John Updike often described the typical people of everyday life in his books. Many of his characters resembled people he knew, or they reflected his views on what was happening in America. They expressed their opinions on the value system by which people lived. One of these ideas was individualism: it was not always noticeable in society, and until the 1960s, people accepted everything in the surrounding reality. Only some people stood up for their rights and beliefs. Many people wanted to do it as well but were afraid to speak out. They needed to find new ways to express what they actually thought. John Updike’s’ idea of individuality, described through Sammy’s character in “A&P”, helps connect the value system of the past and the present.
Sammy has many useful details of personality related to being an individual. Such a person knows how to think without help of other people, strives for independence, and puts personal needs above others. If something is believed to be done, Sammy will likely move in the opposite direction. He needs to have a different attitude from the rest of society and be unique from anyone else. His character is opposed to conformists: those people who need to be accepted (Shipe and Dill, 2019). They wear fashionable clothes and put the interest of groups ahead of their own. They behave in a manner that is usual for the group from which they want to be separated. Conformists tell others the words that they want to hear instead of expressing their opinion. They are prisoners within their stereotypes; they are monotonous and behave the same day after day. Conformists may even be funny because of their lack of thinking. Sammy admits this when he talks about customers and how they push their carts like sheep.
Updike highlights girls as people whose individuality is oppressed as opposed to Sammy. Readers understand that they cannot resist the patriarchal power and thoughtless submission. The store around which the entire story revolves represents corporate ambition and marketing, as well as American culture in general. Even being a part of this system, Sammy rejects popular culture products, such as music, and constantly loses sight of girls among the sheer amount of inventory. This illustrates the idea of losing autonomy among the mass of advertising and the media. Sammy is opposed to the people of the church who represent submission of passive people. It is the symbol of power which people cannot resist. An antagonist in this story is Lengel, a manager who teaches in Sunday school. Scolding girls for their inappropriate clothing, Lengel concentrates on giving them the Sunday school chief’s sad look. Sammy resists his ideas and do not want to stay under his influence. The paternalistic beliefs represented by Lengel and the church seek to limit and manage the girls’ rebellion against traditional moral values. Enforcing these restrictive traditions ultimately leads to girls’ symbolic expulsion from society, or from A&P. In this case, Sammy acts like an independent personality and expresses his negative opinion of Lengel’s actions.
Both girls and customers are flat, static characters: they do not change and do not show any complexity, being just a set of typical characteristics. While Sammy considers girls beautiful, young, and independent, he describes other clients as housewives. In one of the episodes, Sammy watches people with their carts that move like sheep. Sammy names clients sheep or pigs a few times to show their passivity and conformity. On the contrary, he notices girls’ personalities because they walk in another direction and wear clothes that make other shoppers dash, jump, or hiccup. This dramatic contrast of these two groups of characters, Updike turns the girls into “foil” for other shoppers. While shoppers can be considered the society of thoughtless submission, young girls and Sammy represent actual freedom, accompanied by individual autonomy. Their treatment by other characters reveals the topic that Sammy realized: those who rebel against accepted social standards will be rejected by society.
Sammy was definitely a real and independent person; he stood up for what he believed in and insisted on these ideas. He did not care about thoughts of his boss and quit the job. He made a statement, which was very unusual in the 1950s. People did not left their jobs because of a boss decision that did not affect them in any way, but Sammy did it. He left because he thought that the instruction told to the girls was unnecessary. He also brought out his individualism when the manager asked what he said. He could have just got back the words he said, but instead, he left. Updike was well aware of the 1950s and all the events of that decade that he went through. He could not know that Sammy was thinking, acting, and feeling the way the teens of the future would be. Sammy in “A&P” showed the kind of person modern teenagers had been forced to be. This character foreshadowed the choices that the future generation had to make.
Shipe, Matthew, and Scott Dill. Updike and Politics: New Considerations. Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.