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Weekly Short Story Report: "A&P," John Updike

As the news of John Updike’s passing trickles down into obituaries, then appraisals, then annoying comment threads in which it is argued that feminist lit crit should just disappear because what matters is not whether John Updike created worthwhile, convincing fiction but whether he was “true to himself,” whatever that means, oh and also he is no longer alive so let’s just rush him into the canon already because you don’t want to speak ill of the dead or anything, one story is mentioned, over and over, as his finest: “A & P.”

By sheer coincidence, “A & P” is now available online! Also, I had been planning a weekly short story critique! Novels: they are too big for blog posts, guys. So, let’s read, shall we?

In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits. I’m in the third check-out slot, with my back to the door, so I don’t see them until they’re over by the bread. The one that caught my eye first was the one in the plaid green two-piece. She was a chunky kid, with a good tan and a sweet broad soft-looking can with those two crescents of white just under it, where the sun never seems to hit, at the top of the backs of her legs.

So it begins. Enjoy the prose here: its prosody (“sweet broad soft-looking”), its visual quality (“two crescents of white”), its command of the telling detail (“where the sun never seems to hit,” the vulnerability of the hidden implicit there). Note that this is an Updike piece not entirely written in Updike Voice, except (you’ll see later) when Updike decides he can get an effect by slipping into it. Oh, and also: OMG half-nekkid ladies! Sweet!

I stood there with my hand on a box of HiHo crackers trying to remember if I rang it up or not. I ring it up again and the customer starts giving me hell. She’s one of these cash-register-watchers, a witch about fifty with rouge on her cheekbones and no eyebrows, and I knowit made her day to trip me up. She’d been watching cash registers forty years and probably never seen a mistake before.

By the time I got her feathers smoothed and her goodies into a bag — she gives me a little snort in passing, if she’d been born at the right time they would have burned her over in Salem.

This is the passage which directly follows the opening, quoted above. What is interesting here is how the (young, desired, so far speechless) girls in their bathing suits are followed directly by an older woman who is described in the most unflattering terms possible. She’s old (if “about fifty” is old), still given to sexual display (the rouge) in defiance of the fact that this particular man does not find her attractive, she confronts the narrator for making a mistake, and she is thus a witch, a hag, a bitch, for no other reason than that she apparently wants the narrator to do his job.

She isn’t the last woman the narrator will denigrate over the course of “A&P”: in fact, every single woman in the story, including the bikini girls, will come under fire. Those three, however, exist in a different space: the inevitable criticism balanced with worshipfully purple prose about their bodies. They are desired and therefore spared, more or less. However, in order to praise them, Updike has to present each and every other woman in his fictional universe as inherently undesirable, ugly, and bad. He praises certain women as exceptional in order to degrade women as a gender, or maybe it’s the other way around; either way, it’s a narrative technique that Updike used over and over again in his work. And the women he praises at first usually turn out to be the most dangerous and terrible of all, as we shall see here, in due time.

There was this chunky one, with the two-piece — it was bright green and the seams on the bra were still sharp and her belly was still pretty pale so I guessed she just got it (the suit) — there was this one, with one of those chubby berry-faces, the lips all bunched together under her nose, this one, and a tall one, with black hair that hadn’t quite frizzed right, and one of these sunburns right across under the eyes, and a chin that was too long — you know, the kind of girl other girls think is very “striking” and “attractive” but never quite makes it, as they very well know, which is why they like her so much — and then the third one, that wasn’t quite so tall. She was the queen.

Note how the narrator is miraculously able to infer the entire social order and relationship history of these girls based on simply watching them for no more than a few seconds – not talking to them, not seeking their input, not even overhearing them as they speak to each other. Male authority over female truth, the narrator’s authority over fictional truth, the author’s authority over his fictional world: they blend so seamlessly into each other, lending legitimacy to each other, that we almost take the narrator and Updike at their words before we realize what Updike has done.

