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Self-Motivation and Egocentrism in John Updike’s A&P Essay

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William Peden once called John Updike’s “A&P” “deftly narrated nonsense...which contains nothing more significant than a checking clerk's interest in three girls in bathing suits” (Peden). While Peden’s criticism may be harsher than necessary, it is hard to find fault with his analysis. Sammy’s tale offers little more than insight into an egocentric and self-motivated mind, and while Updike may disagree with that conclusion, a close reading of the text offers significant evidence to support this theory. In “An Interview with John Updike”, Updike describes how Sammy quit as a “feminist protest” (153). However, I would argue that Sammy’s act of defiance was selfishly motivated and represents his inner struggle with his social class as demonstrated through his contempt for those around him and his self-motivated actions.
Sammy tends to put down other people even without reason. While admiring the girls, Sammy and Stokesie joke around, and Sammy tells the reader, “I forgot to say he thinks he’s going to be manager some sunny day, maybe in 1990 when it’s called the Great Alexander and Petrooshki Tea Company or something” (150). Sammy’s use of the phrase “he thinks” informs the reader that Sammy does not actually believe Stokesie will ever become manager. The second part of the sentence also shows how condescending Sammy is; “A&P” was published in 1962, so for Sammy to say that Stokesie will become manager “… maybe in 1990”, is essentially saying that it will never happen. There is no reason for Sammy to put down Stokesie’s ambition, especially considering that Sammy is, in that moment, on the exact same life path. In fact, Sammy himself realizes this, commenting, “Stokesie’s married … but as far as I can tell, that’s the only...


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...pt to get ahead. Moments after he quits, he tells the reader, “I look around for my girls, but they’re gone, of course” (152). The possessive “my” shows that Sammy feels as though he can claim these girls as his own even though he does not know them at all, exemplifying how he degrades others in order to elevate himself. This sentence also demonstrates how he feels that the world is unfair to him; by adding in the “of course”, the reader gains the sense that Sammy is not always lucky in life. All of this leads up to the last sentence: “… my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter” (153). Even in his last words, Sammy is thinking about himself and the effect the world is going to have on him and him only.



Works Cited

William Harwood Peden (1964). The American Short Story. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p. 70. OCLC 270220.


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