Updike’s “A&P” can be read fast but the understanding does not come unless one learns to read such texts deeply. On the first scanning, “A&P” seems to offer simple symbolism of freedom and bondage, class, and power through the characters, their looks, and actions. However, the setting itself is a complex implicit metaphor of how conformism becomes modernism.
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In his masterful study of Updike’s story, Toni Saldivar reveals the multidimensional allusion that the author offers. An informed reader can figure from Sammy’s narrative that Queenie is Botticelli’s “Venus” and Sammy is, as he were, Botticelli himself (Saldivar 216). Saldivar further states that just like Botticelli boldly combined Virgin Mary and Venus in his “modern” vision, Sammy is experiencing a cognitive paradigm shift (210). From silent contemplation to action, the character breaks away from the bland conformity to pursue his dream – an action that can only be regarded as modernist.
A&P, the grocery store where the action takes place, is a reflection of the conformist tendencies of Sammy’s community. In the story, A&P is the representation of American history, a life where people were to follow a set of fixed rules and generally conform. The symbolism of conformity and rule-abidance is found in many details of the story.
The boss and the clerks are the ones to abide and oversimplify things (as in their jokes about the girls’ attire), which disgusts Sammy. The fact that the girls are told off for their clothes represents a punishment for broken rules. When Sammy decides to leave the job, he takes his uniform off, a sign of not belonging to the community. His decision is not simply an act of quitting a job: by refusing to conform, the character voluntarily makes himself an outcast.
Such a move in Updike’s mind is a reflection of two rebellions: Botticelli’s and that of the voices of dissent (authors like Kerouac and Ginsberg). Following an impulse and creating a piece of art, Botticelli produced a scandalous canvas that was not initially accepted by the public. Similarly, the modernists’ texts were the reflection of their lives and behaviors generally believed to be bad, casting the authors out of society.
Following a vision of beauty, Sammy rejects the norms and thus leaves A&P for good. Sadly enough, the apparition is gone by the time he makes up his mind, as subtly as it appeared. This is the moment when the character realizes what A&P meant to him: comfort and stability. His distress, therefore, is understandable: by leaving the grocery store, he abandoned the satiety and dormancy of middle-class American existence for the sake of ephemeral inspiration, isolation, hunger, and hardships of an artist’s life.
Saldivar’s work smartly hints that it takes an erudite reader to fully appreciate the complexity of Updike’s metaphor. Indeed, understanding does not come at first glance. However, in the context of Updike’s art and the sentiments of the time, A&P the grocery store is a perfect symbol of dependency and rule-abidance that is broken by modernist rebellion.
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Saldivar, Toni. “The Art of John Updike’s ‘A & P’.” Studies in Short Fiction 34.2 (1997): 215-225. Gale Literature Resource Center. Web.