Updike and the Journey to the Ideal

Article Posted in: Research Articles

Paper by Charles Popp
Published in January 2018, Volume IV, Issue XXXVI



John Updike’s Sammy from “A&P” is a boy trying hard to grow into a fully functioning adult. He is either a lazy teenager who quits his job or a Joycean character on a quest of self-understanding. Critics have seen him as noble, a show-off, or simply ambiguous.

He thinks to make rude and objectifying comments towards his customers and three young women in bathing suits will somehow make him more adult.  Updike spends much time showing exactly how much Sammy dislikes his job, located in an A&P grocery store, a little island isolated from the larger outside world with excessive rules, boring products, and people he can do without. Sammy describes his surroundings with an attitude of absolute disgust. The customers are sheep or register watchers. Something he is sure that he is not. He thinks he is destined for something better, but he has no idea what.

When the inappropriately dressed “girls” come in, his hormones and disgust with his current situation merge together and create a life-changing event that is either positive or negative. One reading of this text can show that the girls caused him to quit his job, but a closer reading of the text will show exactly what this event actually means to Sammy. When he thinks about how hard the world is going to be, does this idea have to be a negative for Sammy? He is functioning in a nice safe island of conformity and commerce that does not satisfy him intellectually or emotionally. Does he really want to free himself from a responsibility-free world, or is his action motivated by something deeper? Sammy needs a world where his ideas are important to him, where his ideal, his mind and thoughts matter. Sammy will discover that he needs to cast off into the wide world that holds so many more possibilities than he has now.



John Updike’s Sammy from “A&P” is a boy trying hard to grow into a fully functioning adult. He is either a lazy teenager who quits his job or a Joycean character on a quest of self-understanding. Critics have seen him as noble, a show-off, or simply ambiguous.  Does he want to free himself from a responsibility-free world, or is his action motivated by something deeper?  A close reading of the text and relevant and recent research will show exactly what Sammy is thinking at the end of his story.


“In walks three girls in nothing but bathing suits” (Updike 17). From the very first line of the text, we are in Sammy’s brain. Updike’s text is an exploration of an adolescent mind, and how it can mature and grow. At this point in Sammy’s development, the only thing he can think of is the bathing suits. His initial hormonal reaction is all he has. “Sammy’s vision is a part of the central dramatic irony in revealing how little Sammy knows of a larger world…” (Saldivari 3). The world around him will not “break the shell of the boy’s innocence” (Dessner 316), but this phase will change.

Sammy continues his description of the girls, ”She was a chunky kid, with a good tan and a sweet broad soft-looking can with those two crescents of white just under it” (17). Only physical objectification is the main point for Sammy’s mind at this point, but he also notices something else from the floor of the store. ”I stood  there with my hand on a box of HiHo crackers…” (17). Why does Updike have Sammy see this specific box of crackers? He sees a specific brand of crackers that are just as important as the girls in the bathing suits. If Sammy were simply driven by sexual impulses alone, these crackers would not be mentioned. Something far more complicated is going on in Sammy’s mind.

Sammy mentions another interesting item on the store floor, ”She’s one of these cash-register-watcher’s, a witch about fifty with rouge on her cheekbones and no eyebrows, and I know it made her day to trip me up” (48). Sammy insults his customers every chance he gets, in his own mind only, but he still thinks little of them. He even thinks they are against him and somehow are happy when he makes a mistake. Sammy does not have a future in food service or customer service, a fact that will become quite important as Sammy clarifies his own mind.

As Sammy continues to critique and objectify the girls he goes beyond the merely physical. “You never know for sure how girls’ minds work (do you really think it’s a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar?)” (18). Sammy certainly has no idea how girls’ minds work as he only looks at the physical or his own limited ideas of how the world is.  If Sammy stays as he is, he will never grow into a self-actualizing human. He needs something to break him out of his limited existence, something to force him away from his safe harbor; and Updike will provide this event by the end of the text.