Note, too, how precisely their rankings in this imagined hierarchy correspond to how attractive the narrator finds them. He (and Updike?) naturally imagine that, as he values them, so do they value each other. Female value is located solely in the desirable body; a flaw in female beauty lessens female worth. At least the chunky one has a nice can; the tall one (Updike’s fiction has more than a few short, self-conscious male protagonists – just saying*) is “the kind of girl other girls think is very striking and attractive but never quite makes it, as they very well know, which is why they like her so much.” Aside from his apparently telepathic insight into the lives and thought processes of women to whom he has never spoken (and I imagine this is what people are referring to when they speak of Updike’s “insights into mundane life,” since it is such an eloquently regurgitated cliche about female competitiveness, shallowness, and bitchery) note what “making it” means here: being wanted by men like the narrator. Does she want? Does she have preferences? Does the narrator or author at any point attribute desire, meaning preferences for specific people or types of people, to this sexualized character? No. She needs to be wanted. That is what success is supposed to be, for women. That is all it is.

Blah blah, narrator gets implicit boner, blah blah, purple prose that breaks the rules the author has set for his narrator’s voice (“this clean bare plane of the top of her chest down from the shoulder bones like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light”), blah blah other women are disgusting (“house slaves in pin curlers,” all other women in swimsuits wear shorts too and “are usually women with six children and varicose veins mapping their legs and nobody, including them, could care less”), blah blah, more boner, blah… Oh, look! Men!

“Oh Daddy,” Stokesie said beside me. “I feel so faint.”

“Darling,” I said. “Hold me tight.” Stokesie’s married, with two babies chalked up on his fuselage already, but as far as I can tell that’s the only difference. He’s twenty-two, and I was nineteen this April.

“Is it done?” he asks, the responsible married man finding his voice.

Amazing, isn’t it? Within three short paragraphs, this character has been given a voice, personality, and history, complete with relationships and implicit psychological conflicts. Is he a boy, or a man? A responsible husband and father or a kid who can leer at asses and make dirty jokes with his friends? We don’t know, and neither does he. We know he struggles. After all, he’s only twenty-two. The distance between Stokesie and the narrator is alternately far smaller and far larger than it appears. The narrator feels it too.

We are halfway through the story and no female character has had a line of dialogue. Or a distinct motivation. Or a name. Just thought I’d let you know.

Lengel comes in from haggling with a truck full of cabbages on the lot and is about to scuttle into that door marked MANAGER behind which he hides all day when the girls touch his eye. Lengel’s pretty dreary, teaches Sunday school and the rest, but he doesn’t miss that much. He comes over and says, “Girls, this isn’t the beach.”

Queenie blushes, though maybe it’s just a brush of sunburn I was noticing for the first time, now that she was so close. “My mother asked me to pick up a jar of herring snacks.” Her voice kind of startled me, the way voices do when you see the people first, coming out so flat and dumb yet kind of tony, too, the way it ticked over “pick up” and “snacks.”

What the… another named, speaking, male character with an actual past and personality! Things are getting CRAZY up in this here A&P! And a woman speaks for the first time in the whole entire story! (There are only three lines of female dialogue, so enjoy them.) And, miraculously, as soon as she speaks, the narrator finds a reason to dislike her! Her voice opens up the possibility that she has a personality, one which may not be solely based around the wild desire to gratify the narrator with her body. Since women’s worth is primarily derived from their bodies, of course, that voice is “flat and dumb,” but how can you expect a woman to have a mind worth engaging? It is also “tony,” meaning rich, meaning that she possesses power that the (working-class or at least lower-middle-class, we assume) narrator does not, which makes her a threat… oh, I’m sorry, I mean “a bitch.” I forget that men are never scared of the women they demean, and that misogyny is never directed at a woman because she seems stronger or smarter than the men who seek to diminish, intimidate, or humiliate her; that would be ridiculous, because how could a boy ever be threatened by a lesser order of life? My bad.

“We want you decently dressed when you come in here.”

“We are decent,” Queenie says suddenly, her lower lip pushing, getting sore now that she remembers her place, a place from which the crowd that runs the A & P must look pretty crummy. Fancy Herring Snacks flashed in her very blue eyes.

