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.”
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, 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.
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.”
“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.
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.