A & P by John Updike: Theme & Symbolism

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  • 0:03 John Updike's 'A&P'
  • 0:51 Summary and Theme
  • 2:28 Symbols in 'A&P'
  • 4:34 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.

Come explore the aisles of John Updike's 'A&P' in this lesson, where you can check-out an analysis of the story's theme and symbolism and learn about the hefty price we sometimes have to pay for a clear conscience.

John Updike's 'A&P'

Has anyone ever told you not to 'spit against the wind'? Generally, when people use this colorful colloquialism, they mean to say that we shouldn't make decisions if the consequences are going to come back to haunt us - when you spit in the wind, it will typically be blown back in your face.

However, these decisions aren't always inherently bad ones. You should know that spouting off to your boss might have negative consequences, but what about when you do something you feel to be right and it backfires? Many of the decisions we might make based on solid moral principles are likely to have costs we're not too thrilled to pay. This is exactly the sort of situation the protagonist of John Updike's short story 'A&P' finds himself in.

Summary and Theme

Sam, a teenage check-out clerk at the local A&P, learns the hard way that taking an ethical stand doesn't always yield the rewards we might expect. Early in the story, Sam starts to realize that there are some choices he's going to have to make about the direction of his life: namely, is he going to buy into the societal roles and ideas set-out for him, or is he going to follow his own path?

Of course, he, like the girls who come to shop for snacks in their bathing suits, eventually learns that society will always present us with (typically stiff) consequences when we decide to go against what's considered acceptable. The girls are subjected to public humiliation by Lengel, the store manager, as their penalty for playing loose with perceived dress codes. When Sam quits his job in response to this slight against human dignity, Lengel lets him know what his own consequences will be: 'You'll feel this for the rest of your life.'

What Lengel means here isn't that quitting one job is going to ruin Sam's career, but that this first step toward defying social guidelines will most likely affect how he leads the rest of his life. What's more, Sam learns early on that even when we have the best, most humanitarian intentions at heart, social defiance doesn't always bring the appreciation or other rewards we might think it should. When he's left high-and-dry by the girls after quitting his job in their defense, Sam has to face the hard fact that even when you spit against the wind for a good cause, sometimes all you have to show for it is a little spit on your face.

Symbols in 'A&P'

The store itself and its sheep-like shoppers are a major symbol of what it means to be part of American society. The Great Atlantic and Pacific (A&P) Tea Company is a long-standing institution in the country and has several hundred stores still operating in the Northeast. For Sam, it's a perfect picture of American social structures, with the mismatched and shoddy merchandise operating as a metaphor for the frequently inharmonious and flimsy pretexts on which many American values are based.

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