Very often tedious oppressing reality makes the life of people unbearable. Therefore human beings begin to aspire to changes, make daring decisions and do something outstanding in order to improve or make their life better. Grey repetitive routine in supermarket A & P is the setting of John Updike’s story. The story is presented by a nineteen-year-old boy, Sammy, who works at the supermarket. It is obvious that the boy is extremely dissatisfied with his working place and his life circumstances describing shoppers in highly disrespectful tone calling them “sheep”, “slaves”, “bums” and “witches”. Sammy’s whole life is turned upside down when he sees “ In walks three girls in nothing but bathing suits”(Updike, 18). Sammy’s impulsive decision, reckless to the following unpredictable consequences, appears to be a daring gateway to liberation and the pursuit of elevated dreams.
The protagonist of “A & P”, despite his contemptuous attitude towards his surroundings, seems quite positive character who dreams about better life. Three girls in nothing but bathing suits become a sort of dangerous inspiration to stand up for himself, to refuse to be a mere face in the crowd, to break the chains of overwhelming and boring routine, which suffocate his sensitivity, to resort to daring gesture in order to change his life. Sammy looks around and sees misery of his pitiful world, secretly hoping for better life. He despises the customers, he has to serve, but he puts up with his obligations until something better comes up. The beauty, youth, naturalness and nonconformity of the three girls breathe fresh air into his exhausted mind. He realizes that there is better, more colorful, more interesting life out there comparing to his dull and depressive world.
The turning point in Sammy’s life occurs after humiliation and reprimand of the girls by Lengel, puritanical manager of the store. Appearance in a shameful half naked way in a public place arouses not only sexual gazes, lust and desire but also strong denunciation by strict watchers of morality. For Sammy they are representation of that luxury of freedom and independence he is dreaming about and a sign of a perfect opportunity to free himself from a dead-end job. “Sammy should not be regarded as a hero, but rather as a young man who takes full advantage of an opportunity to free himself from the responsibility-filled life that he desperately wants to avoid.” ( Thompson ) His courageous act may be viewed as a liberating gesture but at the same time it arouses ambiguous impression. On the one hand, he is a winner, a hero (although his chivalry was not noticed and appreciated by the girls). He took the bull by the horns and followed through his fatal gesture. On the other, he appears to be a looser, whose impulsive decision has gained him nothing but cost everything. But, who knows, maybe it is the beginning of a new life.
Sammy’s brave act speaks volumes about the determination of his character. He stands up for himself challenging his circumstances and refusing to go with the flow. However, many readers might perceive his bold gesture as a way to impress the girl, trying to arrange a date. The truth goes much deeper than that after the search of freedom and achieving independent identity. We can trace the similarity of characters between Paulo Coelho’s “Eleven Minutes” and John Updike’s “A & P”. The setting and circumstances are different but the aspirations are the same – escape tedious reality, taking risks, maybe making wrong decisions but following the call of the heart. Maria (the main character of “Eleven Minutes”) as well as Sammy refuse to be victims of their hateful world and become adventurers in search of treasure. They take a plunge into the unknown, succumbing to passionate impulse, not afraid to lose anything but dreaming to gain everything. It is more about the courage to make a drastic change without distraction to morality, obligations and promises. Sometimes reckless behavior and rebellion are effective tools in achieving the goal. In both cases the goal is indefinite, but it is an attempt to become free and say “yes” to life challenge.
John Updike’s story is complex and thought-provoking. Some readers admire courageous decision while others condemn his reckless irresponsible behavior. It is hard to step outside the system giving way to impulses and being encouraged by personal passions. No matter what outcome will happen, Sammy’s daring respond to life challenge deserves respect.
Those who have not read this short story, I encourage to read it. This thought-provoking story is about having courage to stand up for a change, to refuse to be a part of a grey crowd.
“Action is a great restorer and builder of confidence. Inaction is not only the result, but the cause, of fear. Perhaps the action you take will be successful; perhaps different action or adjustments will have to follow. But any action is better than no action at all.” — Norman Vincent Peale
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© Anna Trishch 2014