Analyzing Sammy’s attitudes helps to reveal more about his character and behavior in the story. John Updike tactfully presents a lusty 19-year-old young man as a protagonist and has his act in a way that Updike refers to as “an act of feminist protest” (Porter 1156). The author describes how Sammy quits his job to demonstrate his respect to the ladies in bathing suits, particularly regarding their right to wear clothes that they wish. By defending their right to wear bathing suits publicly, they motivate Sammy to his performance, who looks at them with a sexual eye (Porter 1156). From this act, it can be concluded that Sammy’s attitude toward women is founded on looks and age. His experiences in A & P represent a genuine erotic demonstration and not just a simple sexual exploration.
According to psychoanalytic semiotics, there is no sexual difference between men and women (Locascio 3). Nevertheless, based on the obvious biological inequality between males and females, culture continuously describes and distinguishes these two categories by physical and sexual groups (Porter 1156). Porter further illustrates that the patriarchal framework favors the male over the female, and a man’s honor is inherent in his sexuality (1156). As Locascio explains, “excellent” male bias cannot be examined without considering ideology (3). Ideology is the mirror that reflects such kinds of biases and is subject to shared make-believe in the equivalence of penis and phallus (Locascio 11). In other words, people’s prevalent narrative is speculated on the idea that the male, based on the strength of his anatomical member, coherently carries the advantaged signifier – the phallus. Society has prioritized an idea about women by assuming that they should be submissive sexually.
Sammy’s observation which opens the story shows how his sexuality depicts his prejudice about women. He first recognizes “three girls in nothing but bathing suits” (Updike 18). From this aspect, he shows his youthful idiomatic creations and indifference, as well as the force of his sexual lust. The part of the sentence that says “in nothing but strips the ladies of even the small outfit that they wore” demonstrates this scenario (Locascio 12). He could not even be distracted by a glance at the old “witch” as he immediately concentrated on the ladies and commented, “They didn’t even have shoes on” (Updike 18). Sammy is fascinated to strip the ladies and see every bit of their anatomical structure.
Sammy’s descriptions of Queenie reveal how dirty his mind can be when he sees a woman. In essence, he says, “She had on a kind of dirty pink—beige maybe, I don’t know—bathing suit with a little nubble all over it and, what got me, the straps were down” (Updike 19). Queenie’s nudity was visible and Sammy maximized this to describe her further. Since the top of her bathing suit has fallen, the rim of bare skin that is now visible to the public is whiter, which could show her nakedness (Updike 19). Sammy sees this slippage of the swimsuit as Queenie’s naked story (Updike 19). His perspective is typical of the period that the story was set as women were undermined, and the prevailing ideology was that of conventional masculinity (Updike 19). Such a belief describes people by their sexual and economic roles (Updike 19). Sammy represents the dominant male in the community culture aiming at misusing women and exercising their masculinity.
Sammy’s attitude towards women is majorly motivated by his inward sexual longing, as he handles the three girls as lovely objects that can be admired. He sexually desires the girl in the green bathing suit by stating “…sweet broad soft-looking can…” and Queenie for her breasts, which he imagines with great delight (Porter 1158). Observations of this type reveal the level of Sammy’s ecstatic acknowledgment of beauty and the inherent hostility in the male stare (Dessner 316). Sammy’s girl-watching causes a warm, enthusiastic longing in the object of his desire and a nastier, more selfish feeling (Updike 19). On certain occasions, Sammy referred to the ladies as “my girls,” showing his possessive spirit. Sammy’s impression of the girls is erotic, and he anticipates only sexual experiences with them.
Sammy shows a male chauvinistic view of ladies while guessing on the mental developments of girls at the beginning of the story. When Sammy gives a description of how Queenie walks, he remarks, “you never know for sure how girls’ minds work.” He adds parenthetically, “Do you really think it’s a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar?” (Updike 20). He does not have a good impression concerning women but concentrates on their absence. He misses to own or represent the quality of reason and reflection that exemplifies conservatively masculine attributes (Updike 20). A man that has chauvinistic perspectives concentrates his mind on girls’ presence (bodies and nakedness), which causes them to be sexually aroused.
Sammy’s sense of aesthetics which displays his conservative masculinity is also evident. Only a conventional man would mind having a comparison of a lady’s buttock as a “dented sheet of metal.” For instance, men of this kind value objects such as cars more than women (McFarland 101). To Sammy’s advantage, he describes Queenie’s oaky hair and her prim face, which he admits is the only type she can possess. Queenie is courageous so that she matches into the A & P with her bathing suit on and her straps not tied (Updike 19). On the other hand, in his previous definitions in which absences denoted presences, the appearance of Queenie’s outstretched head shows her absence – of clothing. In essence, he describes, “She held her head so high her neck, coming up out of those white shoulders, looked kind of stretched, but I didn’t mind (Updike 19). The longer her neck was, the more of her there was (Updike 19).” Evidently, Sammy uses a sensually motivated language that is metaphoric to show how his sexual behaviors are compromised (Updike 19). In his attitude regarding and describing ladies, Sammy exemplifies masculinity, and his lack of bias is speculated on the grounds of sexual disparity.
In conclusion, Sammy is determined in his impressions about women, and he did not allow anyone to challenge his ideology. Thus, he walked out of A & P, a transformed man with a chance to enhance his life. The ladies, who are the secondary characters, are substantial in the story. Even the significant decisions that trigger the change in his life were because of Lengel, Stokesie, and Queenie. In the entire “A & P,” Sammy’s words depict his growth mentally from an immature teenager to a responsible adult who appreciates all women and does not look at them with seductive eyes.
Dessner, Lawrence Jay. “Irony and Innocence in John Updike’s ‘A & P’.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 35, no. 3, 1988, pp. 315–318.
Locascio, Lisa. A Bag of Shocking Pink: Occult Imagery in Contemporary American Fiction by Women. Diss. University of Southern California, 2016. USC Digital Library.
McFarland, Ronald E. “Updike and the Critics: Reflections on ‘A&P’.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 20, no. 2, 1983, pp. 95–101.
Porter, M. Gilbert. “John Updike’s ‘A&P’: The Establishment and an Emersonian Cashier.” The English Journal, vol. 61, no. 8, 1972, pp. 1155–1158.
Updike, John. “A&P.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama and Writing. Edited by X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia, Longman, 2013, pp. 17–21.