Narrative Voice in John Updike's A&P
By Kimberly Pye
In a small town everything is familiar and often taken for granted. In John Updike’s short story, A&P, the main character, Sammy, discovers a beauty unlike anything he has ever seen in his small town before. Queenie’s simple magnificence so stuns him that he quits his job in her defense. The narrator says:
"Around they come, Queenie still leading the way, and holding a little gray jar in her hand. Slots Three through Seven are unmanned and I could see her wondering between Stokes and me, but Stokesie with his usual luck draws an old party in baggy gray pants who stumbles up with four giant cans of pineapple juice (what do these bums do with all that pineapple juice' I've often asked myself) so the girls come to me. Queenie puts down the jar and I take it into my fingers icy cold. Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream: 49¢. Now her hands are empty, not a ring or a bracelet, bare as God made them, and I wonder where the money's coming from. Still with that prim look she lifts a folded dollar bill out of the hollow at the center of her nubbled pink top. The jar went heavy in my hand. Really, I thought that was so cute."
The narrative voice in this selection clearly demonstrates the qualities of the main character, the narrator. Through the diction and tone contained within the narrative voice, it is obvious that Sammy is still in his teens and has a very mature perception of women.
It is first helpful to know that A&P is written in the first person and that the narrator is an objective narrator; that is, he relies on his observations and never knows what is going on in the minds of others. Sammy is also a participant narrator because he is in the story he is telling. Because Sammy is restrained in this manner, he is easily believable, and the reader can relate to him without much hindrance, and because he is there, he is a reliable source of information. Even though Sammy says, “I could see her wondering between Stokes and me,” he is still only observing, and he doesn’t know exactly what is happening in Queenie’s head. Almost everyone has a degree of psychic ability when it comes to reading someone’s face, so it is no surprise that Sammy “knows” what Queenie is thinking.
The diction of the narrative is clearly one of a young and informal person. The usage of “Queenie” as a name for someone he does not know, also shows that the narrator may also be a bit humorous. The names for her followers, “Plaid” and “Big Tall Goony-Goony,” further demonstrate this idea. Sammy say, “I take it into my hands icy cold,” and the less-than-perfect syntax adds to his informality. The people who buy pineapple juice (and apparently quite often) probably aren’t really “bums,” but because of Sammy’s character, he uses this word to describe the insignificant people who have just interfered with his infatuated observance of Queenie and her friends. The only mention of Queenie’s followers in the section, however, is at the very beginning: “Around they come.” By this point in their visit, Sammy has forgotten about Plaid and Big Tall Gooney-Gooney, and is entirely consumed by Queenie’s hands that are “bare as God made them,” so much that when she hands him her purchase, “the jar went heavy in my hand.” Sammy proves his mature perception of women when he says, “…she lifts a folded dollar bill out of the hollow at the center of her nubbled pink top.” Though “nubbled” is an odd word, it describes exactly where the dollar came from, and Sammy never once mentions that it came from near her breasts. He may be young, but the beauty he finds in Queenie is not at all sexual; he even says, “Really, I thought that was so cute.” Few contemporary teenagers would first see that as “cute,” rather than “sexy.” This is a highly mature perception that can be greatly admired.
Finally, the tone of the story, and especially the tone in this selection, is like a relaxed conversation. Because he has no need to be especially formal, the narrator can get away with little side comments, such as, “What do these bums do with all that pineapple juice? I’ve often asked myself.” This is a natural behavior when talking to someone with whom one is quite familiar. Under this informal conversational tone, however, there is an excitement at what is happening. The narrator starts his tale with, “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits,” admitting that this is the most striking thing that has happened in quite some time. Sammy says, “The girls were walking against the usual traffic,” which means that most people walk in the opposite direction down their aisle, but it also means that these girls were very different from everyone else in the A&P, and even in the town. When he says, “Really, I thought that was so cute,” there is a hint of giddiness on top of the awe of her beauty, which can exist without accessories, “not a ring or a bracelet.” Sammy has the right to be excited by something out of the ordinary, and it is clear in is tone that he is excited.
The use of a relaxed tone in a first-person narrative voice simplifies the language to a degree that suggests the narrator is quite young, probably still in his teens. His job at the A&P may be his first real working experience in his small town, and it is evident that he has adopted a certain mindset about the people who come in. When three unique girls (unique among each other and unique to their environment) enter the store in bathing suits and bare feet, Sammy is excited by the change in pace. He becomes so mentally involved with their existence without mentioning any sort of sexual attraction, that even the reader adopts an awe in Queenie and her followers. Sammy is young, but his behavior is most mature, and certainly admirable.
© Kimberly Pye