Sammy s Sacrifice
John Updike s often-anthologized story, A&P shows us the heroic choice of a young adult who decides to follow principle rather than his own self-interest. The nineteen year old narrator works at the local A&P (Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company) in a middle class neighborhood, and he is led to quit his job as a pretest against a perceived insult to a young woman he admires. This dramatic gesture is largely a result of what economists would call signaling.
In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits. (881) The narrator is glad for the diversion, mentally names the most beautiful girl Queenie and watches every move the trio make. The detail with which Queenie is described shows how carefully the narrator is looking for signals of her status. He tells us that her hands are empty, not a ring or a bracelet and that she purchases Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream (883). The purchase reveals something about Queenie at least to the narrator s way of thinking. Her choice shows that she comes from a different social and economic class. One can conclude that Queenie s sophisticated way of life contrasts with the narrator s own life.
When the store manager, Lengel, enters and scolds the girls about their attire, Girls, this isn t the beach. (883). Lengel continues to explain that the policy requires them to have their shoulders covered, Queenie is embarrassed, and we can predict that the narrator will take offense. He rings up the purchase, described so that we see how people are viewed in economic terms: [I]t s more complicated than you think and after you do it often enough, it begins to make a little song. (884) The narrator sees Queenie blush and gallantly says I quit to Lengel quick enough for them to hear, hoping they ll stop and watch me, their unsuspected hero. (884) His gesture goes unnoticed by the girls, but he follows through nonetheless because once you begin a gesture it s fatal not to go through with it. (884) Sammy, the narrator, looks back once he is outside the store and his stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter. (885)
This story is an economic parable that serves to point out the faults in both the rational optimal choice model and the emotion-driven commitment model of decision-making. The world Updike had constructed leaves little room for principles or values not tied to commerce. Sammy, who makes his decision based on principle, loses entirely in economic terms. He gives up his job, he damages his relationship with his parents ( Sammy, you don t want to do this to your Mom and Dad (884)), he gains no admiration from the girls for his sacrifice ( I look around for my girls, but they re gone, of course. (884)). Now Sammy has only gained insight about how hard it will be if he chooses to maintain a moral stand in a world driven by the profit motive. Clearly, both the character of the narrator and the world in which he lives place constraints upon his decision. The story serves to highlight the ongoing conflict between money and morals that is at the heart of so much American literature.