Monday, October 17, 2011

Society's influence on the individual

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John Updike’s “A & P” tells the story of Sammy, the checkout boy who quits his job after his boss Mr. Lengel speaks disapprovingly to three young girls who come into his store one summer afternoon. More so, the story is a contrast to varying opinion in world views The old fashioned values versus the independence of youth. “A & P” contrasts conservatism and liberalism to mirror its central theme of individualism versus society.

Mr. Lengel, the store’s manager, is the embodiment of the conservative society. Sammy tells us that his boss “comes in from struggling with a truck full of cabbages” when “the girls touch his eye”. Our first view of Lengel shows him engaged in manual labor as opposed to the playful activity of the girls.

Throughout the story, Lengel reinforces to the girls that “This isn’t the beach.” Sammy notices the way that Lengel relentlessly repeats this phrase as if “he had been thinking all these years the A & P was a great big dune and he was the head life guard.” In many ways this was true. Lengel was not only the store’s manager, but also a Sunday school teacher. He feels he possesses not only the title, but the right to set the tone for the town as a whole. The “sand dune” is our world of work and the beach represents the total freedom of the girls.

Lengel’s appearance in A & P is in a way foreshadowed by the many characters that precede him in the story. Sammy describes the average people who inhabit the store as “sheep”, who “when Queenie’s white shoulders dawned on them, kind of jerk, or hop, or hiccup, but their eyes snapped back to their own baskets and on they pushed.” Describing the townspeople as sheep reflects their narrow perspective of the expanding world around them. Although their town is just a mere five miles from the beach, Updike remarks that “there’s people in this town who haven’t seen the ocean for twenty years.” Lengel, as well as the townspeople, have been entrenched in their mundane lives for so long that they’ve forgotten their identities and how to live.

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Sammy has lived in a world of conformity all of his life. Up until today, without knowing, Sammy was the sheep in the store. These girls dressed in “nothing but bathing suits” awakened him to something other than what he had been taught; individualism and identity. When the girls exit the store, Lengel remarks that “it was they who were embarrassing us.” By quitting the A & P, Sammy rejects the idea of being lumped in with the other “scared pigs in a chute”. He is telling Lengel that people should be able to be frivolous when they want to, they should be able to come barefoot into a store and buy forty-nine cent herring snacks, and most of all, they should have the right to live a life other than the ordinary. As Sammy prepares to leave the A & P for the last time, he realizes “how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.” In the end he understands he will forever be pitted against the millions of Lengel’s in the world.

John Updike portrays a character that is torn between living a life of conformity while yearning for more. Society should not dictate who we are as people. The avant-garde demeanor of the girls reminds us that although the majority of us conform to the norm, we all have the right to choose a path that we feel is right for us.

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