Literary Criticism for John Updike “A&P”

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John Updike is considered to be one of the greatest modern American writers. He was able to use his All-American upbringing as inspiration for a lot of his writing, making it relatable to many people. Updike was born in Reading, Pennsylvania on March 18, 1932. He moved around in the area during his childhood, and the rural Pennsylvania setting of his youth is often reflected in his writing. His father was a school teacher and his mother was an aspiring writer. He excelled in school, and worked for his local newspaper. Updike was granted a scholarship to Harvard, and went on to study at Oxford in England. He was first published in 1958, and released a book of poetry.

He continued to be published, and in 1963 he received the National Book Award for his book entitled The Centaur. The next year he became the youngest person ever elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Updike consistently wrote throughout the 60s and 70s. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for his novel Rabbit is Rich, and again in 1991 for Rabbit at Rest. He continued to write into his later years. John Updike died in Massachusetts at the age of 76 due to lung cancer (

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The following series of published literary criticisms focus on John Updike’s short story “A&P.” It is one of his more famous short stories. The selected critiques analyze the story in terms of its style, theme, or literary devices. Subsequent to the article responses is a literary criticism based on a personal reflection to the story and its ties to modern society using evidence from the original text.

Title of Source: The art of John Updike’s “A&P”
Author: Toni Saldivar
Search Engine: ProQuest Literature Module
Website: ProQuest
Web Address:

Toni Saldivar’s essay entitled, “The art of John Updike’s ‘A&P,’” is a literary criticism of the famous short story. The main argument of the article states that Updike uses allusions to art in order to increase the romanticism of the story, and that dramatic irony is significant to the construction of the meaning of plot for a reader. The introduction emphasizes the importance of this short story in terms of American literature. The piece was first published in The New Yorker, and therefore assumes that the reader has a certain amount of knowledge that is required to fully appreciate the writing. The next section gives a synopsis of the story and an explanation of the main character, Sammy, a nineteen year old boy.

According to Saldivar, the overall focus of the essay is to show how Sammy is not only starting to come to terms with the reality of modern society, but also his own cultural role, including his sexuality. In relation to this assertion, the article argues that the reader can only understand Sammy, and truly enjoy the story if they are able to sense the dramatic irony and romanticism of the plot. The story is full of metaphors, but the most important one is not explicitly written in the original text. The reader is supposed to make the connection between Sammy’s description of the young girl and Botticelli’s Venus. The dramatic irony comes from how Sammy is able to allude to things that are beyond his scope of knowledge. He knows there is a world beyond his suburban bubble, but he knows nothing about it.

Evaluation of Criticism:
This literary criticism is very abstract in nature, but provides strong textual evidence to support its claims. Once it is understood that Updike wrote the story for an intended audience, it makes sense that the plot contains elements that connect to classic art and also relies on subtle dramatic irony. However, the article is long-winded in its explanation of the connection. It provides numerous examples from the original text, and also uses art criticism of the Venus for further evidence. It also repeats its thesis statement in various places and in numerous ways. The driving point is that understanding the allusion to Botticelli, and grasping the elements of Sammy that can only be read between the lines is essential to appreciating the story for all that it is worth.

This literary criticism is useful because it illustrates how the arts are connected, in this case, writing and painting. The arts are fluid and can translate between different mediums. The story is considered modern, but the painting is a classic. The character of Sammy is also meant to be relatable, even to future generations. The essay is well researched and soundly written; it is a good example of what a published literary criticism should look like.

Title of Source: Irony and Innocence in John Updike’s ‘A&P’ Author: Lawrence Jay Dessner
Search Engine: Literature Resource Center
Website: Gale
Web Address:

The critical essay by Lawrence Jay Dessner explains the importance of the themes of irony and innocence in John Updike’s short story “A&P.” The essay begins with a short summary of the story, and introduces the character of Sammy. Dessner argues that the story depends on irony. The reader expects a certain action and reaction from Sammy, but instead he does the opposite. This irony provides an innocent air of humor due to Sammy’s lack of world knowledge and youthful outlook on life. The remainder of this literary criticism analyzes Sammy’s interactions with the other characters in the book, including the difficult customer, the girls, and the grumpy manager.

Evaluation of Criticism:
This particular literary criticism is short, but also very clear. It does not waste time explaining every detail of the plot because it assumes the reader is already familiar with it. The purpose of the essay is to provide a meaning to the story that goes beyond the original text. The argument is that the story relies on the irony and innocence of Sammy’s character. The author makes his assertions, and provides textual evidence to back up each claim. Although the story itself has a tone of vagueness in terms of its characters, the author of this essay gets very specific when analyzing the meaning behind the character’s actions. The arguments in this criticism are concrete, and provide good insight to John Updike’s influential story.

