Short story: “A & P”

by look i have opinions

“A & P,” by John Updike

From the July 22, 1961 issue of the New Yorker (subscribers can read here); read on the May 2011 New Yorker Fiction Podcast; also here

2,832 words

An odd, sweet little story. The narrator doesn’t show a lot of distance or perspective, apart from brief reflective moments (“Now here comes the sad part of the story, at least my family says it’s sad but I don’t think it’s sad myself”), which helps keep his motives ambiguous. I suspect he doesn’t understand them himself. Certainly he’s acting partly out of sexual desire and egotism—he craves the attention and gratitude of an attractive woman, he wants to feel like a white knight, he’s conscious of making “a gesture.” Possibly he allies himself with the strangers because he’s felt bullied by authority figures himself, or because their tiny rebellion inspires him; or more banally, because he admires “Queenie”‘s apparent social class.

At the end, it seems clear that motivations aside, Sammy’s choice has changed his life. I like to think he would have spent the rest of his life working low-skill, low-pay jobs like this one, and that by quitting he’s forced himself to do something bigger—leave town, attend college, go into business. The boost to his self-regard might encourage that ambition too. Then again, it’s just as likely he’s backed himself into a corner, and his ego boost is partly deflated by the awareness that “Queenie” and her friends didn’t even notice.

“The jar went heavy in my hand” is a nice evocation of lust-induced brain freeze.