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A Marxist Analysis of John Updike's "A & P"

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liza marshall

on 12 December 2013

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Transcript of A Marxist Analysis of John Updike's "A & P"

lower-class
proletariats
of the A&P:
dumb animals
duped by consumer culture
ignorant
of their own subjugation
“The
sheep
pushing their carts down the aisle – the
girls were walking against
the usual traffic (not that we have one-way signs of anything) – were pretty hilarious. You could see them, when Queenie’s white shoulders dawned on them, kind of
jerk, or hop, or hiccup,
but their eyes snapped back to their own baskets and
on they pushed
” (231).

“A couple customers that had been heading for my
slot
begin to
knock against each other
, like
scared pigs in a chute
” (235).

“The customers had been showing up with their carts but, you know,
sheep, seeing a scene
, they had
all bunched up
” (234).
A Marxist Analysis of John Updike's "A&P"
Sammy's classism: valuing the bourgeoisie, scorning the proletariat
All of a sudden
I slid right down her voice
into her living room. Her father and the other
men were standing around
in ice-cream coats and bow ties and the women were in sandals picking up
herring snacks on toothpicks
off a big glass plate and they were all holding drinks the color of water with olives and sprigs of mint in them.

When my parents have somebody over they get lemonade and if it’s a
real racy affair
Schlitz in tall glasses

(233).
Consumerism
perpetuates the capitalist power structure
“we’re right in the
middle of town
, and if you
stand at our front doors
you can see two banks and the Congregational church and the newspaper store and three real-estate offices…” (232)

“I bet you could set off
dynamite
in an A&P and the people would by and large
keep reaching
and checking oatmeal off their lists and
muttering
‘Let me see, there was a third thing, began with A, asparagus, no ah, yes applesauce!' or
whatever it is they do mutter
"(231-2)
“all three of them went up the
cat-and-dog-food-breakfast-cereal-macaroni-rice-raisins-seasonings-spreads-spaghetti-soft-drinks-crackers-and-cookies
aisle” (231)

“The whole store was like a
pinball machine
... around the light bulbs, records at discount of the Carribean Six or Tony Martin Sings or
some such gunk you wonder they waste the wax on
, six-packs of candy bars, and
plastic toys done up in cellophane that fall apart
when a kid looks at them" (232-3).
Sammy satirizes the rampant
consumerism
of the A&P
because its
arbitrary
and meaningless nature
alienate
him to his labor, himself, and others
“a
sweet broad soft-looking can
with those two
crescents of white
just under it” (230)

“there was this one, with one of those
chubby berry-faces
” (230)

“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” (231)

“two smoothest
scoops of vanilla
I had ever known” (234)
Sammy
commodifies
the girls’ bodies
Lengel is the Christian "labor-master"
“Lengel’s pretty
dreary, teaches Sunday school
and the rest…‘Girls, this isn’t the beach’…he concentrates on giving the girls that
sad Sunday-school-superintendent stare
” (233).

Lengel: “‘After this come in here with your shoulders covered. It’s our
policy
.’ He turns his back. That’s policy for you.
Policy is what the kingpins want
. What the
others want is juvenile delinquency
” (234).
Sammy imagines himself as the revolutionary proletariat working to emancipate himself, the laborer
Does the fact that Sammy wants to but can’t escape repressive capitalist & classist ideologies serve to promote or condemn those ideologies in the text overall?
Essential Questions:
1. In what ways does the text reveal certain oppressive socioeconomic forces and ideologies such as consumerism, commodification, and classism?
2. Does the text condemn or glorify those ideologies overall?
3. What would happen if we looked at the text through a different lens?

Repressive Ideologies in 1960's American Material Culture and "A&P"
Message from Marx
: "labor is
alien
to the laborer...he does not affirm himself in his labor, but rather denies himself; he does not feel happy..."(402)
Message from Marx
: "A direct consequence of the estrangement of the humans from the product of their labor...is the
estrangement of humans
from
humans"
(404).
Message from Marx
: "The animal becomes human and the human becomes the animal" (403).
Sammy is attracted to Queenie's
upper-class

whiteness
“She was the
queen
. She kind of
led
them...she didn't look around, not this
queen
, she just walked straight on slowly, on these
long white prima-donna legs
” (231).

"You wouldn't have known there could have been anything
whiter than those shoulders
" (231).

“‘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
” (234).
'I don't think you know what you're saying,' Lengel said.
'I know you don't,' I said. 'But I do' (234).
This realistic, Marxist fiction condemns socioeconomic inequities and ideological paradoxes as part of a critique of the hierarchical capitalist structure
"My stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be hereafter" (235).
What would happen if we looked at Updike's A&P through a different lens? (e.g. psychoanalytic, feminist)

Would Sammy's motives be illuminated in a different way?
Realism
often portrays
socioeconomic inequities
and
ideological contradictions
which represent the real world, making it an
effective vehicle
for Marxist thought (Tyson 67).
Realism in Marxist Literature and A&P
Updike's "A&P" exhibits and critiques the hierarchical capitalist power structure and ideological paradoxes through which the narrator must navigate.
Message From Marx:
Individuals can only think thoughts thinkable in their society (Richter 299).
Sammy satirizes the arbitrary nature of consumerism

However, he is ignorant of his own classist attitudes and commodification of the girls

This contradiction exposes and condemns the socioeconomic inequities of an oppressive capitalist system
Main Ideas in this Marxist Reading
Consumerism
: "shop-'till-you-drop-ism" (Tyson 60)
Classism
: Value as a human being is equated to particular socioeconomic class (Tyson 59)
Commodification
: The act of relating to objects or people only in terms of their exchange or sign-exchange value (Tyson 62)
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