“A & P:” Sexism and Social Boundaries

“A & P:” Sexism and Social Boundaries

In “A&P,” one of John Updike’s widely ready and critiqued short stories, the author presents three barefoot girls, who walk into a local A&P grocery store while wearing bathing suits. While the rest of the people, including the Store manager, Lengel, and customers, two young men emerge as exceptions when they openly show their admiration of the girls, a move that see Sammy resign and lead hard life thereafter. The differences in the characters’ response become evident when the manager confronts the girls, reminding them of a need to dress in a descent manner when visiting the store. Equally important, it is the store’s policy that consumers, especially women should wear clothes that cover their shoulders (Porter 1156). Although Updike paints a simple picture of a young man who rebels against his seniors and employers of his interest in girls in bathing suits, the story shares a unique and evocative viewpoint on social norms and issues: social boundaries and sexism.

While some readers are most likely to consider the various comments by Sammy absolutely justified because of his genuine feelings, others may find them grating. In particular, when the three girls have gained entry into the A&P store, it becomes evident that the narrator assumes that, by wearing bathing suits, their primary objective is to seek attention (Sultana par. 8). However, the girls debunk this assumption by telling the manager that they only entered the store building dressed that way because their “mothers had asked them to pick some herring snacks” (Sultana par. 11). Yes, Sammy is heard commenting on every detail, sounding as if he is supporting the narrator’s assumption: “You never know for sure how girls’ minds work…” (Sultan par. 7). From Sammy’s sexist comments and the narrator’s conclusion that these girls dressed in bathing suits because their intention is to capture others’ attention, the author creates a caricature involving the objectification of the woman’s body in society.

In addition to presenting the practical aspect of sexism in social settings, Updike uses his protagonist, Sammy, to describe the workings of social boundaries in a consumer-conditioned society. In particular, tension witnessed in Updike’s “A&P” does not necessarily arise because of the girls’ dressing code, but rather due to their decision to wear these kinds of clothes in the wrong social setting, a grocery store. In other words, the girls have so far crossed the red line that separates socially acceptable behaviors and deviance (Sultana). Deviance and social boundaries are inextricably linked because the former constitutes behaviors that that violate or breach social norms and laws (Porter 1157). Equally important, Updike paints a picture of what befalls a person who supports or subscribes to social deviance. In particular, Sammy deviates from his firm’s policies by admiring the three girls, become upset with the boss, and chooses to follow the girls whom are long gone (Sultana). He is presented at the parking lot, frustrated and wondering what the harsh future holds for him.

Works Cited

Porter, Gilbert. “John Updike’s ‘A & P’: The Establishment and an Emersonian Cashier”. The English Journal, vol. 61, no. 8, 1972, pp. 1155–1158.

Sultana, Catherine. “Analysis of John Updike’s “A & P.” ThoughtCO, Jun. 27, 2019. www.thoughtco.com/analysis-of-a-and-p-2990433 (Accessed 26 November, 2020)

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