Going Against the Grain: "Unity of Effect" in Updike’s “A&P” “A&P” is a short story by John Updike that tells the story of three girls who enter a grocery store and attract quite a bit of attention from: Stokesie, the manager; Lengel, a checkout clerk; and – most of all – Sammy, also a checkout clerk. The story follows the thoughts and actions of Sammy as he observes the three girls who are only dressed in bathing suites. The notable points are Sammy’s interaction with another customer, the interaction with his fellow checkout clerk Stokesie, and ultimately his boss and manager Lengel.The story comes to an unexpected climax after Lengel tells the girls to leave the store because of their indecent clothing and as a result Sammy decides to quit. Throughout this short story, John Updike works towards the reader realizing the negative connotations of rebellion and conformity; this is accomplished through several different narrative devices including – but not limited to – “first person narration” and “the unreliable narrator. The first noticeable narrative device utilized by John Updike is that of “first person narration” where the voice that is created for Sammy is poetically graphic and intentionally provoking; this is clear when one observes how Sammy’s internal narration switches between sharp wit and common slang.
This is also proof that Sammy is capable of clear, intelligent thought even though he is merely nineteen years old. The way he chooses to describe things in his mind is truly remarkable as he refers to one of the girls’ hair as “oaky” and that the light from outside seems like it is “skating around” the parking lot.It is interesting, however, how Updike continually refrains Sammy’s language by beginning his sentences with phrases like “You know” and “Really” which, in effect, keeps the overall language of Sammy seemingly natural. It would make sense to assume that during the course of the story, Updike is deliberately making Sammy use this “natural” language mixed with sharp wit in order for the reader to be able to distinguish Sammy’s voice from that of Updike himself.Indeed it would ruin the story if Updike used Sammy’s voice to be a stand-in for Updike, or a spokesman for the “authorial” point of view. Another narrative device that Updike makes use of during this story is that of an “unreliable” narrator, which essentially means that Sammy voice, which narrates the entire story, should not be simply accepted as infallible, but rather that Sammy’s narration should be thoroughly analyzed.This concept of the “unreliable” narrator is made clear when one looks at Sammy’s comment on the female mind and how it is completely unknowable; this needs to be taken not as Updike’s general feeling on the particular topic, but rather an account in the characters voice.
The device of “unreliable” narrator can be made even more clearly in the example where Sammy says that “once you begin a gesture it’s fatal not to go through with it” (343). This can absolutely not be a statement that Updike intended the reader to think he himself was saying.Updike put these words in the mouth of Sammy because they represent an idea that is highly debatable which is coming from a nineteen year old who just might have reason to regret the actions he completes. Understanding this narrative device in Updike’s story is essential to being able to grasp the true plot of “A&P,” which is the slow revelation of a young man’s character. The final narrative device that will be described here is that of John Updike’s excellent use of “symbolism” throughout the entire short story that gives rise to the originality of Sammy’s thinking and the town in general.One notable use of “symbolism” within Updike’s story is that of colors. “Holding a little gray jar in her hand” (341), “Stokesie with his usual luck draws an old party in baggy gray pants” (341), “Lengel sighs and begins to look very patient and old and gray” (343).
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With the above examples pointing towards Updike’s use of the color gray, it is even more important then to notice that the only things that are described in color are the three girls.It could be interpreted that the fact of everything being gray besides the girls shows how the only things important to Sammy at that moment are the girls. In order for Updike to characterize the town, he decides to use animals. “The sheep pushing their carts down the aisle – the girls were walking against the usual traffic” (339-340). The symbolism is fairly obvious as sheep are known to simply do what the group does and not to change their routine; they don’t think on their own, they just follow each other.This could possibly symbolize how tight knit the community was, or how these three girls were an unwelcomed break in the towns routine. Through these three narrative devices, it is clear to see that in Updike’s telling of Sammy the checkout clerk, the reader is supposed to get a sense of the negative connotations of rebellion and conformity.
The reader is forced to critically analyze the decisions and thoughts that Sammy makes as a result of the three girls entering “A&P”, as well as notice the downfalls of stringent, unwavering conformity.
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