Whipping M. Gilbert Porter's Critique with My Displeasure
In his essay critiquing John Updike’s short story “A&P,” M. Gilbert Porter asserts that the story’s first-person narrator, Sammy, is a symbol for Transcendentalist author Ralph Waldo Emerson’s anti-Establishment ideals. Porter positions Sammy as a nonconformist who faces an unfortunate truth: he must pay for his decision to quit his job at a grocery store. Porter places Sammy in a high status, exalting him as a martyr for quitting out of genuine concern for a noble cause. Yet there is a lot to Sammy’s character that Porter fails to understand. In this paper, I will show that Sammy’s resignation is not an act of martyrdom that should be praised by Emersonian scholars, but is actually a failed attempt to appear heroic, which he only did because he expected to gain favor with the ladies. Updike’s Sammy is not a symbol for sacrificial nonconformity; instead, he is a symbol for the male adolescent’s struggle to impress women.
The situation in the story that leads up to the climactic event of disputable meaning goes as follows: three shoeless young women clad only in swimsuits marches through the store. The ringleader of the trio catches 19-year-old Sammy’s eye, and he nicknames her “Queenie” because she “kind of led them, the other two peeking around and making their shoulders round” (Updike 1406). Sammy becomes fascinated with the girls and cannot stop thinking about them. The girls are in the store since Queenie’s mother charged with the task of purchasing some Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks, and they finally make it to Sammy’s checkout line after walking all around the store, when the manager, Mr. Lengel, “comes over and says, ‘Girls, this isn’t the beach,’” indicating that their swimwear was too risqué for his store (Updike 1408). Despite Queenie’s protest that “We are decent,” Lengel insists that they are dressed too immodestly, and asks them to next time “come in here with your shoulders covered” (Updike 1409). Yet Sammy rings up their purchase anyway, after which he announces that he is quitting. Those are the facts. The questions in dispute are why Sammy quits and what his quitting ultimately means.
According to Porter, the narrator’s “gesture is both an affirmation of the girls’ decency and a rejection of the A&P and the misplaced values for which it stands” (1157). Because Sammy “rejects the standards of the A&P” by quitting his job as a grocery store cashier in protest of the business’s flawed definition of decency, he “commits himself to that kind of individual freedom for which, as Emerson said, ‘the world whips you with its displeasure’” (1155). To Porter, Sammy consciously believes that the values and standards of A&P are mass conformity and sameness encouraged by convenient supermarkets. This belief of Porter’s is shown when he writes on page 1155 that A&P stands for “the mass ethic of a consumer-conditioned society.” Porter makes Sammy out to be a martyr for the great cause of individuality. He allegedly believes that the girls are decent people and should not be discriminated against because they are distinct individuals instead of bland conformists. In this scheme, Lengel stands in as a symbol for the world and the Establishment, and he whips Sammy with his displeasure by reminding Sammy when he quits that he will be causing hardship for his parents, and that he will feel the effects of quitting this job for his entire life.
Porter, with his talk of Sammy’s hatred of A&P’s values seems to believe that the focus of the story is on A&P itself instead of the girls roaming through it. In reality, Sammy is a martyr for the cause of impressing women. All through the story he obsesses with them; they are his focus, not the store’s policies. Porter might object to this claim, saying that Sammy’s voiced distaste for the customers is significant. While it is true that Sammy complains about the customers, calling them sheep on page 1407 and pigs on page 1409 as a method of mocking their intelligence, the bulk of the story is focused on his fascination with Queenie and her friends. A brief mention of his gripes with his work does not warrant nearly as much attention as constant attention to the girls, whom he wants to impress because they are a welcome change among the ugly sight of “women with six children and varicose veins mapping their legs” (Updike 1407).
The whole first two pages are basically Sammy’s drawn-out descriptions of first the chunky girl, the tall girl, and then the leader of the three, to whom he is the most attracted. He indicates his fondness for her by providing a description of her white shoulders that were bare since her swimsuit straps were pulled down, which he believed was “more than pretty” (Updike 1407). Either by walking or watching, Sammy follows the girls to the meat counter, and then is disappointed when all that is left to see is the butcher, who ogles the girls as they move to a different part of the store. Sammy further displays his obsession by confessing “There was nothing much to do except lean on the register and wait for the girls to show up again” (1408). Contrary to M. Gilbert Porter’s belief, these actions do not illustrate a character that holds individuality as the key to human existence, as would Ralph Waldo Emerson. Sammy is merely interested in the girls since they are attractive and exciting to him during a boring day of work.
