To understand all the peculiarities of the author’s message and to analyze his ideas and themes appropriately, it is always necessary to pay much attention to the historical context of the work. “A&P” is one of the most popular short stories written by John Updike which was published in 1961.
The main character of the story is Sammy, a teenager, who tries to rebel against the system and structure of social norms represented in the text in the form of rules and standards typical for the A&P stores. His rebellion is a local reflection of those ideas, ideological and cultural changes which were developed in the society of the USA in the 1960’s.
The 1960’s in the USA were the period of confrontations on all the levels of political, economical, social, and cultural life. The country experienced the effects of the postwar period which could be interpreted as the prosperity. The society required the further development which could also be associated with various social and cultural aspects.
That is why the character of Sammy can be considered as one of the first representations or embodies of the critics which is directed toward the definite aspects of social life and peculiarities of social limitations and boundaries in the public’s minds which were supported by the consumers’ ideology.
Sammy is a young cashier at the A&P store who is not afraid to act against the system in the market and against the whole social system as it can be discussed with references to the historical context of the story. That is why it is possible to analyze the peculiarities of the conflict between obedience and rebellion according to the analysis of the main character’s actions and behaviors in John Updike’s “A&P”.
In this ironic story which is given from the first narrator the conflict of the mass’s visions of the rules and morality which depend on the principles of consumerism develops in connection with the new opinions on freedom from the prejudices.
Nevertheless, Sammy’s cynical romanticism is only the result of his young age. In their book Miller and Nash discuss the character of Icarus as the most typical character in art who is inclined to act impulsively and rebel against the conventionalities because of his youth and immaturity.
Sammy rebels not against the idea, he rebels against the possibility to become such a person who can be dependent on the standards, conditions, and rules which are not pleasant and unnecessary for him. It was typical for the rebelling movements of the 1960’s to be developed against the system which is not directed to people and their needs, but only requires the constant obedience to its norms.
Thus, there are several key points in the story which accentuate the social aspects typical for the 1960’s. In spite of the fact that this story was published in 1961, the details which are depicted in it can be considered as definite predictions.
The most impressive symbol which can be analyzed as the forecast of the Cold War in the story is the result of Sammy’s imagination when he thinks about the A&P, the role of Russia and the USA in the development of the system of consumerism, “I forgot to say he thinks he’s going to be manager some sunny day, maybe in 1990 when it’s called the Great Alexandrov and Petrovski Tea Company or something” (Updike 1205).
Moreover, Sammy’s opposition to the authority of Lengel can also be considered as the reflection of the further conflicts between the youth’s visions and authorities in the 1960’s.
However, the theme of obedience and rebellion in the story does not depend merely on Sammy’s actions. It is three girls who draw the public’s attention and break the norms. Their behavior is considered as challengeable by the consumers in the store and by the manager.
Yet, they only have inappropriate dresses for the situation and accentuate this fact. What becomes usual for the late 1960’s is a real challenge for 1961. Nevertheless, Sammy’s reactions are rather different from those presented by the consumers and the manager. He is inspired by the girls and their freedom.
The author ironically emphasizes the meaning of the norms provided by the society which can easily restrict the public and be broken by that public as well. In this situation the bathing suits are the challenge, but the society is ready to discuss it. This part of free youth people is presented in the character of Sammy who does not want to think like Stokesie and to look like Lengel. It is not his choice.
Sammy is opposite to “sheep” and “houseslaves” whom he can observe every day at work (Updike 1206). The author uses these ironical names in order to emphasize the attitude of Sammy toward the audience which he can observe every day and express his opposition to them. “The sheep [people] pushing their carts down the aisle – the girls were walking against the usual traffic (not that we have one-way signs or anything) – were pretty hilarious” (Updike 1206).
To be free from such conventionalities and prejudices means to rebel against them and not to depend on them. The conflict which is developed in the story with the help of the author’s several strict touches and observations associated with the girls’ dresses and Sammy’s reactions evolutes in the society of the 1960’s in the form of the hippy movement and different conceptions about freedom.
It is the conflict between generations which is common for many periods, but it was extremely vivid and influential for the historical, cultural and social development of the country during that period. These girls are not afraid to represent their uniqueness which can be expressed in such a provocative way. Analyzing the reactions of the public and the sense of this provocation, Sammy understands that the manner of living and acting he follows now is not the way to his better life.
The problem is in the fact that Sammy as a number of young persons in the 1960’s does not want to obey and prefer to rebel the structure and system which is not pleasant for him. However, because of his indefiniteness he really does not know what he wants in fact.
Is it a real desire or an attempt to prove his confidence and personal freedom? To rebel the system, the main character of the story is inclined to lose his job. It is the act which supports the girls’ actions and “decency”, but it is not his real intention which is meaningful or significant for him. However, he states, “it seems to me that once you begin a gesture it’s fatal not to go through with it” (Updike 1206).
That inner monologue of Sammy which the readers can observe while reading the short story can be considered as typical for many young persons of that period who wanted to find themselves and become real individuals and strong personalities.
The author presents vivid and emphatic Sammy’s considerations about the principles of the social system, the importance of the social status and with the help of offering Sammy’s dreams and beliefs he focuses on those aspects which are significant for the majority of young people when they start their life as adults.
The ignorance of the rules, the devotion to the contrasting conflicts and rebellions are not all the features characterized for the youth not only in the 1960’s but also during various historical periods.
Nevertheless, in this work Updike presents his vision of the problem with the help of Sammy’s thoughts’ depiction. In spite of the fact that his ideas and actions, the intentions to quit the job can be considered as immature, John Updike uses this situation in the social and historical context only for the expression of the total immaturity of the youth when they put all their forces for rebelling.
The historical context is rather significant for analyzing “A&P” which was written by John Updike and published in 1961 because the main idea and theme of this short story reflect the peculiarities of the social and cultural life in the USA of the 1960’s. It is necessary to discuss the ideas of personal rebellion with references to the ideology of social rebellion against the outdated norms and principles.
Updike, John. “A&P”. Connections: Literature for Composition. Ed. Quentin Miller and Julie Nash. USA: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. 1204-1210. Print.