Writing an essay on A&P by John Updike

John Updike's short story A&P tells how Sammy, a young assistant in an A&P store, makes a grand but useless gesture in the hope of impressing a group of girls. The story is often chosen as an essay topic, largely because of its ironic ending. So what's the best way to go about writing this essay?

Start by introducing and describing Sammy. He's nineteen years old and his thoughts tell the reader that he is both cynical and romantic. The story is narrated from Sammy's point of view, giving a clear insight into his thoughts and feelings; all other characters are described only in his terms, so the impression given of them might not be completely accurate.

The events of the story begin when three girls come into the shop dressed in swimsuits, to buy a jar of snacks. Sammy admires their bravery in breaking a social convention, but quickly judges each of them in a fairly superficial way based largely on their looks; he becomes instantly infatuated with one, whom he nicknames Queenie. The shop manager, a Sunday School teacher, reprimands the girls for the way they are dressed and embarrasses them. Sammy decides that he wants to defend the girls and also impress them; he informs Lenger, the manager, that he is resigning in protest. His gesture fails, though, as the girls have already left the shop and never realize what he has done.

What does it all mean? On one level the story is an ironic and amusing tale about a well-intentioned act that backfires; Sammy has now lost his job but didn't leave with the girls as their hero as he had imagined he would. On a deeper level, though, it is a coming of age story. Sammy is still a teenager and his thoughts and actions have reflected that. At the end, though, he is forced to realize that actions have consequences and that growing up means taking responsibility. Realizing that ignoring the expectations of society (personified by Lenger and his parents) can have serious repercussions he thinks about " how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter" if he keeps on acting in this way.

Contrast Sammy with Stokesie, the other shop assistant. Only a few years older than Sammy, but married with two children, he is used as a contrast to him. Sammy himself muses that the only difference between them is Stokesie's family, but in fact Stokesie is aware that his family rely on his job and he performs it as well as he can. He could not afford to make a gesture like Sammy's. Sammy may see this as lack of courage or imagination, but in fact Stokesie is the one who has already learned how to get on in society.

As a conclusion, discuss the impact of Sammy's action on everyone involved, himself included. Look at whether he has gained or lost from it - increased understanding against the loss of his job.

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