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A&P analysis essay – conducting preliminary research

John Updike's somewhat ironic short story A&P is an interesting choice for an analysis paper. It describes how Sammy, a dreamy assistant in an A&P store, is distracted when three girls in bikinis come in to buy a jar of herring snacks. Sammy enjoys watching them but the shop manager rebukes them for the way they are dressed, embarrassing them. Intending to make a grand gesture to impress them, Sammy takes off his apron and announces that he is resigning. It fails, as the girls have already left and don't even notice.

Before writing a paper on this story it's necessary to do some preliminary research. The obvious place to start is by reading the story thoroughly. What impression does the reader form of Sammy's character? Look at how he thinks of the work crew up the street, and of his co-workers. Examine his initial impressions of the three girls. Are there any clues that suggest he is capable of such a gesture?

Sammy quitting his job is portrayed as a huge sacrifice, both through its dramatic significance in Sammy's mind and through the comments of the manager, Mr Lenger; Lenger talks about the impact Sammy's decision will have on his parents. In reality, what sort of prospects does a job like this hold? Will quitting it have a major impact on his future?

What is the message of the story? There are two possibilities to look at. The fact that the girls are oblivious of what Sammy has done could be a comment on the futility of romantic gestures (a typical Updike theme.) Alternatively it could be an illustration of the dangers of non-conformity. The girls, by shopping in swimsuits, are violating a social norm, as Lenger points out to them. Sammy also violates one, by going against the expectations of Lenger and probably his parents (and likely to some extent himself) in favour of a gesture that in intent, if not dramatic impact, is basically medieval chivalry. At the end of the story he reflects on " how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter" if he doesn't act more conventionally.

This story was inspired when Updike drove past an A&P store one day and idly wondered why no fiction had ever been set in one. He also noticed a group of girls shopping in swimsuits. The result was a hormone-driven male protagonist who, in Updike's words, performed an act of feminist protest. With some digging it can make a great topic for an essay.

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