Fatal Mistakes: An Analysis of John Updike’s “A & P” Essay

Fatal Mistakes:

An Analysis of John Updike’s “A & P”

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            Do a thing too long, and you begin to go a bit crazy.  You begin to think the world is only as big as what you can see and that it all belongs to you.  Not like you’re the king, but as if you are the center of some big maze you’ve figured out.  You convince yourself that you like the maze—you like it because the other rats in it are your fodder, and as long as this is all there is in the world, and it’s yours, you can sit back and watch the other rats at work, secure in the knowledge that you are the only one who really understands.  Until one day, the outside rushes in, and in the rush you see something you can’t have—something you can’t control, and in that moment, you trade the crazy you have for the crazy you don’t yet know, and you leave the maze.  Looking back as the maze’s door slides shut, you feel the expanse of what the world really is, and you are afraid, but you are free.  This is Sammy’s life; the A & P is the maze; and the outside that rushed in looks a lot like three bathing-suit-clad girls.

            John Updike wastes no time in establishing his narrator’s self-centered world view.  He places Sammy into a smallish, maze-like universe: a grocery store “right in the middle of town” (961).  As a checker, Sammy spends his days watching people go by while standing in judgment of those who have entered his domain.  The stream of humanity that passes Sammy is populated by a variety of customers—all seemingly women—who he describes as “witches,” “sheep,” and “this one[s]” (Updike 959, 960).  It is the “this one[s]” that enter the A & P’s maze and upset the universe that Sammy was so certain he controlled.

            The take-over begins simply—with a distraction.  When the girls enter the A & P, Sammy is caught off guard and finds himself “[standing] there with [his] hand on a box of HiHo crackers trying to remember if [he’d] rung it up or not” (Updike 959).  Since the “witch” at the register is presumed by Sammy as having “been watching cash registers forty years, [ - Fatal Mistakes: An Analysis of John Updike’s “A & P” Essay introduction. . . never having] seen a mistake before,” we can presume that the maze’s predictability has been set askew by the arrival of the girls (959).

            Distractions and mistakes aside, Sammy feels superior to women—all women—and this is made obvious by the way in which he sizes them up.  In addition to the “witch” and “sheep” terms he uses for regular customers, the three girls who are about to change Sammy’s life are described in terms of their physical attributes and the degree to which Sammy is attracted to each.  While he initially admires the girl “in the plaid green two-piece” who has a “good tan and [the] sweet broad soft-looking can with [. . .] two crescents of white just under it,” he later realizes she and girl number two are merely preludes to the one he presumes to be their leader—the one he calls “the queen” (959, 960).  If not for the queen, Sammy “wouldn’t have known there could have been anything whiter than those shoulders,” and what he saw that was whiter was just a bit more of her exposed skin (960, 961).

            Sammy is comfortable with the subordinate role into which he places women; in fact, he seems completely unaware that he is objectifying and marginalizing the women around him—it is a matter of his natural make up.  Additionally, he expresses a clear understanding that women’s brains are a bit empty.  Sammy wonders whether or not “it’s a mind in there or just a buzz like a bee in a glass jar (960).  There is no doubt that Sammy is whole-heartedly mocking women.  In fact, he acts as if doing so is part of the reason he exists—part of the world’s natural order.  It is an indication that he (thinks he) understands the maze and his rule over all who enter it.

            Sammy never expects the carefully structured universes over which he commands to be altered—let alone collapse, but that is exactly what happens.  It never dawns on Sammy, as he is tucked safely behind his register, that the actual power dynamic is the antithesis of what he believes it to be: he is merely a servant to the customers who enter the store.  In fact, he operates like a man who can alter the very nature of the customers he helps.  The “bold” move Sammy makes at the end of the story—quitting—isn’t an act of independence but an act made “hoping [the bathing-suit-clad girls will] stop and watch [him], their unsuspected hero” (Updike 963).

            We do get a brief glimpse of the man Sammy might become—the potential that exists—if only he will admit he is just one of many rats in the maze of life, and that he has no more control over the twists and turns that await him than do the others with whom he must share his space.  After Sammy has told Lengel that he quits, there is a brief exchange during which Sammy admits to his ex-boss and family friend that his act was rash.  Sammy’s epiphany has arrived as he realizes in that moment “that once [a person] begin[s] a gesture it’s fatal not to go though with it” (963).  With no choice remaining, Sammy heads for the door.  Unfortunately, the moment of change has passed, and Sammy seems to have lost his opportunity at redemption.  Heading for the A & P door’s “electric eye,” Sammy thinks to himself that the “one advantage to this scene taking place in summer [. . . is . . . he] can follow [quitting] up with a clean exit [because] there’s no fumbling around getting [his] coat and galoshes” (963-4).

            Sammy’s struggle is relatively private.  He exists the A & P “looking around for [the bathing-suit-clad] girls,” but all he sees are a woman and her “screaming” kids (Updike 964).

There is no one to observe his recent, self-serving act of heroism, and he pathetically mollifies himself by thinking “how hard the world was going to be [thereafter]” (964).  When the dust clears, the reader sees it was not Sammy who controlled his fate, the actions in the A & P, or the events in the world.  It was the random change in an otherwise typical situation that tipped the balance of what was.  Sammy is the same rat running though the bigger maze: the outside world.

Work Cited

Updike, John.  “A & P.”  The Writer’s Presence: A Pool of Readings.  5th ed.  Ed. Donald McQuade, and Robert Atwan.  Boston: Bedford, 2006.  959-964.

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