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The Gendered Power Struggles in “A & P” and “I Want a Wife”

In John Updike’s “A & P” and Judy Brady’s “I Want a Wife,” both authors are showcasing the various power struggles that occur in relationships between men and women.

Both stories are written with a kind of sarcasm—in “A & P,” the narrator has a very sardonic view of the world which is clearly demonstrated in his narration, and in “I Want a Wife,” the entire piece is clearly written with a strong sense of irony.  Despite the tongue-in-cheek approach both of these stories take, both are addressing the a very prevalent social issue: the gendering of power.

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In “A & P,” Sammy (the narrator) spends much of the story describing these three adolescent girls who were brazen enough to walk into the A & P wearing nothing but swimsuits, right down to their bare feet.  Sammy focuses on one girl in particular, the one he refers to as “Queenie,” who is clearly the “leader” of the group and who oozes self-confidence.

Queenie struts around the store with an obliviousness to the attention she is receiving from the men in a way that can only be deliberate—she is aware that she is being gazed at, as an attractive young woman wearing a bathing suit in a grocery store with the straps falling down her arms, yet she chooses to ignore the attention, as if it just wasn’t relevant to her.

The other male employees of the store also pay careful attention to her, and signal to Sammy about the girls, but Sammy describes her in an almost reverential way (as opposed to strictly sexual), even down to the way she walks: “She came down a little hard on her heels, as if she didn’t walk in her bare feet that much, putting down her heels and then letting the weight move along to her toes as if she was testing the floor with every step, putting a little deliberate extra action into it” (PAGE #).

Queenie presents herself as the female body to be viewed, welcoming the male gaze, yet also rejecting it as something she does not need.  This is her power: she permits the men to look, but doesn’t give them the satisfaction of knowing that she is aware.  Sammy falls victim to this power of hers, the power of the intentionally unreciprocated gaze, to the point of quitting his job because he wanted to be “their unsuspected hero” (PAGE #).  In this power struggle, Queenie wins.

But there is another which she fails—a power struggle with a man who is unimpressed with her presence, whose own authority is of more importance.  This man is the store manager, and he embarrasses Queenie and her friends by calling attention to their inappropriate attire.  Queenie stands up for herself, “getting sore now that she remembers her place, a place from which the crowd that runs the A & P must look pretty crummy” (PAGE #).

Perhaps the man was simply trying to exert his authority over his domain; perhaps he was intentionally trying to humiliate these young girls because as an adult male he possesses the power and authority to do so.  Regardless, he made Queenie blush—only a slight chink in her armor, but as he was the first to successfully make her self-conscious about her attire, Lengel won that power struggle.  And as a result, young Sammy, still very much under Queenie’s spell, quits.

In “I Want a Wife,” Judy Brady takes a much more obvious stab at the power struggle between genders.  In this story-essay, Brady begins by noting that her newly-divorced male friend is looking for another wife, which turns her introspective and she herself begins citing all the various reasons why she, too, would like a wife.

There is a lot of latent anger and bitterness in this piece—basically, by taking the narrative form of lauding all the advantages of having a wife, she is in effect creating a highly accusatory assault on men and how they take advantage of their wives.  The portrait she paints is one of lazy, ungrateful, thankless men who appreciate nothing their wives do and instead come to just expect it.  The recipient man of the wife Brady is describing is really nothing more than an emotional child, with the needs and demands and expectations of a spoiled child.

Brady outlines how the wife does all the cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, childcare, shopping, working to put the husband through school, housework, entertaining, constantly there to meet all physical and emotional needs of the children and husband, never questioning anything, doing it all without complaint, remaining forever loyal and faithful, and expected to just leave quietly when the selfish child-like husband decides to replace her with a newer, younger, prettier wife.  Here the power struggle is the woman’s forced silence.  Brady is speaking on behalf of many “houseslaves” (as Sammy in “A & P” referred to them) who must suffer in silence.

The whole point of this piece is to display how much the woman does suffer in silence, while also reiterating the fact that it is and must be in silence because that is the expectation.  The woman MUST bare the burden, because that is her role and that is what is expected of her.

Brady’s narrator is struggling with this social expectation, yet she herself even suffers in silence and still continues to play the role, identifying herself in the very beginning as one of the very wives she is about to describe, aligning herself with exactly what she is longing for in a wife of her own: “I belong to that classification of people known as wives.  I am a Wife.  And, not altogether incidentally, I am a mother” (PAGE #).

In both “A & P” and “I Want a Wife,” the power struggle—which is rooted, at least in these stories, primarily in social inequality—between men and women is clearly defined.  In both stories, there is the presence of a strong female character who is struggling to resist her proscribed role as a weak, submissive female, yet who is still ultimately still held under the thumb of male dominance.

  It is still the male’s power that ultimately reigns supreme, and despite the efforts of the quietly defiant Queenie and the defiance present in the internal musings of Brady’s narrator, both women still lost the struggle.

Queenie still went home, embarrassed, her one source of power—positioning herself as an object to be looked at, making her power directly dependent upon the attention of the men she then rejects—having been quashed by a man who refused to let her have it.

The narrator who was wishing for a wife of her own was doing so in her mind only as she continued with her wifely ironing.  Both women struggled internally with their own domination, but both remain dominated.