Sammy the Social Climber in John Updike's A&P
Length: 823 words (2.4 double-spaced pages)
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Sammy the Social Climber in A & P
Men will go to extreme measures to impress women. This is the case in the story "A & P" written by John Updike. Sammy, who is a cashier at a supermarket, displays a classic example of a man trying to impress a woman. His rash decision to quit his job was a bad decision and will definitely have an adverse effect on him in the future.
Sammy seems doomed from the very first sentence when he says, "In walks three girls in nothing but bathing suits" (Updike 1026). He notices every little detail about the girls from the color of their bathing suits to their tan lines. At this time he is checking out "one of these cash-register-watchers," and he is yelled at for ringing up her item twice (Updike 1026). This distraction from his job shows his interest in the girls, especially the one he calls "Queenie."
To Sammy’s delight, Queenie and her two friends pick his register to purchase the "Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream" (Updike 1027). When she puts the snacks down on the counter, Sammy notices that her hands are free. While he is wondering where the money is going to come from, she proceeds to pull the dollar bills "out of the hollow at the center of her nubbled pink top" (Updike 1027). This gesture puts Sammy in total awe of the girl, and this is the turning point, this is when he makes his decision that he should try to impress her. His big chance comes when the store manager, Lengel, makes a visit to Sammy’s line.
"Girls, this isn’t the beach," is the first thing Lengel says to the girls when he sees them (Updike 1028). Queenie explains that her mother sent her to pick up some herring snacks, implying that since her mother sent her it is perfectly fine for her to be in the store with only a bathing suit on. While Lengel and Queenie are arguing, Sammy visualizes himself at Queenie’s house during a party. In his imagination he sees, "her father and the other men were standing around in ice-cream coats and bow ties and the women were in sandals picking up herring snacks on toothpicks off a big glass plate and they were all holding drinks the color of water with olives and sprigs of mint in them" (Updike 1028).
This is the beginning of the end for Sammy, because he really wants to impress Queenie now, and he finally sees his opening. After Lengel and the girls finish arguing, Queenie starts to leave. This is when Sammy blurts out "I quit" fast enough and loud enough for the girls to hear before they leave. He is "hoping they’ll stop and watch me, their unsuspected hero" (Updike 1029). Unfortunately, the girls keep walking and don’t even notice his futile attempt. He is left there with his boss who asks him if he would like to reconsider. Even though Sammy sticks to his decision to quit it is not because of any strong principle he has, but merely an attempt to impress the girls.
Suzanne Uphaus agrees with my argument. She states that, as in many of Updike’s works, the heroic gesture is often meaningless and usually arises from selfish rather than unselfish impulses (Updike 372). Sammy’s impulse to quit, which he considers a heroic gesture, is in fact meaningless and selfish. He is reminded that he shouldn’t "do this to your Mom and Dad," yet he goes on and quits anyway (Updike 1029). His gesture is nothing more than a weak attempt to impress a girl.
Sammy, like many other characters of Updike’s stories, puts himself in a position in which he can hurt or disgrace his family (Magill 2335). He is left to make the decision of whether to quit or not, after the girls leave. Lengel is a family friend, and reminds Sammy that his parents would not be happy if he were to quit. At this time, Sammy also realizes that if he backs down he will never be able to stand up for his beliefs later in life (Magill 2335). He decides to take the consequences and realizes the world will be a little tougher from that point on.
It is clear that Sammy tried to win the girls over by being their hero. The girls’ arrogance and fancy snacks showed that they were upper-class, and this was a change for Sammy, who was a small town boy. By quitting, he only tried to make the girls notice him. Unfortunately, he impressed no one, and made life harder on himself.
Magill, Frank N. Critical Survey of Short Fiction. Vol. 6. Pasadena, California: Salem Press, 1993.
Segal, David. "John Updike" Short Story Criticism. Vol. 13. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1993.
Updike, John. "A & P." Harper Anthology of Fiction. Ed. Sylvan Barnet. New York: HarperCollins, 1989.