Feminism in Updike's "A&P"

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“You could see them, 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” (Updike 2). John Updike’s “A&P” demonstrates through several methods the strain that unwritten principle can place on women in their search for individuality and freedom from oppression. This is shown through Sammy’s thoughts, Queenie’s actions as an independent woman, and the establishment of a woman’s place by the male characters. With these three ideas, Queenie is clearly represented as a feminist shot down by her male oppressors.

Sammy, the typical male chauvinist, is generally condescending towards the story’s female characters, assuming ignorance on their part. His lack of understanding towards women exhibits itself on the very first page, as he begins to contemplate the actions of the three girls: “You never know for sure how girls’ minds work (do you really think it’s a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar?)” (1). With this statement, Sammy admits that he is ignorant to the workings of the female mind, which would be acceptable enough, were it not for the following afterthought. From this small addition, it is clear that not only does Sammy not understand women, but he assumes ignorance on their part; he does not wish to understand them. Because they do not think like him, they are fundamentally wrong in his mind. His assumption of female ignorance is further shown through a seemingly harmless statement: “Poor kids, I began to feel sorry for them, they couldn’t help it” (2). With this, Sammy assumes that the girls are ignorant of their own actions; he assumes that they should feel ashamed of the others taking notice of them. He doesn’t see the girls as strong people acting out for their cause, but as ignorant children who should feel humiliated by the others’ reactions. Apart from exhibiting ignorance of the female point of view, Sammy clearly views the girls as sex objects rather than people: “Sammy reveals in the story that he thinks it is alright for those young girls to walk around the store in their bathing suits, but other women, ‘women with six children and varicose veins,’ should put on some clothes before they get out of their cars” (A Feminist Perspective of Updike’s A&P). All these factors taken into account, it is clear that Sammy takes no notice of the female mind; only the body holds his interest.

In direct contrast to Sammy, Queenie represents the independent woman, seeking to act as equal to her male counterparts. Sexist though he may be, even Sammy recognizes her independence: “She didn’t look around, not this queen, she just walked straight on…” (1). Even in the way she walks, Queenie exhibits confidence and individuality; she shows a complete disregard for the reactions of others, focusing instead on her own needs and responsibilities. She seeks no male approval for her actions; she merely does as she pleases. This clearly disturbs the regular clientele of the A&P: “All this while, the customers had been showing up with their carts but, you know, sheep, seeing a scene, they had all bunched up on Stokesie […] I could feel in the silence everybody getting nervous…” (4). The customers of the A&P, consisting largely of old housewives and husbands, do not show acceptance of Queenie’s views; they would rather conform to social norms. As such, they avoid her, as if they fear her views will spread like a disease. Never taught to think for themselves, these people would rather avoid such change, and continue living their lives in mindless obedience of the social norm. They are unable to accept Queenie or the other two girls, merely because they are “unique in all aspects of their beings: walking, down the aisles, against the grain, going barefoot and in swimsuits, against the properly attired clientele” (“An Analysis of John Updike’s A&P”). Because the girls, led by Queenie, are so unique and revolutionary, the regular clientele of the A&P (as Sammy calls them, the sheep) are unable to accept them. As such the idea of a woman’s independence is shot down by these slaves of the social norm.

Unwilling to accept the idea of an independent woman, the male characters in the story clearly establish a “woman’s place,” which they expect all women to conform to. Upon Queenie’s arrival in the store, Sammy notes the reaction of the other women to her appearance: “A few houseslaves in pin curlers even looked around after pushing their carts past to make sure what they had seen was correct” (2). In referring to the other women as “houseslaves,” Sammy indicates that they are enslaved by society, within the walls of their homes. Their sole purpose in life is to clean the house and feed the men; as such, they clearly envy Queenie. Wandering the aisles of the A&P in her swimsuit, against the flow of the regular customers, she embodies everything that they have ever wanted to be: strong, independent, and free from social norms. This idea of female freedom, however, is not embraced by the male characters, who feel it threatens their masculinity: “It was they who were embarrassing us” (4). When Lengel, the “kingpin” of the A&P takes notice of the girls’ actions, he quickly steps up to protect his masculinity. In removing the girls from the A&P, he is attempting to put them back in their established place. As one critic noted, the male characters feel that “Either women were to stay in one place and allow themselves to be walked on as ‘houseslaves’ or mothers or they were to provide their sexual services when men so desired” (Douglass). The male characters expect nothing less than silent obedience from the women, and so feel threatened when they bid for freedom.

All this in mind, the story clearly presents an image of the woman oppressed by unwritten social standards. This is shown through the thoughts of Sammy, the actions of Queenie, and the establishment of a woman’s place by the male characters. It is clear that John Updike recognized that in order for women to ever be free, the authority of unwritten standards must be removed from society.





Works Cited
“A Feminist Perspective of John Updike’s ‘A&P.’” 123helpme. 26 Apr 2011. http://www.123helpme.com/
“An Analysis of John Updike’s ‘A&P.’” 123helpme. 26 Apr 2011. http://www.123helpme.com/
Douglass, Jill. “Feminist Critique of Updike’s ‘A&P.’” Suite101. 26 Apr 2011. http://www.suite101.com
Updike, John. “A&P.”





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This article has 2 comments. Post your own now!

mnstrzero said...
Oct. 9, 2012 at 2:09 pm
I can't help but see the girls as silly kids. There is some gender issue commentary going on in the story but the girls aren't a good representation of something as respectable as the feminist viewpoint.
 
Stacie replied...
Mar. 23, 2013 at 2:15 pm
Still, they challenge conventional male ideology, whether they mean to or not.
 
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