John Updike’s best known, most anthologized and most frequently taught short story, “A & P,” first appeared in The New Yorker (22 July 1961: 22-24), a publication that assumes a reader with considerable literary and cultural knowledge. Updike, for whom literature and art have been intertwined since youth,(1) uses allusions to art and to art criticism to give the informed reader of “A & P” the experience of dramatic irony as a means toward constructing significance for the story. The popularity of “A & P” rests on a number of ironic ambiguities,(2) but the reader who perceives Updike’s allusions to art can take special pleasure in the plot, which leaves the nineteen-year-old narrator and protagonist, Sammy, feeling at the end both triumphant and sad, both winner and loser.
The setting is a small town north of Boston around 1960. Sammy is trying to clarify why he has impulsively quit his job as a cashier in the local A & P supermarket. He needs a sympathetic listener (or reader), someone who will grasp the meaning he is constructing for himself as he puts his actions into narrative order. Collapsing past and present in rapid yet reflective colloquial speech, Sammy tells how three teenage girls, barefoot, in bathing suits, came into the A & P store to make a purchase. As they move through the aisles, Sammy, from his work station, first ogles them and then idealizes the prettiest and most confident of the three. He names her, to himself, “Queenie”; and though he jokes with his fellow cashier about the girls’ sexiness, he is quietly disgusted by the butcher’s frankly lustful gaze as the girls search for what they want to buy. Worse is his manager’s puritanical rebuke for their beach attire as Queenie pays Sammy for her purchase. Outraged that his manager, Lengel, has made “that pretty girl blush” and wanting to demonstrate his refusal of such demeaning authority, Sammy quits his job on the spot. Though the girls leave without recognizing their hero, and though his manager tries to dissuade him from disappointing his parents, Sammy feels “that once you begin a gesture, it’s fatal not to go through with it” (196). He acts decisively, but the girls have disappeared from the parking lot by the time he exits the store. In practical terms, Sammy’s action has gained him nothing and cost him everything, but his narrative affirms his gesture as a liberating form of dissent.(3) Sammy does not see how he could have done otherwise, though he finds himself at odds with the only society he knows, sure that “the world will be hard to me, hereafter” (196).
Because Updike wrote “A & P” for The New Yorker, the story assumes a reader whose response to Sammy can go far beyond what the character can articulate for himself.(4) Walter Wells, calling attention to the elevated diction which concludes Sammy’s highly “ambivalent” epiphany, suggests that “hereafter” points Sammy toward an indefinite future in which he may or may not find “viable alternatives” to a “defunct romanticism” (133). I hope to show in this essay that Updike offers the reader a way to see that Sammy’s narrative, as a completed artistic gesture, is already in the mode of one of those alternatives. Sammy does look ahead as he senses the inadequacy of available cultural forms to express his sexuality and his moral sensitivity. Sammy does not, however, renounce the source of his will to act as he did. That source is triple: first, the ability to respond erotically to the beauty of a young woman’s body; second, to respond sympathetically and imaginatively to the individual person alive in that body; and third, to elaborate that double pleasure into expressive form. If Sammy has learned anything at the end of his story, he has learned it via his romantic desire which, though naive and selfdramatizing, drives the plot of “A & P.” We can think of Sammy’s narrative as Updike’s gesture to give Eros a form that will both ennoble and extend it as an aesthetic pleasure–while intensifying the impossibility of that desire’s completing itself in anything other than art. In other words, Updike has created in Sammy a character who attains the awareness of a modern artist, but who does not know that is what he has done.
To a large extent, the aesthetic pleasure in “A & P” depends upon the reader’s sensing this dramatic irony. Sammy’s words resonate and gain meaning through a larger artistic context out of which he comes (Updike’s knowledge and imagination) but of which he, the fictive character, is unaware. Updike offers the reader this particular irony through a playful and highly specific allusion to a work of art and to the corresponding modern aesthetic criticism it helped inspire. That allusion, unconscious on Sammy’s part but certainly not on Updike’s, is to Sandro Botticelli’s fifteenth-century Neo-Platonic painting, usually referred to as The Birth of Venus (c. 1482). In design, the painting recalls a medieval triptych, but its central figure is the Greek goddess of love, nude and pensive, standing tall in her scallop shell as she is blown ashore from her sea-birth by a male figure emblematic of wind or spirit. Venus is flanked by two female forms, one entwined with the wind and the other about to receive her on shore with a regal mantle. These two attendants have been identified as the Horae, allegorical figures for time. The painting’s details are realistic, but the overall effect is ethereal, gorgeous, and sad. For all its allegory, Botticelli’s Venus, in Ronald Lightbown’s commentary, is “the first surviving celebration [in the history of the Renaissance] of the beauty of the female nude, represented for its own perfection rather than with erotic or moral overtones … the celebration is almost impressionistic … Venus is indifferent to us” (1:89).