A & P is highly symbolic story that expresses various themes in a symbolic way. The most important feature of the story is its highly symbolic settings. Updike set up the story in a supermarket and makes this supermarket as a microcosmic reflection of the social world and its various aspects.
Gilbert Porter writes in this regard that, “right in the middle of town, surrounded by ‘two banks and the Congregational church and the newspaper store and three real estate offices’ stands Updike’s symbolic A& P” (1155). So this setting provides a symbolic representation of whole socio-economics set-up of the contemporary world. The utilization of words ‘right in the middle’ by Updike shows the importance and centrality of supermarket in life. Infact, it (supermarket) is an expression of almost all aspects of human life i.e. social structure, class conflicts, attitudes of individuals, centrality of economics in human life.
In A & P supermarket, everything happens that is happening in the contemporary world. On one side, it demonstrates social structures as each of the customers belongs to a different social stratum. Sammy, the protagonist can be viewed as a rebellious agent present in the universe since time immemorial. He rebels against these social structures. The difference between what he imagines to be present at a party in Queenie’s living room and real parties at his own home is an important image the difference in social classes. This difference in social class is due to above-mentioned social structures. Sammy says, ‘When my parents have somebody over they get lemonade and if it's a real racy affair Schlitz in tall glasses with "They'll Do It Every Time" cartoons stencilled on. (Updike)
Furthermore, Updike has highlighted the differences between one social order and the other by describing some other examples. For example, in Queenie’s social territory, people eat “Kingfish Fancy herring snacks in Pure Sour Cream” (Updike) which symbolizes a higher and privileged social class whereas Sammy eats HiHo Crackers that are eaten by the people of lower-class. Some characters in the supermarket also present the characteristics of the world. Lengel, a character, represents the Puritan work ethic. Lengel is contrasted against Sammy as he follows traditional values and represents the strict professional ethics whereas Sammy does not follow the traditions and has his own way of thinking and doing things. Mr. Porter recognizes him as “the Voice of the Establishment” (1157).
In addition to the stated difference in social classes, supermarket also represents rebellious nature of its time and considers the never-ending clash between conservative and radical. A&P has presented this conflict microcosmically between Sammy and Queenie on one side (radicals) whereas Lengels and customers in the store on the other side (conservative). Sammy is caught in social compulsions at the start of the story and symbolizes a convention-ridden individual and society. Queenie and her company is an illustration of the rebellious temperament and any other non-conformist attitude and values. She and her party enter and wander around the store barefooted unlike other housewives and people who only come with shopping lists and remain totally engrossed in them. They represent the common individuals who spent their whole life occupied by the thoughts of livelihood and survival. Stokesie, Sammy's older co-worker, symbolically presents the common course of life that a common individual adopts in life. In this world, one passes through the same stages as Stokesie does after getting adulthood i.e. job, marriage, children and death. The incidental happenings in the supermarket demonstrate some of the important events in the world e.g. the massive transformation where values and ideologies are changing rapidly as the number of customers and their buying behaviour in the supermarket.
So above-mentioned discussion and supportive evidence clearly suggest that A&P is a microcosm of world and manifests it various basic social elements and aspects in a symbolic way.
Porter, M. Gilbert. John Updike's "A&P": The Establishment and an Emersonian
Cashier. The English Journal, Vol. 61, No. 8 (Nov., 1972): 1155-1158.
Updike, John. Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories. New York; Knopf, 1962.
Wells, Walter. “John Updike and A&P: A Return Visit to Araby”. Studies in Short fiction. Vol. 30. No. 2. (Spring 1993): 127-133.