Sammy, an immature and impulsive 19-year old in Updike’s short story, “A&P,” allows infatuation with a scantily clad girl to override his common sense and good judgment.
His juvenile thoughts spur a chivalrous act that may have long-term consequences on his career and the relationship with his parents. Sammy’s foolish decision to quit his job as a supermarket cashier is based merely on lust, and he almost instantly regrets his futile move to woo the fleeting girl.
Sammy’s base impulse is to ogle and crudely assess three young girls who enter the Boston-area A&P where he runs the register. These girls, in their summer bathing suits, captivate and stun the seemingly adolescent Sammy. He assesses the first young girl as a “chunky kid, with a good tan and a sweet broad soft-looking can.”
This crude reaction indicates that Sammy may have misogynistic tendencies. Stunned by sexual thoughts, Sammy makes an eagle-eyed spendthrift’s day when he double-charges her for an item. Then, his misogyny is confirmed when he humorously surmises that if his perturbed customer had “been born at the right time they would have burned her over in (nearby) Salem.”
Sammy then trains his probing eyes upon the majestic young girl, the “queen,” who will quickly become his undoing. He is infatuated by the bare top of her chest that glistens, unshielded by her downed bathing suit straps.
He is smitten with her looks and the way she carries herself, but he demeans and minimizes any thoughts and intelligence this girl may possess. Sammy’s chauvinistic, superior attitude is glaringly exposed when he wonders “how girls’ minds work (do you really think it’s a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glassjar?)” Based on his upcoming actions, perhaps Sammy is the one with the tiny, insect-like brain.
The lustful, arrogant Sammy is among his kind as he observes most of his male co-workers. His married, slightly older cohort, Stokesie, and the older meat counter attendant, McMahon, seem just as prone to ogle and demean any cute young things who enter the store.
Sammy holds other customers in contempt as he mocks them as dull compliant “sheep” that mindlessly follow their dreary, meaningless routines. Only the store manager, Lengel, is mature and immune to instinctive male sexual impulses. He bluntly confronts the bikini-clad girls and says “this isn’t the beach.”
Sammy then stupidly succumbs to his juvenile mindset by defending the girls and challenging the judgment of his boss. His primitive, simple-minded instincts overwhelm any reasonable thoughts that might suggest restraint and responsibility.
When the “queen” pays the smitten Sammy with a folded dollar bill that has been sweetly lodged between her luscious breasts, his fate is sealed. Sammy reflexively blurts, “I quit.” The prudish Lengel gives the impulsive Sammy a chance to reconsider his brash career decision, but Sammy is committed to his wrong-headed thrust. Almost instantly, his queen flees out of his sight and out of his life forever.
Sammy, recently unemployed, is stranded in the supermarket parking lot with the realization that an impulsive act of chivalry fueled by lust may have altered his life forever. A likely bleak reality emerges as his “stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.”