Title of Source: Sammy’s Erotic Experience: Subjectivity and Sexual Difference in John Updike’s ‘A & P’ Author: Greg W. Bentley
Search Engine: Literature Resource Center
Website: Gale
Web Address:

The essay begins with an introduction of the story, and a short summary of the plot. This literary criticism reveals its argument right away, and that is that the story’s popularity stems from its sexual nature, and that it portrays a feminist message through the perspective of a male. The argument also goes on to say that this message creates a distinct type of irony. The main character of the story, Sammy, has an erotic experience, but it is not inappropriate, simply a rite of passage. Citing an expert in feminism, the author argues that men and women are not very physically different in terms of sexuality, but are biologically different.

Textual evidence is also used to prove this claim. The essay points out that Sammy’s struggle comes from the reactions of the other men in the story. The other men provide an example of conventional masculinity, but Sammy has his own feelings and opinions of women that differ from the other men. The article focuses on the sexuality and eroticism of the story, but makes sure to present these themes in an intellectual and healthy way.

Evaluation of Criticism:
Greg W. Bentley’s critical essay takes a controversial theme of Updike’s short story, and reflects upon it in a very intellectual manner. The author makes sure to introduce and explain the feminist theories that are essential to essay’s argument. Citing a credible expert and using evidence from the original text make the essay easy to follow and understand. At first glance the essay may seem abstract, but to the contrary, it is very realistic. This literary criticism points out that America responds to sex. The setting of this short story is a microcosm in the macrocosm that is American culture, and sex plays a large role in that culture.

This piece also explains the difference between girls and women by using the girls in the story as an example. Updike wrote this story during a time of great change in American culture; things were loosening up. Sex was something that was once never spoken about, but now is accepted as a rite of passage. The author is right in saying that sex appeals to Americans, that is what makes this story so relevant to even the modern reader. Works Cited

Bentley, Greg W.. “Sammy’s Erotic Experience: Subjectivity and Sexual Difference in John Updike’s ‘A & P’.” Journal of the Short Story In English 43 (2004): 121-141. Gale Group. Web. 18 Nov. 2013. Dessner, Lawrence Jay. “Irony and Innocence in John Updike’s ‘A&P’.” Studies in Short Fiction 25.3 (1998): 315-317. Gale Group. Web. 18 Nov. 2013. “John Updike Biography.” — Academy of Achievement. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2013. . Saldivar, Toni. “The art of John Updike’s “A&P”.” Studies in Short Fiction 1 (1997): 215-225. ProQuest Central. Web. 18 Nov. 2013. The Satirical Appeal of “A&P” in Past and Contemporary Media The following essay is a literary criticism of John Updike’s well known short story “A&P.” The story was popular when it was first published in the 1960s, and remains popular today. Some stories are able to retain a timeless appeal.

Themes like sex and youth coming to mature realizations are still popular tools for modern writers. Updike’s satirical approach in “A&P” makes it a relatable story for other pieces of literature, but also modern media such as television and film. The story is set in a small New England town, and it is an average day. Three young girls enter the store where Sammy, a young cashier, works. He watches and analyzes their every move, and tries to guess their personalities based on body language. Sammy identifies the leader girl as “Queenie,” and takes most interest in her. The girls are only dressed in bathing suits, and gain the attention of the other men working in the store as well. This causes tension between the male characters, and causes Sammy to wonder about his own future in comparison to his male peers. Sammy does not like seeing the girls being objectified.

The manager kicks the girls out based on their inappropriate attire. In an unexpected response and strange attempt to honor the girls, Sammy quits the job, and leaves the store, but immediately is overwhelmed by the uncertain consequences his actions will bring. Many of the modern television shows and movies use similar themes and subject matter as “A&P.” Things like young girls trying to appear older than they are, an awkward young man coming to terms with his sexuality, and the idea of conventional masculinity are all commonly found in the media. The question of how an adolescent girl’s mind works is that one that cannot be easily answered, but attempts are often made. The character of Sammy is virtually clueless about females, and Updike makes this obvious, “You never know for sure how girl’ minds work (do you really think it’s a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar?).”

When this story was written the dynamic between young men and women was not as readily explored, but today it is a source of entertainment. High school dramas have taken over prime time television. However, this story is not one of drama, but rather ironic humor. The reader anticipates Sammy to act like a typical teenage boy, and mirror the actions of his coworker. Instead, he connects to them on a more emotional level, which leads him to act irrationally. Updike turns what could have been another typical teenage story into a satire of society’s expectations on sexuality and gender.

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Literary Criticism for John Updike “A&P”. (2016, Jun 15). Retrieved from

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