The 1960s were the beginning of what would be a complete upheaval of the “sexual mores” that the moralists of society had established throughout the Baby Boom era. As these sexual norms began to be dismantled, sex began to seep into all aspects of film, pop culture, and it even made its way in to many forms of literature (Hills). John Updike’s short story, “A&P”, falls into this category where his work attempts to challenge the traditional ways that youth culture and sex were discussed, and largely ignored by older generations. Updike brings to light the realistic nature of desire that is found in the minds of youth, even though it is controversial to traditional values.
Updike establishes the sexual desire of the narrator, Sammy, in the first sentence of the story by describing three girls who walk into the store “in nothing but bathing suits” (Updike 1). The placement of this sentence at the very beginning of the story frames the story in terms of sexuality and uses the syntax creates the effect of Sammy’s attention being immediately drawn to the girls and that they consume his whole sight. The fact that the girls are wearing swimsuits in the grocery store adds to the innate attraction that is drawing Sammy’s eye. The idea that defiant sexuality has the power to utterly consume everything else around it is portrayed through the syntax at the beginning of the passage and story.
Throughout the first passage in A&P, John Updike makes a manifold of sexual references to the girls that really showcases the nature of desire that is found within the minds of younger generations. Many of the both explicit and subtle references are juxtaposed to that of grocery store goods which makes the references consistent with the setting of the story. Sammy, describes one girl as having a “sweet broad soft looking can” with two “crescents of white” under it (Updike 1). The explicit sexuality in this thought is something that would not have been talked about openly at the time because it would have been viewed as inappropriate or dirty. Sammy also notices the girls when they are near the canned good section which could be a subtle reference to the juxtaposition of “canned goods” and “sexual goods” of the girls. The sheer focus and amount of sexual references is something that really brings to light the motif of desire within the younger generations. All of these references are taking place within Sammy’s mind and are not things that he would ever say out loud. This supports the idea that sexual norms many times suppress the realistic thoughts that many people had during the time. The references embrace a more provocative way of discussing sex and challenge traditional unrealistic views.
Towards the end of the passage, there is a short aside where Sammy shifts his focus from watching the girls to an old lady that is in his checkout lane. The juxtaposition between the girls and the lady, as well as the apparent break from reality, play into Updike’s reoccurring motif of a realistic view of desire. Sammy kind of snaps back into reality and is “trying to remember” if he rang up the HiHo crackers (Updike 1). This jolt out of his imagination really shows the immense desire and intensity with which that he was watching the girls in the previous part of the passage. Sammy also compares the old lady to a “witch” which differs drastically from his previous descriptions of the girls in bikinis. This difference further develops the theme that desire can be a very powerful distraction from mundane daily activities. The witch metaphor continues when Sammy says that it “made her day to trip me up” even though it was inherently Sammy’s fault because he was so focused on watching the girls throughout the store (Updike 1). This “quick to redirect blame mentality” is a definite sign that Sammy is embarrassed that he messed up and this suggests that he’s not sorry for watching the girls so intently. His tone changes as well while describing the witch lady. He has a much more admiring and mesmerized tone in the first part of the passage while his tone is definitely a lot more defensive and aggressive towards the old lady despite the fact that the mistake was his fault. Updike’s diction reflects this tone by using words like “rouge on her cheekbones” and “no eyebrows” (Updike 1). This short break from Sammy’s imagination shows the juxtaposition in his descriptions of the girls to the old lady which really supports the idea that desire is a power that can distort perspectives and even situations.
Dissecting this one passage within the whole short story allows reader to really see the motifs that reoccur throughout the entire story. The passage examines the motif that desire can be powerful and Updike aims at showcasing a realistic view of desire, which in turn, challenges traditional views. The reoccurring motif of desire does not stop throughout the rest of the story as Sammy continually follows the girls around the store allowing his imagination to run rampant. The idea of desire affecting situations found in the first passage can also be found in the rest of the story. The climax of the story is when Sammy quits his job in hopes of winning the three girls over but they take absolutely no notice of him. This is similar to Sammy’s attitude towards the old lady which changed drastically because of his attentiveness to watching the girls. Further suggesting that desire can have the power to make people do things that they would probably never due normally.
The nature of desire can be powerful, but a realistic view of sexuality has been concealed behind the traditional values that many older generations held. John Updike challenges these sexual norms and through Sammy’s intense attraction to the girls, he teases out the motif that desire is something found in minds of everyone and has the power to make us do and say things that are consistent with who we truly are. As sex becomes more prevalent in culture and media every year, there may ultimately be a line that must be drawn in order to uphold some level of decency and privacy.
Everyday Objects In Macro – YouTube.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K8rpo9e7tvg&t=25s. Accessed 18 Nov. 2020.
Hills, Rachel. “What Every Generation Gets Wrong About Sex.” Time, 2 Dec. 2014,
OLD Woman Gets 50 Years YOUNGER! – YouTube.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ozLMDxYR-TI. Accessed 18 Nov. 2020.
Sean Hayes & Amy Smart in A & P Szenes – YouTube.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g3KKU5u6hFw&t=54s. Accessed 18 Nov. 2020.
Sexual Revolution of the 1960s in the United States – YouTube.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=moM0nsIvePc. Accessed 18 Nov. 2020.
The Traditional Family Dinner – YouTube.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5ZsItkG7Sk&t=3s. Accessed 18 Nov. 2020.
Updike, John. “A&P.” Sakai, ENGL 105.079.FL20, posted by Paul Blom, 31 July 2020.
Originally published in The New Yorker. New York: 1961
We Are Your Friends – Desire – YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tsi6_gMhJbY.
Accessed 18 Nov. 2020.
Why Do We Desire Sex ? – BBC Documentary 2017 – YouTube.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zwE_h864r8A. Accessed 18 Nov. 2020
Featured Image and Video Images Source:
Creative Commons free and fair reuse