Geez, listen to her, all “having opinions” and “resisting authority” and “expressing anger” and absolutely for sure because the narrator is psychic somehow thinking that she’s better than people like him. I hope she doesn’t turn out to be a bitch like all the rest.

A word, here: the question of John Updike’s misogyny is not about whether or not his male characters call his female characters “bitches” and “cunts.” Those gendered insults are misogynist, but there are a thousand ways to frame them; their appearance does not automatically render a text sexist. The question of John Updike’s misogyny is definitely not about whether his male characters are sexually attracted to women, or sexually active with women. The idea that feminists are somehow offended by male lust itself is an ancient and idiotic straw man argument that is barely worth addressing here. Here I go, anyway: desire does not presuppose that a woman’s only worth lies in her ability to gratify a man. Desire does not presuppose that failing to gratify a man is some sort of character flaw, nor that the female party in a sexual exchange is always less than fully human, some sort of unknowable but undoubtedly inferior Other that one should not even really desire to know. Desire does not presuppose that sexual activity makes a woman worth less and a man worth more, while holding the paradoxical position that women who are not sexually active are cold, cruel bitches who are refusing to give men what they need and want and deserve. There are a thousand ways to desire. Desire is not misogyny. Misogyny appropriates desire and promotes the myth that one cannot exist without the other; then, because people like desire, it promotes the myth that people who oppose misogyny also oppose desire; thusly, it communicates that misogyny is itself desirable because it makes pleasure possible. This is untrue, but it is definitely part of why the question of whether Updike’s work is misogynist is so regularly confused (by non-feminists) with the question of whether he wrote about sex.

So, the question of John Updike’s misogyny is not and has never been about sex. The question is: what position do women hold in his fictional worlds? How are female characters created and deployed? How is their reality conveyed, and (since he strove for realism) is it consistent with the actual reality (the motivations, the inner lives, the choices and actions) of women? What function do women serve in Updike’s work? Here is one answer:

The girls, and who’d blame them, are in a hurry to get out, so I say “I quit” to Lengel quick enough for them to hear, hoping they’ll stop and watch me, their unsuspected hero. They keep right on going, into the electric eye; the door flies open and they flicker across the lot to their car, Queenie and Plaid and Big Tall Goony-Goony (not that as raw material she was so bad), leaving me with Lengel and a kink in his eyebrow…

Ah, yes, the “reward me for my ‘unselfish’ actions on your behalf with sex, since I do not actually care about you, but about my boner” move. Always a winner. But do the girls respond appropriately? Do they fall all over the hero in a beswimsuited orgy of sucking and fucking, or at least ask him out on a date, or at least praise him to the skies? I mean, he’d even take the fat one or the ugly one! He’s not asking for much here, just that they realize they exist for his gratification and be appropriately grateful for his not insulting them, or at least not insulting them aloud! And they do not, they are not, they fail!

I just saunter into the electric eye in my white shirt that my mother ironed the night before, and the door heaves itself open, and outside the sunshine is skating around on the asphalt.

I look around for my girls [MY?! – Ed.], but they’re gone, of course. There wasn’t anybody but some young married screaming with her children about some candy they didn’t get by the door of a powder-blue Falcon station wagon. Looking back in the big windows, over the bags of peat moss and aluminum lawn furniture stacked on the pavement, I could see Lengel in my place in the slot, checking the sheep through. His face was dark gray and his back stiff, as if he’djust had an injection of iron, and my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.

Note the text’s final disgusting woman, a screaming young wife with children. The narrator has risked his all due to his desire for women, and those women have betrayed him. The ones he wants, he can’t get; the ones he could get, the ones other people have gotten, are awful. The text’s assortment of aging or married women are not placed in the story accidentally: they are what the bikini women will be, in time. Women are bitches for not gratifying male desire; women who gratify male desire are, or will be, bitches. Desire leads to relationship leads to marriage leads to children; desire leads from the screaming young wife to the house slave in pin curlers to the hag who ought to be burned; women are a trap, women are a tragedy, women, put bluntly, are just plain bad. Oh, how hard, how very hard it is to live in this fallen and woman-infested world.

