In John Updike’s short story “A&P”, small town New England life is teeming with a whole lot of nothing. Sammy, the man who tells all, seems very uninterested in his job as a check out boy at the local A&P, yet very interested in the people who shop there. He uses his boredom as a vehicle of his imagination that allows him to pry his customers open and expose their true selves. Updike’s Sammy shows himself as an observant, critical and very bored young man through his first person narration.
Updike’s choice of first person perspective lends Sammy the ever powerful ability to quietly but relentlessly gather observations of the people and things around him. The first characters encountered are “three girls in nothing but bathing suits”(369). This scene would obviously catch the attention of any breathing male. But Sammy first takes in “the one in the plaid green two-piece. She was a chunky kid . . . [with] a sweet broad soft-looking can”(369). With these quick and most likely mindless observations, Sammy exposes himself as a person who judges others based on appearances.
As he takes note of the three girls, he sees “the queen [with] a kind of prim face. Walking into the A&P with your straps down, I suppose it’s the only kind of face you can have”(370). Sammy’s observations of the girls in bathing suits are not the only ones made throughout the story. However, the notice taken of the girls is the most kind. Perhaps through his mindless job of ringing up items, Sammy finds that making quick judgments of his customers through brief interactions is quite entertaining.
He sees one female customer as “one of those cash-register-watchers, a witch about fifty with rouge on her cheekbones and no eyebrowsshe’d been watching cash registers for fifty years and probably never seen a mistake before”(369). Sammy gathers this unfair judgment coarsely and without much thought. He uses this same technique while watching the girls in bathing suits, for example, he thinks the older woman is a witch while he thinks that the girl with her straps down is the queen of her group. And why?
Because it’s easy for him to assume these things based on what he sees. He also sees a man “in baggy gray pants who stumbles up with four giant cans of pineapple juice” and wonders to himself “what do these bums do with all that pineapple juice? “(371). Sammy makes a very unsympathetic assumption of an unfortunate soul down on his luck. Sammy’s own character faults lie in his tendency to label every human being that walks into his eyesight only because he has no other diversion with which to amuse himself.
These customers of his are being set up for a big error in judgment on Sammy’s part and the sad part about it is they do not even realize the silly check out boy is slandering them silently. While he is a largely critical person, Sammy’s faults are the result of the mind numbing work of his chosen profession. Sammy’s perpetual boredom plagues him and is the cause of his judging other people. He admits his boredom, saying “the store’s pretty empty, it being Thursday afternoon, so there was nothing much to do except lean on the register and wait for the girls to show up again”(371).
Apparently, the only solution to ending the tedium is to keep his mind focused on those girls, those fascinating girls in nothing but bathing suits. Sammy becomes agitated with his job, the dullness of it and essentially the entire grocery selling profession, and gallantly quits his job to defend the girls’ innocence from the manager. His hopes to gain their attention and perhaps affection but alas, they leave him jobless, hopeless, and clueless about his life. Updike’s portrait of the simple Sammy and his plain existence exercises the idea that every minimal man has a complexity that lies quietly in the mind.