Sammy adds more objectification as he continues to observe the girls. “With the straps pushed off, there was nothing between the top of the suit and the top of her head except just her…the longer her neck was, the more of her there was” (18). For relationships, all Sammy is capable of at this stage in his development is teenage heterosexual fantasy. The idea of an actual relationship with the girls is not in his comprehension at this stage of his development. The idea of talking to the girls never actually enters Sammy’s mind. Patrick Shaw explains, “….he has no idea what is inside the girls, no sensitivity to their psychology or sexual subtlety. His awareness stops with their sweet cans and ice-cream breasts” (322).Toni Saldivar explains these ideas of Sammy’s as an allusion to Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. (2). Sammy can see the outward beauty, but the souls of the girls remain a mystery to him.

Having gone almost as far as he can in the physical and mental descriptions of the girls, Updike has Sammy return to the products on the store floor. To further the description of Sammy, Updike has Sammy mention, “the cat-and-dog-food-breakfast-ceral-macaroni-rice-raisins-seasonings-spreads-spaghetti-soft-drinks-crackers-and-cookies aisle” (18). Like the Hi-ho crackers mentioned earlier, these products are mentioned by Sammy to further prove how bored he is and how useless he considers his current position. They are “brand name symbolism…which have meaningful associations” for Sammy’s distaste for his current situation (McFarland 97). Indeed, Walter Wells compares “A&P” to Joyce’s “Araby” as he explains the store is a “temple of modern consumerism” (3), void of depth and serious content. By the end of the text when Sammy loses this position, Sammy realizes the temple and the products have no value to him. He would never have had a satisfying life working at this place that distributes these boring mundane products.

Updike furthers his point about Sammy having no future at his current position when Sammy returns to criticizing the customers. “The sheep pushing their carts down the aisle…I bet you could set off dynamite in an A&P and the people would, by and large, keep reaching and checking off oatmeal on their lists…” (19). To Sammy, the people who use the store are just barely alive. They have nothing of importance in their lives and so they must keep returning to the store, the temple of consumerism. Sammy knows there should be more to life than this sort of existence, but he does not know how to change his situation, yet.

Before we come to the crisis and climax of Sammy’s tale, Updike adds some final points to fully explain Sammy’s mental state. “Oh Daddy…I feel so faint” (19). These words were said by Stokesie, one of Sammy’s coworkers. Sammy explains,” Stokesie’s married, with two babies chalked up on his fuselage”(19). One more coworker is named McMahon and he was, ”patting his mouth and looking after them sizing up their joints. Poor kids…” (19). To Sammy, the fact that Stokesie is married and has two children only counts as something to chalk up on one’s fuselage. Apparently, this chalking is something   Sammy has not done and can only think of in his undeveloped mind. As for McMahon, we must remember that this tale is told through Sammy’s eyes only. Is McMahon patting his mouth with some lustful gesture towards the girls or is this just what Sammy wants to be happening? Either way, both Stokesie and McMahon are stuck in their situation and they do not even realize how bad it is. Sammy has no respect for them because Sammy is beginning to understand that there should be something better. Sammy’s ideas are beginning to change when he calls them “Poor Kids.”

As Updike leads us to the end of the text, he has Sammy explain, “Now here comes the sad part of the story, at least my family says it’s sad but I don’t think it’s sad myself” (19).  Sammy will lose his job, and his family will think it is bad because it will be hard to find another job. Some critics have tried to make this a bad event for Sammy. Patrick Shaw thinks that when he quits his job, “he places his soul in direst jeopardy” trying to compare Sammy with “Young Goodman Brown” (323). Walter Wells, mentioned earlier, continues his comparison with Joyce’s “Araby” when he states Sammy’s frustration comes from his “infatuation with a beautiful but inaccessible girl” (128). Two important events will happen that will show Sammy’s soul is not in jeopardy but will actually be saved by an act of self-actualization, and the girl is only one of several problems that Sammy is concerned with. Sammy will make a decision separate from his family, a decision based on what he thinks is important, and he will leave a job that he has no respect for because he knows his life should be more than this useless island of commerce and conformity.

