This interesting short story by John Updike is the chronicle of a few minutes that pass in a grocery store on the northeast coast of the United States, told from the perspective of a young clerk named ‘Sammy’. It is primarily occupied by Sammy’s observations of three young women in bathing suits, who are chastised by the manager for coming into the store with bare shoulders, and being otherwise in a state of undress. Sammy quits his job at the end, apparently in protest of the way the manager treated the young women.
Though they are somewhat below the surface, there are several passages in the story that refer overtly or implicitly to class structures, along with their implications. This paper will examine some of these references, along with the techniques that Updike employs to convey them.
The most obvious element in the story that pertains to class is perhaps the very fact that Sammy is working in the A & P in the first place. It cannot be a high paying job. It is not the sort of job a young man from a wealthy family would either need to have, or have chosen to take on. This point is underscored at the end, when the manager warns Sammy that his parents will not be pleased that he had quit; when Sammy acknowledges this; and in the final sentence of the story, when Sammy suggests that leaving the job is going to make his life difficult. Not all of the patrons of the store are wealthy, of course. Some of them may be poor, or at least poorer than Sammy and his family. But they are there by choice, and he is not. He must serve them. He must tolerate their rudeness, as Sammy does at the beginning when an older woman criticizes him for ringing up the same item twice. Sammy’s abrupt and perhaps irrational resignation from his job is likely (at least partially) a reaction to some of these facts.
The young women themselves are likely of a relatively high social and economic class. They are not working jobs, at least on the day in question. Sammy surmises that at least one of them is wearing a new bathing suit. They are apparently having a day of more-or-less complete leisure. They feel entitled to walk into the store, despite likely realizing that it is socially inappropriate for them to do so in their bathing suits, and even without shoes. The one that Sammy calls ‘Queenie’, as the leader of the trio, is likely of a higher socio-economic class than the other two. She is the most attractive, and there is a statistical correlation between beauty and wealth. (Beautiful women tend both to marry wealthy men, and to have attractive offspring.) The other two young women follow her.
Indeed, they have followed her into this store for a fairly trivial reason—to buy a jar of herring snacks for Queenie’s mother—and do not complain when the task takes much longer than it ought to. They appear to be at her disposal. This could not be a function merely of her superior appearance. She is almost certainly better-off financially than the other two. Sammy notes that any young woman who would walk into a store not only in a bathing suit and in bare feet, but with the straps of the suit down, is essentially guaranteed to be beautiful, and therefore privileged. The young women also pay no heed to the directions in which the other customers are walking around the store, or through the eyes—another sign of entitlement.
There are less obvious observations made by Sammy that concern class. Sammy refers to a few ‘house-slaves’ in pin-curlers doing their shopping. This is a sign that the women in question are middle- or lower-class, for example. Lower-class patrons cannot afford to take the time to go to a shop to buy a single item, as Queenie does. The manager’s overreaction to the girls’ appearance may be viewed as a kind of rebellion of the working-class against people of leisure. At the very end there is a description of a woman screaming with her children over some candy they did not get, as they move in the parking lot toward their Falcon station wagon. Both the screaming over candy, and the car, suggest that this woman is of lower-middle or lower-class, socioeconomically speaking.
What devices does Updike use to convey these suggestions about class? The setting has already been mentioned. There are those who have to be at the store, and those that do not. The interaction between the manager and Queenie is used, not only to mark the mild rebellion of the manager, but also to exhibit Queenie’s finally recollecting that he has to be there, and she does not. She lives in a place from which the crowd at the A & P must look crummy. Herring snacks are also, along with caviar, not the sort of food that the lower socio-economic classes are likely to purchase or consume. Perhaps the electric eye (security camera) is utilized to symbolize the sort of supervision that the lower-classes are subjected to, that does not trouble the well-off. Its repeated mention suggests this, as does Sammy’s passing by it one last time in his final act of defiance toward the world—a world that has given him the life of a worker, rather than of a young man of leisure that Queenie and her crew might be interested in.