A & P by John Updike: Setting & Character Analysis

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  • 0:03 Brief Synopsis of 'A &…
  • 1:08 The Setting of 'A & P'
  • 2:50 Character Analysis of 'A & P'
  • 6:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

You may never have been in an A&P store, and you might not have even read Updike's short story of the same name. You can learn more about both, though, in this lesson where you'll find info on the story's setting and an analysis of its main character.

Brief Synopsis of 'A&P' by Updike

Just to get our bearings before we set off, let's quickly recap the events of this short story:

We open on a fairly typical local grocery store, where the usual routine has been interrupted by three young women coming in to shop in nothing but their bathing suits. The narrator sizes up each one individually until he becomes fixated on one in particular. He determines that this girl, with her bathing suit straps pushed down over her shoulders, must be the leader of the group, and he decides to call her Queenie.

As the girls shop and the boys at checkout ogle them, other shoppers are apparently flustered by this inappropriate display, which only delights the staff all the more. Once they've made their selection (a can of herring snacks), they enter the narrator's check-out line as his manager Lengel comes on the scene. He reprimands the girls in front of other customers and insists that they be more properly dressed next time. Taking this as offensively embarrassing to the young ladies, the narrator quits his job, only to be disappointed with the final outcome.

The Setting of 'A&P'

If you were born in or after the mid-1990s, you might find some of what we're about to talk about a little outside your timeframe. For instance, one of the important elements of the setting in Updike's short story is the time period it takes place in. First published in 1961, the events of 'A&P' occur at the height of the Cold War, a period between the late 1940s and early 1990s of extreme tension, but no large-scale offensives, between the Soviet Union, the US, and their allies. For almost 50 years, the two sides closely monitored and critiqued one another, breeding paranoia and distrust among both populations. In the US, fear of the Soviet (communist) way of life's corrupting the American Dream led many to even begin turning on neighbors if they demonstrated ideas or behaviors they saw as 'anti-American.'

Of course, since its name is the short story's title, the local A&P of a sleepy New England town north of Boston is also rather important. This chain of grocery stores, also known as the Great Atlantic and Pacific (A&P) Tea Company, has actually been a long-standing institution in the American northeast. Originally established in 1859 as a trading company, A&P eventually grew into one of the largest commercial entities in the US at the time John Updike was writing his story. The A&P (which still operates in the northeast) is comparable in a number of ways to the Wal-Marts we're probably more familiar with today. It's a large corporation that sells a variety of merchandise (not just groceries) and, in the 1960's, A&P would have been much the same symbol of American capitalist consumerism as Wal-Mart is today.

Character Analysis of 'A&P'

The narrator, later identified as Sammy, uses this capitalist image of the A&P to make a very pointed statement about his fellow cashier's chances of becoming store manager: 'maybe in 1990 when it's called the Great Alexandrov and Petrooshki Tea Company or something.' By rebranding the store with Russian names, Sam is highlighting the improbability not just that the Soviets would conquer the US but that anything in America would really change.

Sam, a 19 year-old checkout clerk at the A&P, is the story's first-person narrator; so really, any characterization that he provides of others is really a reflection of himself. For instance, he spends a considerable amount of time describing the three girls in their bathing suits, initially interested in them only because they pique his boyish interest. With an angsty sort of tone that some of us were probably quite accustomed to in our earlier days, Sammy clearly despises most of the customers (whom he calls sheep), as well as the store and its products (i.e. he describes the plastic toys they sell as being shoddy). Really, we're most likely already fairly familiar with Sammy's character: he's the jaded, hormonal teenage slacker that we've seen employed so many times at concession stands and similar places in film and television.

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