Feb 3, 2010

On Updike's "A&P"

Updike, in a video interview, viewed his protagonist Sammy as a typical, well-intentioned American male adolescent trying to find his way in society, a kid on the edge of growing up. The intrusion of the girls in bathing suits triggers a mini drama at the grocery store where he works. And a decision is brought to the fore: play by the rules and you too might be assistant manager. Or quit in protest at the injustice of the store manager's pedantry and suffer the consequences. What's really at stake? Maybe nothing more than a crappy job. Or nothing less than the kind of adult he wants to be hereafter. This gesture is going to set the tone, establish the code he will choose to live by in his adult years.
Sammy isn't entirely without faults. He is certainly a male chauvinist, snidely objectifying the girls as he watches them course through the market, yet after seeing the meat man sizing up their joints, his attitude shifts. What starts as a fairly conventional and natural attraction to their beauty and offhand rebelliousness, ends in a real identification with them, despite the gender and class differences. Sammy is equally offended after Lengel reproaches the girls. His resignation comes from a gut level revulsion, and it is a kind of proto-feminist protest, seeing the girls not as sex objects but as human beings with an inherent dignity. He's reaching out to them for something bigger and better than the A&P, (he's not quite sure what exactly that might be yet). But this is also a complicated process to be gone through. Sammy's going to catch grief from his parents, for he risks acquiring a reputation among the town for being a quitter. He risks being seen as a fool. 
As a character, Sammy is well rounded. He's quite observant, has a great eye for detail. He is witty, sarcastic, sometimes caustic yet funny, and ultimately capable of empathy. He's also more than a little cynical (sour jobs do that to a person). He's probably somewhat stubborn, has a mean streak, has inherited some of the chauvinistic attitudes of his male dominated society. He says and does foolish things. In other words, he's a complex, typical late adolescent boy. Is he a dynamic character? Yes. I sense a real change in him from beginning to end. At the beginning, he's a cynic. A critic. Full of sarcasm and attitude. A passive observer. A complainer. By the end he is much more sympathetic and active. I think he realizes in that few minutes of action, that he doesn't want to be a sour grapes kind of guy. He'd rather act on his beliefs than stifle them and cloak them in sarcasm.
There are plenty of social conflicts running through this grocery store. One is the tension between young and old. Sammy sees the other men in the store and realizes that he doesn't want to be grow to be like them. He doesn't want to be a Stokesie, stuck in this job because he has to support his family. He doesn't want to be like McMahon, the middle-aged leering butcher. And most of all he doesn't want to be like Lengel, the gray faced adult, non descript, characterless, bean counter, rule follower, the pedantic manager of middle class virtues. And who are all these sheep sleepwalking through the store?
The young are represented by the three girls and Sammy. Sammy identifies with their beauty, their freedom and willingness to bend the rules. Is his quitting a form of imitative rebellion? What is he rebelling against?
This brings up another social tension in the story: middle class vs. upper class. I hope you noticed the social class difference between Sammy and Queeny. Queeny is purchasing herring snacks, a food that the rich would be more likely to eat. Sammy is attuned to her demeanor, her posture, her language. This is a stark contrast to the middle he is used to serving and the store, and to be honest, the kind stock he comes from himself. As an astute observer of people, he imagines what her life must be like and compares it, to his own detriment, to his own middle class home life.
Sammy glimpses another kind of world, a world he can't quite access, where Queeny comes from. He's attracted not only to her beauty, but to her self-assuredness and confidence, even when breaking the rules. The rules don't apply to her. He wants some of that in his life. He craves it. Yet this social difference is a large gulf that may never be bridged. She is unattainable. Sammy's noble gesture goes ignored. It doesn't make the slightest impression. He loses his job over nothing.
The story suggests an important thematic question that we should consider. We all get the impulse to do things on a whim such as quit our jobs in protest, but how far should you play the game and go along with the power structure? Do you play along or quit? Why does Sammy stick with his original purpose? In short, when should you conform or dissent? There's a conflict inside Sammy that he slowly awakens to that day, i.e. the tension between conformity and non-conformity. Those who count beans and follow the rules vs. those who do what they feel like doing when they want to do it, who make their own rules. Bob Dylan says in a to live outside the law you must be And these girls, who have disobeyed the law of retail decorum, seem to be acting out of an honest sense. They're only looking for one item. They're not shopping. It's a quick, in and out stop. Why shouldn't the rules be bent for their sake? Besides, is it such a bad thing to shake things up a bit?
Note also how the story opens a window of opportunity for Sammy. It is his chance seize the It's not as if Sammy's been consciously thinking of quitting. Perhaps this has been kicking around his subconscious mind, but he isn't aware of the need to make a break until Lengel appears at the register to confront the girls. That is when the window of opportunity slides open. And he jumps through, ostensibly as an act of chivalry.
On this level, however, the gesture fails, because the girls ignore the action and walk right out of his life. This leaves Sammy with an important decision. After the impulsive decision to quit, Lengel gives him the opportunity to redeem himself, back out of the corner, take back what he said. Sammy, in a move that makes him truly heroic (I think), pushes on through. He doesn't backtrack. He moves forward, even though he doesn't know where this gesture will take him. That's what you have to be willing to do when you seize the day. You'll do things that other people think are stupid, silly, shortsighted, rash, impulsive. If Sammy were placed in Robert Frost's yellow wood, he'd be taking the road less travelled by, an awareness which hits him in the last paragraph.
Let's consider two alternative futures for Sammy. Option one: he caves in and gets his job back. What will his future be? Option two: he quits. What does his life look like from this point on? Where is he headed? What does he make of his life? Updike once said that Sammy's decision is like crossing the Rubicon, which refers to Julius Caesar's decision to cross the Rubicon river with his legions into Italy to assume dictatorship over the Roman empire. It was a decision he couldn't turn back and reverse. In Sammy's life, crossing through that sliding door is his Rubicon.