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Analysis Research Paper of A&P by John Updike

A&P is a popular and influential short story by John Updike. It examines themes of middle-class life and values, youth and age, consumer culture, and sexuality. It’s also quite funny, mostly because of the wit and personality of the protagonist, Sammy, who narrates the story.  The story involves a brief but significant event for Sammy, when three teenage girls come into the grocery store where he works. They are dressed for the beach. Sammy checks them out and fantasizes about them, speculating about their personalities and private lives. His manager Lengel confronts the girls and says that their dress is inappropriate for the store. The girls leave embarrassed, and Sammy decides to quit in protest over their treatment. He hopes that this grand romantic gesture will make an impression on them, but they don’t even see him do it. The story ends with Sammy realizing the consequences of his rash decision and feeling “how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.”

Doing a literary analysis requires close reading with careful attention to details, and thinking about how each detail contributes to the whole. What does this mean? Why is it there and what is it doing? You need to look beneath the surface events for potential larger meanings to emerge.  Your goal in this close reading will be to come up with a specific thesis about the text, which you will use quoted evidence to support. Here are some things to think about to get you started:

  • Is Sammy’s gesture, quitting his job, selfish or a sacrifice? How much does he really care about the girls’ dignity?
  • How reliable is Sammy as a narrator? Since we are only in his head, can we know anything about the truth of his narration?
  • How does the appearance of the girls affect different men in the store, and what might the story be saying about male sexual desire?
  • Sammy describes one woman as “a witch straight out of Salem.” We know that they live north of Boston, and thus not far from Salem. What is the significance of this reference?
  • Think about the themes of conformity, authority, and freedom.
  • How does the setting of A&P stand in for society as a whole?
  • How do the events in A&P reflect social changes that were happening when it was written, in 1961?
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