When he sees the girls approaching the door to leave the store after Lengel chastises them, Sammy sees his window of opportunity closing before his eyes. He spent all that time contemplating the girls and realizes that his time with them is almost up, and he has not even made a move to flirt with one of them. So he makes a last-ditch effort to garner their affection by telling Lengel that he quits, “quick enough for them to hear, hoping they’ll stop and watch me, their unsuspected hero” (Updike 1409). This is not a person who is a noble supporter of any cause. He is a vain young man who hopes to gain some girls’ attention by making an ill-advised judgment call to quit his job. It is difficult to fathom how someone who performs an action purely out of desperation for attention can be described as noble in any sense. He is a likeable character because of his funny nicknames for people and his quirky observations, but that doesn’t make him noble. I maintain that he is foolish for quitting his job to impress a girl, not praiseworthy.
By saying that Sammy quit as a protest against the store’s values, Porter makes it sound like it was a conscious and anticipated intention of Sammy’s to quit— that he did so in order to prove a point to everyone. Yet Sammy had not even previously given thought to quitting. Sure, there are signs throughout the story that there are aspects about the job that he does not enjoy. Nevertheless, he does not ever mention thoughts of quitting until the conclusion. His decision to quit comes only because the girls are leaving, and he wants to be their hero. He gives no forethought to his words, and only says them because he wanted the girls to hear him before they stepped out of his life for good. The only sign that Sammy is going to quit comes one paragraph before he does so, when he rings out Queenie and friends even though Lengel wants the trio to leave. If Sammy is intended to be viewed as a true nonconformist and sworn enemy of A&P’s pro-Establishment policies, why does his only action of defiance take place at the very end, when he is trying to make the girls appreciate him? Why would he not have had thoughts all along of how A&P is an evil corporation that encourages mindlessness?
Porter discounts the importance of Sammy’s obsession with the girls by drastically underestimating the feelings Sammy has for the girls: “Though certainly there is an element of physical attraction. . . to Queenie, mainly his appreciate is aesthetic” (Porter 1157). A paragraph later on the same page, Porter attempts to prove this by contrasting McMahon the butcher’s interest in the girls and Sammy’s interest in them: “McMahon’s interest is clearly erotic, not aesthetic.” He then quotes a scene as proof, in which McMahon is “patting his mouth and looking after [the girls] after them sizing up their joints” (Updike 1408). Updike’s wording for McMahon’s actions is vague. All readers know is that he is looking at the girls’ bodies and is impressed with what he sees, as is evident by his mouth-patting. Porter seems to believe that somehow McMahon acted in a more perverse manner than Sammy, but Sammy acted exactly the same.
If describing Queenie’s breasts as “the smoothest scoops of vanilla I had ever known” (Updike 1409), describing the fat girl’s butt as “a sweet broad soft-looking can” (Updike 1406), and calling a woman’s body “raw material” (1409) are not erotic descriptions that are evidence that Sammy, like the butcher, “sized up their joints,” then I’m not sure would qualify. If the girls had known Sammy described them that way, they would be more likely to slap him in the face for being fresh than to appreciate his words as compliments to their beauty, like Porter seems to believe. With McMahon, readers do not know exactly what he thought, but with Sammy, they know he definitely did use erotic descriptions. It is no wonder that Porter did not take into consideration the fact that Sammy’s main goal in quitting work was to impress the girls so he could date them, or at least get them to acknowledge his existence; Porter does not even realize the extent to which Sammy is attracted to Queenie, her fat friend, and her tall friend.
Therefore, Porter’s analysis of “A&P” is flawed since it does not take into account the obvious fact that Sammy is a teenage boy. Like any male adolescent, he has erotic thoughts about women; he wants to perform some great action that will make girls think he is heroic and chivalrous. Porter overanalyzes Sammy’s sparse criticisms of the customers and management, and fails to see that Sammy is not a nonconformist since he only quit to make himself look desirable; there was no real foreshadowing that Sammy was planning on quitting, which dismisses any notions that he had big issues with the Establishment. There is nothing noble about quitting his job just to make girls think he is their “unsuspected hero” (Updike 1409). That’s a classic case of vanity and showboating, not honorability. To put it bluntly, Sammy is not an extraordinary martyr with a mission, but a regular kid trying to get laid.
Porter, Gilbert M. “John Updike’s ‘A&P’: The Establishment and an Emersonian Cashier.” The English Journal 61.8 (1972): 1155-1158
Updike, John. “A&P.” Fiction 100. Ed. James H. Pickering. 5th ed. New York: Macmillan, 1988. 1406-1410.