“A&P” and Setting
A&P tells the story of Sammy, a nineteen-year-old boy who worked as a grocery attendant in a supermarket. On a typical working day, three girls who are scantily dressed visit the grocery store and their actions and attitude makes Sammy lose his job. Prior to the girls’ arrival at the supermarket, Sammy’s life mirrored that of the store in the fact that they were both dull and depended on artificial light. The disruption caused by the girls’ arrival convinces Sammy to quit his job. John Updike, the author of the story, has used various elements such as colorful imagery and descriptive words to describe the setting. One of the most prominent themes in the story is social conformity. It is displayed through the setting and it includes the location of the supermarket, 1961 setting of the story and the social environment setting. These settings show how social conformity differs among different groups of people.
The story is set in a grocery store located in northern Boston, which is five miles from the nearest beach. Updike clearly shows the characteristic of the town whose residents behave like sheep, meaning that they tend to do things together. Anything different is out of their social conformity. This is seen in the way they stare at Queen’s shoulder and their apparent discomfort when she stares back at them. Although the town is only five miles from the beach, the residents surprise when they see the girls wearing the swimming costumes is indicative of their conservative social values (Updike 55). The location of the town also has also contributed to the conservative nature of the residents. Any action or behavior that depicts a paradigm shift from their way of thinking is frowned upon. Lengel proves this when he asks the girls to dress decently on their next trip to the store.
The play is set in 1941, which was the post war period. This period was a time of prosperity and consumer goods flooded the market. Advertisement had become common during this time and this is seen in the story where different brand names are mentioned. Brands such as Diet Delight Peaches and Hiho Crackers are a reflection of the artificiality that is usually present in an environment dominated by branding and marketing. Labels and brands are significant aspects show the cultural landscape during that time. Their artificiality reflected Sammy’s life, which did not appear real and alive. The larger populace present in 1961 was conservative and they took their values seriously. This is seen in the way Lengel reprimands the scantily dressed girls despite the fact that they are his customers. This shows that Lengel held his personal values strongly than his business values. Business requires one to give the customer first place yet Lengel went ahead and reprimanded the girls. The post war period marked a period of youth rebellion against authority and against conservative values. When the girls are reprimanded, they answer back and they assert that they are decently dressed. They did not see anything wrong with their dress code. Sammy joins them by questioning Lengel’s decision and by quitting his job (Updike 71).
The social environment setting within the context of the story is depicted by the social class difference and the generation gap. The grocery store acts as a symbol of consumerism because it sells goods that are consumed by all irrespective of their social status. Queen and her friends represent the middle and upper social class, while Sammy and the A&P team represent the lower class. The upper class does not seem to care about other people’s opinion and this is seen in the way the girls dress. They do not bother with what other people think and this is seen clearly, when Queen retrieves money from her two-piece bathing suit. This shows that they are more liberal in their thinking and in their way of life. The lower class on the other hand is more conservative in their way of life and this is seen in the way they react to the girls. Sammy, who represents the lower class, is awed by how the girls strut around the store and their ability to go to a store located at the heart of a commercial town while wearing their swimming costume. Lengel represents the older generation, while Sammy and the girls represent the younger generation. The older generation is seen as more conservative and they are adamant on maintaining their traditions. When Lengel is reprimanding the girls, he tells them to wear something more conservative stating that it is the way things are done. This shows that he is ready or willing to accept change. The younger generation is more liberal and is ready for new things. This is seen in Sammy, who despite holding conservative views, he is ready to accept the changes as they occur (Updike 83).
In this story, Updike shows that different groups of people view social conformity in different perspectives. The author uses a number of settings to bring out the theme of social conformity. Age is a determinant of people’s view towards social conformity. People with a huge age gap can disagree in different matters and this can cause conflicts. They should therefore be willing to tolerate each other so that they can work together. Societal status has also been used to show how different class status conforms to social values.
Updike, John. A&P: Lust in the Aisles. Minneapolis, MN: Redpath Press, 1986. Print