Sunday, September 30, 2012

Question about "A&P"

Thanks for the responses to my recent post about the Updike story.  I think Meanssomething is right that the story succeeds inasmuch as it does a good job developing through the narrator's voice.  I still don't love the story, but I get it a bit more.

For me, there's a big class conflict in the story.  But I'm not sure I'm totally getting it.  So, let me say this much that seems pretty certain.

One of the big places where class difference comes in is in the description of the narrator's imagined or real experience with adults drinking.  His own parents, he says, offer guests lemonade or, "if it's a real racy affair Schlitz in tall glasses with 'They'll Do It Every Time' cartoons stencilled on."  In contrast, he imagines the women's family party with "Her father and the other men . . . standing around in ice-cream coats and bow ties and the women were in sandals picking up herring snacks on toothpicks off a big plate and they were all holding drinks the color of water with olives and sprigs of mint in them."   It's like he's seen movies with high class parties, so he knows what the drinks look like, but doesn't know what the drinks are.

The narrator talks about the people who frequent the store, and it sounds like there's a "locals vs summer people" thing happening; the locals, he notes, don't go to the beach.  They're working people, and they wear working clothes and such, because if you're working on hard linoleum (or tile) all day, you need shoes to manage and clothes to fit your job needs.   The young women who come in dressed in bathing suits and barefoot, seem to come from the beach.  And unlike most of the summer people, they didn't put on clothes first, or even sandals.

Lengel, the store manager, responds to the narrator's complaint that he didn't have to embarrass the women (who have left) by saying that "It was they who were embarrassing us."

I think that's a really telling moment because he's affronted by them coming in, being summer people who don't have to work, who spend time on the beach, who don't need to wear shoes.  And their not wearing shoes is a special offense because it's excessive and over the top.  They may need to come into the store, but coming in barefoot is like rubbing the locals' noses in the class difference, in their own privilege.

The narrator, thinking himself a sort of hero, doesn't realize that the issue is class difference, and not just Lengel being a jerk and himself being some sort of stand up for the right thing rebel.

Now here's my question.  We're told that the women buy "Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream."  Are Herring Snacks a code?  Specifically, is this a code for Jewishness in the text?  That is, I'm wondering if there's also a ethnic/religious difference being hinted at as well as a class difference?  And would that make Lengel's feeling of offense stronger?  Or is the herring snack more code for some pretensions (or not) to Britishness?

I've seen this story taught several times, and it was always in a way that sort of laughed at and admired the narrator at the same time, and didn't ever explore the social class stuff.  So now I wonder?


  1. I think if it had ever been taught to me as a class-issue story, I would have liked it a lot more.

    But the store manager, attacking the girls, is cast in a fairly negative light; and our young hero certainly wants to align himself with the rich girls. They own the class he wants to climb into.

    I guess my point is, if Updike is writing about class issues here, he seems to support and favor the rich girls' class wholeheartedly. He's not interrogating the rights of the wealthy to make their own rules, IOW, so much as he's cheering them on.

  2. I was taught (in high school) that the ending, where the kid expects the girls to have been waiting for him and he goes outside only to learn he has made this sacrifice for nothing, is about the kid's ego being punctured and brought back down to earth, one more step of him growing up. The ending, in other words, is what tells us we;re not supposed to like or side with him, and that the narrator has actually been critiquing his naivete.

    We also did a lot with how he sees the girls in commodity terms --- everything from their breasts looking like scoops of ice cream to their but being called a "can" --- he wants to purchase and consume them, but he doesn't have the class knowledge to even recognize they are out of his price range.

    Now, I would point out that A&P is shorthand for anatomy and physiology in my nursing students' courses. No clue about the possible ethnic subtext.