The Theme of John Updike’s “A&P” – An Analysis

Arts and Literature


John Updike’s short story “A&P” is a classic piece of American literature that explores various themes and societal issues. Published in 1961, the story follows the protagonist, Sammy, a young grocery store cashier who becomes infatuated with three young girls entering the store wearing only bathing suits. This article aims to analyze the central theme of Updike’s “A&P” and delve into its various subtopics.

The Theme: The Conflict Between Conformity and Individualism

The central theme of “A&P” revolves around the conflict between conformity and individualism. Updike portrays Sammy as a character who is torn between conforming to societal norms and embracing his individuality.

The Conformist Society

In the story, Sammy is surrounded by a conformist society, symbolized by the A&P supermarket. The store represents a rigid system that expects its employees and customers to adhere to certain social norms and expectations.

Sammy’s Individualistic Nature

On the other hand, Sammy is depicted as a young man with a rebellious streak, yearning for something more than the mundane routine of his job. He is intrigued by the girls’ nonconformist behavior and their disregard for societal norms.

The Girls as Agents of Change

The three girls who enter the A&P in their bathing suits serve as catalysts for Sammy’s internal conflict. They represent freedom, spontaneity, and nonconformity, qualities that Sammy desires but feels trapped by in his conventional life.

John Updike’s “A&P”: Themes & Conflicts | Free Essay Sample

“A&P” Analysis

The Subversion of Gender Roles

Another significant subtheme in “A&P” is the subversion of traditional gender roles. Updike challenges societal expectations by portraying the girls as assertive and confident, while the male characters exhibit varying degrees of objectification and sexism.

The Girls’ Assertiveness

The girls’ refusal to be shamed or intimidated by the male gaze challenges the traditional notion of women as passive objects of desire. They confidently navigate the store, attracting attention, and asserting their independence.

Male Objectification

Sammy, along with his co-worker Stokesie, objectifies the girls by commenting on their physical appearance and making lewd remarks. This behavior reveals the societal conditioning that perpetuates the objectification of women.

The Loss of Innocence and Coming of Age

Updike also explores the theme of loss of innocence and the journey of coming of age through Sammy’s character arc.

The Desire for Rebellion

Sammy’s infatuation with the girls and his decision to quit his job as a form of protest against the store’s management can be seen as his desire to rebel against the constraints of his youth and the loss of his innocence.

The Harsh Reality of Consequences

However, as Sammy steps out of the store, he realizes the harsh reality of his actions and the consequences they entail. This experience serves as a lesson in maturity and the complexities of navigating personal desires within societal boundaries.

The Power of Observation and Perception

Updike also explores the power of observation and perception in “A&P”. Through Sammy’s narration, the readers are given insight into his thoughts, judgments, and interpretations of the events unfolding around him.

Sammy’s Observations of Society

Sammy’s keen observations of the customers and his co-workers reveal his astute perception of the societal norms and expectations that surround him. His commentary sheds light on the subtle hypocrisies and absurdities present in everyday life.

The Subjectivity of Perception

Additionally, Updike emphasizes the subjective nature of perception by contrasting Sammy’s idealized view of the girls with the reactions of his co-workers and the store manager. This highlights how individual perspectives shape our understanding of reality.

The Importance of Empathy and Understanding

Empathy and understanding are essential themes that emerge in “A&P”, as Updike prompts readers to consider the complexities of human behavior and the motivations behind people’s actions.

Sammy’s Empathy for the Girls

Despite initially objectifying the girls, Sammy ultimately empathizes with their situation and realizes the potential consequences they might face for their nonconformist behavior. This empathy contributes to his decision to quit his job and stand up against the store’s management.

The Lack of Understanding from Authority Figures

In contrast, the store manager and the older customers fail to understand the girls’ behavior and dismiss it as inappropriate. This lack of empathy and understanding highlights the generational gap and the challenges faced by those who defy societal norms.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q1: What is the significance of the title “A&P”?

The title “A&P” refers to the setting of the story, a supermarket chain. It represents the conformity and societal norms that Sammy grapples with throughout the narrative.

Q2: How does Sammy’s infatuation with the girls drive the story?

Sammy’s infatuation serves as a catalyst for his internal conflict and eventual decision to quit his job. It represents his desire for individuality and rebellion against the constraints of societal expectations.

Q3: What is the role of the girls in the story?

The girls symbolize freedom, nonconformity, and a departure from traditional gender roles. Their presence prompts Sammy to question his own conformity and inspires his rebellious actions.

Q4: How does Updike challenge gender norms in “A&P”?

Updike challenges gender norms by portraying the girls as assertive and confident, while the male characters exhibit objectification and sexism. This subversion highlights the societal expectations placed on women.

Q5: What does Sammy learn through his actions in the story?

Sammy learns the complexities of personal desires within societal boundaries and the consequences that come with rebelling against conformity. He gains a deeper understanding of the world and the importance of considering others’ perspectives.

Q6: How does the theme of observation and perception contribute to the story?

Through Sammy’s observations and subjective perceptions, readers gain insights into the societal norms and hypocrisies present in everyday life. It highlights the power of individual perspective in shaping our understanding of reality.

Q7: What message does Updike convey about empathy and understanding?

Updike emphasizes the importance of empathy and understanding in “A&P”. Sammy’s empathy for the girls and the lack of understanding from authority figures highlight the complexities of human behavior and the challenges faced by those who defy societal norms.


John Updike’s “A&P” explores the conflict between conformity and individualism, the subversion of gender roles, the loss of innocence and coming of age, the power of observation and perception, and the importance of empathy and understanding. Through the story’s themes and characters, Updike prompts readers to reflect on societal expectations, personal desires, and the complexities of navigating the boundaries of conformity.

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