Misogyny? That’s putting it lightly. Yet if I rejected every book with undertones of misogyny or sexism, my list of total books read and enjoyed would diminish by at least half. Sexism is an undeniable part of history and culture, hence of the literary landscape, and you know what? I love to read. I love to read D.H. Fucking Lawrence, folks. I have no problem with putting up with sexism if the work is decent. Yet in this story, the clumsiness, the self-indulgence, the overdone symbolism and straining for deeper meaning and liberal substitution of cliche for character or insight, the unevenness of the basic craft, the absolute lack of any innovation in terms of technique or insight by which the author might hope to justify these obvious flaws… John Updike was a misogynist, sure. That’s only a part of why he was a bad writer.
*UPDATE: I have been informed that Updike was, in fact, tall. Of course, he is also being reported as “handsome,” so. What can I say? He writes like a small man. 


  1. Anonymous wrote:

    I found your blog via Shakesville, and I appreciated the comments you left under the Updike notice. You mentioned some unfortunate experiences with professors. Thankfully, I never had too many problems with mine. The men were mostly feminist-sympathetic, open to exposing the weaknesses in the conventional assumptions about the canon.

    I enjoyed this review. Having read nothing else of Updike's but this story and a few book reviews he wrote for The New Yorker, I trust you'll be able to educate me further on a few things I remain confused about.

    Encountering this story for the first time, with no real Updike baggage attending its reading, I didn't have too many of the same reactions you did. The piggishness of the narrator-character is out-and-out obvious, certainly, and the opening descriptions of the girls in swimsuits and the woman at the checkout were very uncomfortable to read, but I didn't automatically extend my instant revulsion of Sammy to Updike himself. Speaking generally, I wonder whether it sometimes happens that such stark displays of social and psychological crudeness in fiction make it difficult for some to separate those attitudes from the writer. I know you'll agree that the presence of misogyny in a character shouldn't necessarily indict the author, especially if it were portrayed as a fault. But where, I wonder, can we ever have just claim to follow the trail from the voices and minds of fictional persons to the hand of the author? At which point are we able to decide that the presence of these things in a narrative go so deeply that they can no longer be explained solely as world-building and characterization? If a writer creates a person with such traits and does not cite them as negatives in the course of the story, is the writer guilty of them as well?

    What I mean to say, more briefly this time, is that I'm typically inclined to trust an author's integrity. For me, it didn't follow that, because the eighteen-year old narrator was a frightful little microcosm of the patriarchy, the author must have been so too. Given that the story is first-person, and everything we encounter is filtered through the narrator-character, I just assumed, as I read, that everything was to be taken as an expression of Sammy's own experience. I'm not sure what I think of the view that anything an author pens must unquestionably be a revelation about his or her own personality, though I don't mean to say I attribute that viewpoint to you.

    Now, in writing this, I'm assuming many of your views about this story, such as the narrator's motivations, as my own. They make sense, and I won't quarrel with them. I'd just like to note that I looked at the Wiki page for "A&P" just now, which borrows from the interpretation of Sammy's actions as primarily chivalrous, rather than crude.

    There are other things I'd like to say, but I'll shut up. Great blog.


    Thursday, January 29, 2009 at 4:36 am | Permalink
  2. Sady wrote:

    I definitely hear what you are saying, about separating character and author, and it is a criticism which I respect.

    The reason I don’t really separate Sammy from Updike is that I place him within the context of Updike’s other writing. I haven’t read all of it (there were 40 novels alone, as I understand it) but many or most of the misogynist currents I identify here were repeated, over and over again, in what I have read: objectification of women, idealizing women in order to tear them down later, vilification of aging women, women who confront or object to Updike’s male characters being portrayed as “bitches” or shrews or “castrating” what-have-you. The identification with a male protagonist who thinks this way is pretty constant (DFW said that Updike wrote a countless number of protagonists who were more or less the same guy, and that this guy always managed to think and speak like Updike), and there is always a slippery identification between narrator and character, not as blatant or as safe as this first-person narrator. (Who still, miraculously, manages to sound a lot like a slightly less verbose Updike!) The misogynist male character is given priority, and the women do not have any corresponding reality – if he finds them shrewish, the text doesn’t show us enough of their inner lives or give them enough respect to allow the reader to see them any other way.

