Three Bikinis And A Pyramid Of Diet Delight Peaches: An Analysis Of The Six Basic Elements Of Fiction In John Updike’s “A&p”

It is astonishingly diverse but it shares six common elements. Each of these elements can be broken down and analysed to gain a greater understanding of what is being explored. The elements that make up fiction include plot, point-of-view, characterisation, setting, symbolism, and theme. John Updike masterfully uses all of these aspects to create a unified, complex piece of fiction in “A & P”. “A & P,” recounts Sammy’s reaction when three girls walk into A & P, downtown, and wear nothing but bathingsuits, defying the norms of society. Sammy follows their example and abandons his socially accepted role. By analyzing the fundamental elements of fiction, “A & P,” by John Updike, is illuminated.

The plot is the foundation of all fiction. It focuses attention on the story and gives it a sense of direction. The plot can be broken down into five main elements: the inciting factor, the exposition, the complication, the climax, and the catastrophe. The arrival of the girls at A & P is without a doubt the inciting force, as their entry initiates the remainder of the story. Sammy describes each girl in detail. His observations include “black hair not quite frizzed” (409) and “long, white prima-donna leg” (410). The reader will find small details and dialogue scattered throughout the meticulously rendered scenes. They help them to understand the story, the characters, and the setting. Updike gives the girls greater importance by slowing things down and focusing them on. This makes the audience more likely to recognize the girls and their significance in relation the thematic theme. Also, it sets the stage for a conflict that revolves around the girls’ appearance. Complication is the third step of Freytag’s Pyramid. It introduces conflict by focusing on the negative reactions to the girls’ clothing. Due to the fact that it is considered inappropriate for girls to wear swimsuits in A & P’s, they are subjected by customers and employees alike. Managers also reprimand them, causing the girls great embarrassment. Sammy’s resignation is the culmination of these complications. Sammy had been watching the girls reject social rules passively up until this point. In quitting his position, he takes an active part in the conflict. This is the most important action. Sammy is reverted to his former position and job. Sammy’s sudden realization of “how difficult the world would be for [him] in the future” (414) is what triggers his catastrophe. The epiphany is a somber reminder to the reader that Sammy’s refusal to conform to the social standards will be a lifelong struggle.

This epiphany can be revealed by analyzing the characters, as well as the symbols, of the girls, and of the customers. The characters of both the girls and the customers are static, flat. They don’t change and they aren’t complex. Sammy describes the girls in the shop as beautiful, independent and young. He calls the other customers “houseslaves”, “bums”, or “houseslaves”. Sammy is able to observe “sheep pushing carts down aisles” and girls “walking in the opposite direction” (410) during one scene. Sammy uses the metaphors “sheeps” and “pigs” (413) to show their conformity and passivity. Contrastingly, the girls display their individuality as they walk in the opposite way and wear clothing that makes other shoppers “jerk” or “hop”, or even hiccup (410). Updike creates a stark contrast between the two static sets of characters. This allows the girls to be seen as the foils of the other shoppers. The shoppers represent passive submission and society. However, the girls stand for the freedom that comes with autonomy and individuality. Sammy’s epiphany reveals that the treatment they receive by other characters is representative of their rejection by society.

Updike portrays the girls as symbols for oppressed personality and submission by placing them against an authoritative patriarchal backdrop. Congregational churches and A & P stores are two elements of the scene that illustrate these ideas. The A & P General Store, which is the focus of this entire story, represents American culture and corporate ambition. Sammy is dismissive of merchandise that represents popular culture. He calls it “gunk”, and the girls, who are constantly lost in the vast amount of inventory. These images show the feeling of losing autonomy in a sea of media and advertisements. Churches, on the other hand, are symbols of passive submission. Lengel, a manager, “teaches the Sunday school” and other duties (412). While scolding them for their inappropriate attire, Lengel “concentrates on giving the girls that sad Sunday-school-superintendent stare” (412). His and the Church’s paternalistic beliefs are what seeks to restrain and control girls’ rebelliousness against social values. The girls are symbolically banned from society when these standards are enforced.

Updike binds together the various elements of “A & P”, using narration and point-of-view. Sammy’s narration is the only point of views from which readers can view the story. His unique, first person voice is heard throughout the story in the form casual rhetoric. Sammy is positioned in the third checkout position, facing the door. The reader sees the unfolding action. Sammy does not shift the focus until he leaves A & P and symbolically gives up his position in society. Sammy’s role is more than just that of narrator. He also plays the main character in the story. The character is dynamic and round, unlike other characters. It changes as it goes from passive to active in the fight against society. Updike’s story is told through the eyes the protagonist. This allows the reader to experience the journey as a “sheep”. Sammy’s transformation binds together the antagonists and closes the gap. Sammy unites the opposing forces in this story.

Updike’s “A & P”, a fictional short story, contains a complicated web of elements. Deconstructing and analyzing this web can reveal many hidden ideas. Each of these six elements is interconnected. The plot is the frame that the other elements are built around. Characters and settings also serve as symbols to reveal the theme of the story. The narrator’s perspective is what ties the entire narrative together. After analyzing the interrelationships among the major elements of fiction, it is clear that “A & P'” has a lot of meaning and consistency, but also a lot of complexity.

Works Consulted

Updike, John. The Norton Introduction to Literature, “A&P”. 10th ed. Ed. Alison Booth, Kelly J. Mays. New York: Norton, 2011 (original publication). 409-14.


  • camdynelliott

    Camdyn Elliott is a 35-year-old educational blogger and school teacher. She has been writing about education for nearly a decade, and her work has been featured on sites like The Huffington Post and The New York Times. Camdyn is the founder of the education blog Education Week, and she is also the author of the book "How to Teach Like a Pro: A Guide to Effective Teaching Methods for College and Career Students."

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