Updike has Sammy make a few final sexist comments, which further show how complicated Sammy’s mind really is. “…she lifts a folded dollar bill out of the hollow at the center of her nubbled pink top. The jar went heavy in my hand. Really, I thought that was so cute” and “I increase the bill tenderly as you may imagine, it just having come from between the two smoothest scoops of vanilla I had ever known were there…” (21). The girls’ bodies are certainly important to Sammy at this time of his development, but they are also connected to other elements in Sammy’s life. Sammy suggests that the girl’s bodies, like the products, criticized earlier “are merely objects to be observed, handled, and used” (Thompson 2). He cannot conceive of anything more. But, Updike will let Sammy develop.

Besides insulting the customers, insulting the products, and objectifying the girls, Sammy even manages to make some political statements. “…he’s going to be a manager some sunny day, maybe in 1990 when it’s called the Great Alexandrov and Petrooshki Tea Company or something” (19).  Written at the height of the cold war, this statement could have had serious effects for Sammy, but it does not. Politics have no serious effect for Sammy. In Sammy’s view, if the Soviet Union were to take over the United States, there would be little impact on Sammy’s life. He would still be working at his boring job, with boring products, and mostly boring customers.

Sammy makes one more political statement. “That’s policy for you. Policy is what the kingpins want. What the others want is juvenile delinquency” (20). As with the girls, Sammy is incapable of seeing a larger picture of how society works. He can only see extremes. The idea of working through compromises is beyond him.

The climax of Sammy’s tale occurs when the manager sees the girls. “Girls, I don’t want to argue. After this come in here with your shoulders covered. It’s our policy” (20). Sammy thinks the girls have been insulted and he will have no more excitement if they leave, so he says “I quit” (21). Sammy thinks they “will stop and watch me, their unsuspected hero” (21). The manager tells him, “I don’t think you know what you’re saying….You’ll feel this for the rest of your life” (21).

For the first time in his life, Sammy has made a decision based on something he thinks is important. The girls have been insulted, so he should do something. The girls are the spark that makes Sammy think. “…merely by strolling into the supermarket…they [cause] him to quit his job” (Shaw 322).  They are a spark, and not “legendary sirens-the mythological temptresses who lured unwary males to their destruction” (237), as Harriet Blodgett thinks.  At first, Sammy thinks he is acting for the girls. “I look around for my girls, but they’re gone, of course” (21). Sammy realizes they are not his girls and “of course” they are gone; no sirens here, only catalysts that allow him to think for himself. “In a world devoid of high culture, a world flattened into advertising art and cartoons and with a language to match, Sammy senses, feels and responds imaginatively to the effects of beauty in his own mind” (Saldivari 4). Sammy understands that actions that are externally motivated have no real value.  His mind is what is important.  Sammy is “…effecting his own rescue from an order of thought that demeans his feelings.” (Saldivari 3). The girls are not there to see his heroism. He has made this decision based on his principles.


X.J. Kennedy explains,”…Sammy will have trouble getting another job, but that if he continues to go through life as an uncompromising man of principle, then life from now on is going to be rough” (22). Earlier in the text, Sammy said “I don’t think it’s sad myself” (19), about quitting his job. Sammy may have trouble finding another job but this fact is not important to him. He does not quit his job for the possibility of sex, nor is he sad about losing a job that he despises. “…Sammy comes to see his gesture has been made, for its own sake” (Saldivar 5). He was functioning in a nice safe island of conformity and commerce that did not satisfy him intellectually or emotionally. He had a safe harbor where he could stand back and criticize and not actively participate in the world around him. Sammy needs a world where his ideas are important to him, where his ideal, his mind and thoughts, matter. Now that he has cast off from his safe harbor, he will have to participate. He knows how “hard the world [is] going to be” (21), but he is not sad about it because he can now grow and develop into a self-actualizing human being.  As Gilbert Porter explains,”…he has chosen to live honestly and meaningfully” (1157).


Introduction to the Author:

Charles Popp, the author of this article, is from Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas.



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