    “The Witches of Eastwick,” being a novel in which Updike tried to focus on female characters, is actually a pretty good starting-point for seeing the recurring misogynist assumptions and stereotypes in the author’s work. Looking at how he treats these female characters, how he seems to be sneering at them throughout, and how the same stereotypes come into play when it comes time to depict their inner lives, is really interesting, especially when you contrast it with the boundless patience he has for, say, Piet Hanema in “Couples.” “Witches” was the first Updike novel I honestly could not stand because it clarified so much of what I’d disliked about the work I read before.

    Anna Shapiro also has a great article in the Guardian I want to promote, which describes not just Updike’s misogyny in fiction, but how he related to certain female critics who called him out. She’s getting hell for it in her comments, so I wanted to recommend it to a perhaps more friendly audience:

    Thursday, January 29, 2009 at 5:50 am | Permalink
  3. Sady wrote:

    Dustin – I should add, about the “safety” of choosing a first person narrator in this story, that I find this kind of a weird thing for critique since it invites the reader to identify character with author while also preventing it. If people object to what your first person narrator has to say, that avenue of critique can always be blocked with the “unreliable narrator” defense. (Coincidentally, did you know that Holden Caulfield was TOTALLY CRAZY? True fact!) Yet there’s nothing that I can see, within the story or within Updike’s other work, to suggest that he sees the narrator’s more objectionable statements as “unreliable.” I think we are, in fact, meant to take them at face value. That’s where my problem with the work lies.

    Thursday, January 29, 2009 at 8:32 am | Permalink
  4. tinfoil hattie wrote:

    Wow. This is great. I found you from echidne’s blog. Thank you for this on-target essay. I wish you’d been in my American Lit class in ’83 when I, a young and blooming feminist, HATED this story and HATED the glowing review given it by my professor, but I couldn’t quite explain why. Lo these many years later, I can finally say: “THERE! See, what SHE said! THAT’s what I wish I could have said!”

    Thursday, January 29, 2009 at 8:01 pm | Permalink
  5. coffee wrote:

    Interestingly, i just recently discovered John Updike… I haven’t fallen in love with all of his work yet, but i’m warming up to his candid writing style;

    his passing is a sad loss indeed

    Friday, January 30, 2009 at 1:35 pm | Permalink
  6. Jeff wrote:

    I just wanted to say I really enjoyed this reading of the piece, but I did have one question. How do you account for/what is your reading of Sammy’s quoting his grandmother, the “Fiddle-de-doo” right after he quits(paragraph 28)? Doesn’t this at least bring in a bit of the feminine? A bit of feminine power? His grandmother is neither a sexual object nor a shrew–in-fact she’s a bit of wisdom and strength in the piece. And given the placement of it–right near the end–, seems to offer a little hope (at least to me) for Sammy. I hope to hear back from you.

    Tuesday, May 11, 2010 at 9:10 pm | Permalink
  7. Kristina wrote:

    Dear Sammy, Those sheep have real jobs. Those sheep have real lives. Those sheep have real little girls upon whom you also look down. Who are you? You are a bag boy who quit his job in an effort to be a martyr. In an effort to be a hero to three girls whom you objectified and sexualized and made out to be, quite possibly, idiotic. Because maybe ladies have buzzing in their heads and nothing more. But you, Sammy, are enlightened? Oh, Sammy. And, relatedly, oh, Mr. Updike, for hiding behind such a shell of a sheep character…

    Friday, May 14, 2010 at 12:48 pm | Permalink
  8. Jeff wrote:

    Also the whole Sammy telling us about how his mother ironed the shirt he is wearing. That seems to complicate things a bit as well. Hope to hear from you.

    Friday, May 14, 2010 at 4:27 pm | Permalink