stories, takes everyday tasks and gives a whole new perspective to it. Like in “A&P”, which is a narrative from the perspective of a nineteen-year-old boy working in the checkout line. Even though Sammy is just an average boy, something significant happens that day at the grocery store. The story revolves around Sammy’s journey from adolescence to adulthood and his resignation from the job at the grocery store marks the major change. Even though Sammy’s conscience disagrees with his decision, his need to escape the monotony of his life drives him to take it. The author uses various symbols to present a gradual progression into Sammy’s decision in the end.
As a teenage boy in a town in Boston in the 60s, Sammy did not have much going on for himself – his responsibility was to earn some money to manage the household expenses. For his he had to work at the grocery store. His co-worker Stokesie, who is only three years older than him, is married and has two children. He hopes to become the manager of the grocery store and is the only other co-worker mentioned in the story. Sammy obviously feels a strong connection with Stokesie, as they both eye the bikini clad girls together. Also, he mentions that the only difference he can tell between Stokesie and himself is the number of years they are apart (Updike 531). But from the tone in which Sammy talks about Stokesie, it is easy to see that he does not respect his co-worker as much. Instead he feels as though he is looking into a mirror of the future and he lives a life similar to Stokesie’s. Updike’s intention was to portray Stokesie as the future reflection of Sammy.
Although when the girls enter the grocery store dressed skimpily, they present Sammy with a whole new world. Sammy says “you never know for sure how girls’ minds work”, instead he imagines it to be “a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar” (Updike 530). He observes little details about all of these girls and ranks them on the basis of his perception. The two girls he gives the position of followers were not given much thought, except for their swim suit colors and their build. However, the girl that he ranked as the leader, or the “Queenie”, received most of his attention. Other than the color of her hair and bikini, he mentions how “there was nothing between the top of the suit and the top of her head except just her” (Updike 530). Also, he notices that she held her head so high that her neck looked stretched, but he did not mind that because that meant “the more of her there was” (Updike 530). This shows that Sammy is extremely intrigued by the girls, especially Queenie, that the more he could examine her, the more satisfied he would be. She was something different from his everyday experiences.
The colors described are significant to the theme of the story. The girls were described to be wearing plaid green, bright green and beige bikinis (Updike 529,530). They are presented as a contrast to the dull colors of the store. These bright colors represent a colorful and unknown province. Also, the floor of the grocery store is a checkerboard green-and-cream. Even though these colors are close to the colors of the girls’ bathing suits, the checkerboard pattern dissolves the radiance of these colors against the curiosity in the girls itself. This was a new event in Sammy’s life.
After all, a grocery store check-out clerk does a job such as this mostly out of necessity. Evidently Sammy has grown tired of rude customers. He describes one elderly female customer as “a witch about fifty with rogue on her cheekbones and no eyebrows” (Updike 529) when she caught him swiping one of her items twice. Sammy felt as though it pleased her to correct him. He imagines people who come shopping at A&P to be sad souls. He describes some other female customers as “houseslaves in pin curlers” (Updike 531). Also, he designates the customers at the grocery store “sheeps” while narrating the story. He seems to address the herd mentality that people tend to have – to stick together when there’s trouble. Clearly, he doesn’t look up to this cowardly behavior. He complains about this since the beginning of the story. However in the end he changes this attitude.
Not only the customers and Stokesie, but Sammy does not respect the manager either. Although he has never been vocal about it, Sammy mocks Lengel in his head and accuses him of hiding behind the door labeled “Manager” all day (Updike 532).This shows Lengel’s gutless personality. When Lengel walks in on the girls checking out, he asserts his authority and lets them know that they must dress appropriately in the store (Updike 532). It was the last straw for Sammy and he quits his job, even after Lengel warns him about it (Updike 533). Lengel’s warning further shows that he has always taken the safer way and that’s why he has never been able to stand up for his beliefs. Sammy did not want to be someone like Lengel, so he decides to break free.
When Sammy stands up for the girls, a part of him did expect some appreciation from them. But the underlying reason is much bigger than a simple ‘Thank you’. It is about his freedom from the routine lifestyle that he was getting used to. Continuing the life he had would eventually lead to the same monotonous life that Stokesie and Lengel had. Also, Sammy’s course of action changes through the story. In the beginning he would complain about the people he came across and worked with, but he had not ever taken any step to change that. Quitting the job was the major step that would change his life. Although, he may not have a stable job anymore, this decision has definitely made him a better person.
Updike, John. “A&P.” 1961. Approaching Literature: Writing + Reading + Thinking. Ed. Peter
Schakel and Jack Ridl. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford, 2008. 529-534. Print.
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