A & P- The Heroic Sheep Herder


One of the main reasons that a short story can be so effective is familiarity. An author uses different ways to connect with their readers to draw interest. Some authors use themes that are common to everyday

life no matter what time period a person lives in, their race, or financial status. Others use emotional connections to make the reader sympathize with the characters. In the short story written by John Updike in 1962 entitled, “A&P,” he uses the familiar setting of a supermarket, and gives the reader an idea of what a teenage boy thinks about teenage girls. Sammy, the narrator of the story is young, impulsive and naive. Both he and the three girls in the story are being rebellious by doing things that aren’t considered to be the norm, otherwise not conforming to what others think is right.

It is not uncommon for teen aged kids to go through periods of rebellion. At this time of their lives when their hormones are raging they are basically looking to find themselves and doing things that make them feel good. Updike uses what can be viewed as a typical teenage boy for the protagonist first person narrator of this story. Sammy is a nineteen year old boy who works as a cashier at a local A&P in a Boston suburb. His story begins when three young girls walk into the store barefooted wearing bathing suits. He makes it easy to see that he has great interest in these girls by his in-depth descriptions of them; this is about the first girl:

The one that caught my eye first was the one in the plaid green two-piece. She was a chunky kid, with a good tan and a sweet broad soft-looking can with those two crescents of white just under it, where the sun never seems to hit, at the top of the backs of her legs. (Updike 610)

It appears that he has put a little more time and effort into this new customer; he may not be able to describe other customers with such detail. As Sammy gives us his view of the second girl he goes into greater detail with his assumptions of what other people may think about her as well:

A tall one, with black hair that hadn’t quite frizzed right, and one of those sunburns right across under the eyes, and a chin that was too long—you know, the kind of girl other girls think is very “striking” and “attractive” but never quite makes it, as they very well know, which is why they like her so much. (Updike 610)

Finally in walks the leader of there group, one Sammy has titled, “Queenie.” Right away he goes into great detail about her entrance. He describes the way that the other two girls followed her throughout the store, assuming that she had convince the other two into coming in dressed in their bathing suits, and that she had to show them how to do it, walking slow and holding themselves straight. (Updike 610) Sammy shows his level of interest in Queenie by describing every detail about her from the color, shape and style of her bathing suit, to the manner in which is sat on her body, “off her shoulders looped loose around the cool tops of her arms, and I guess as a result the suit had slipped a little on her, so all around the top of the cloth there was this shining rim.” (Updike 610) He continues on about her face, skin, neck, and hair stating she was more than pretty and that he didn’t mind seeing this much more of her.

Another way Sammy shows his high level of interest in these three young girls is by how he describes the other shoppers in the A&P. He very negatively describes the customer that is at his register while the girls first walk in. This fifty year old witch is what he calls, “a cash-register-watcher” and his error of ringing up an item twice by accident has definitely made her day. (Updike 610) He finishes up his description of her by stating, “By the time I got her feathers smoothed and her goodies into a bag—she gives me a little snort in passing, if she’d been born at the right time they would have burned her over in Salem.” (Updike 610) Once again stating how much of a witch he thought she was. Another instance where Sammy shows his dislike for the other customers is when the girl walk down the aisle in front of his register, doing what he calls walking against the grain of traffic while “the sheep pushing their carts down the aisle.” (Updike 611) He describes the reaction the girls got while walking down that aisle, causing numerous looks, including a few housewives who had to do a double take to make sure they had seen correctly.

The young girls did more than catch the attention of the “sheep” as Sammy liked to call them. In order to back up Sammy’s interest in these girls he tells of responses of agreement from two of his fellow co-workers who apparently feel the same way he does. The other cashier working at the A&P that day was named Stokesie and he said to Sammy as the girls walked past, “Oh Daddy…..I feel so faint.” (Updike 611) Also, the man at the meat counter named McMahon who after giving directions to the girls, “patted his mouth and looked after them sizing up their joints.” (Updike 611)

However, the sheep weren’t the only ones who did not approve of their attire as much as the boys did. The manager of the A&P Mr. Lengel walks through the front door and everyone’s luck had run out, it’s what Sammy says is the saddest part of the story. (Updike 612) Mr. Lengel walks over to the girls and tells them that they are not at the beach and that the A&P requires its customers to be “decently dressed.” (Updike 612) Queenie stands up herself and says, “We are decent.” The girls try to give their side of the story saying that they were only coming in to buy one item, but this fell upon deaf ears when Lengel asks Sammy to just ring up their purchase so they can leave. (Updike 613) Sammy does as he has been told.

Sammy however has something build up inside of him, be it courage or stupidity and cannot let this be the final moment between himself and these three young girls. Before the girls are out of earshot Sammy tells Mr. Lengel that he quits, and that “you didn’t have to embarrass the girls the way you did.” (Updike 613) Sammy attempts to be the hero for these young girls, even though by the time it was all played out they had left the building. At this point it didn’t matter to him though, it was his way of standing up for himself and what he thought was right.

At the end Sammy had lost his job for three girls who he hadn’t even spoken to. But just like the three girls who walked into an A&P with no shoes on and wearing only bathing suits he was doing something rebellious by standing up to his boss and quitting his job on his own terms. In Sammy’s mind he had done something heroic, something he probably didn’t think he was capable of. Even though he knew his parents would be upset with him and he realized that he “felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter” (Updike 614) but at least he still didn’t have to check the sheep through the line day after day.

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