An exposition of Morality in John Updike’s A&P
In any society, one of the most distinctive functions of morality is to regulate personal and interpersonal relationship of people so as to enhance social harmony. Morality seeks to define and control the spheres of human life that other aspects of human endeavors cannot curtail. It functions to establish whether an action is justifiable or not, socially comprehensible or well-motivated. An analysis of Updike’s A&P establishes that perceptions about morality varies among different people and what passes as righteous for one is not necessarily the case for another. Updike uses characters systematically to unravel the concept of morality and how the various characters view points on morality differs. The A&P society gives some insights about the nature of the human condition and is also used in ways that dispels long held notions about morality. The location of A&P grocery store is symbolic to what the larger A&P society stands for. Its location is in the middle of a conservative town in Massachusetts. The order in which Sammy describes the order of the buildings gives a reader an idea of the order of things the society considers important. “As I say, we’re right in the middle of town and if you stand at our front doors you can see two banks and the Congregational church and the newspaper store and three real-estate offices…” (287). The mentioning of the banks first is not a coincidence, but an indication of the significance and dominance money holds in this society. The congregational church is then mentioned second as it is responsible for setting moral standards in the town. The newspaper office, which epitomizes gains of individual freedom, comes in third before the mentioning of real estate offices. This paper, therefore, attempts to explore the idea of morality in John Updike’s short story, A & P, and what the characters reveal about the nature of human condition and behavior.
The story unveils with three girls walking in A&P store wearing what the narrator identifies as bathing suits. Their mode of dressing seems to attract the gaze of most men in the grocery store. Sammy, who is at the counter finds it irresistible to ogle and in no matter of time has identified the prettiest girl whom she awards an imaginary name of ‘Queenie’. The presence of the girls seem to have transformative effects on Sammy and he wastes no time approaching. Lengel and ‘Sheep’ too, waste no time approaching the girls, but theirs is to warn the girls of a dressing policy at the A&P grocery store. Lengel says, “Girls, I don’t want to argue with you after this come in here with your shoulders covered. It’s our policy” (288).
The manner in which Lengel addresses the girls definitely betrays his perception about their dressing. A manner of dressing that otherwise seem decent to Sammy and the girls themselves, is insulting to both Lengel and the ‘Sheep’. The two are strong believers that a man or a lady is morally upright in the manner he or she dresses. To them, the girls do not pass as rational human beings considering that they are aware their mode of dressing will naturally attract them attention from the men in the store. Lengel and ‘Sheep’ however, fail to recognize that what passes as rational to one might not necessarily be so for another and Sammy’s contrary attitude reinforces this. Sammy finds nothing wrong with the girls’ way of dressing and his response to Lengel about an A&P policy is, “that’s policy for you. Policy is what the Kingpins want, what others want is juvenile delinquency” (288). Updike seems to be using these characters to reveal the innateness of human differences in their actions, perceptions and behavior.
Sammy is not convinced of Lengel’s belief of an existent A&P policy on dressing and to show his support for the girls’ manner of dressing; he hastily decides to quit his job. The decision catches Lengel unaware and he