classic story A&P, John Updike pays tribute to two Greek motifs, the heroic epiphany leading to the emergence of the classical hero and the power of beauty. In this work, Sammy is the hero, trapped in the work-a-day world, who because of beauty's inspiration is motivated to seize the opportunity to act in grand and noble fashion. Like many heroes, especially Paris, in Homer's Iliad, Sammy is inspired to his realization by the appearance and attention of a goddess. In Paris' case, depending on the storyteller, the goddess was Venus or Eros or Aphrodite -- the goddess of love and beauty. In Sammy's case it was a teenage girl in a swimsuit. Updike's portrayal of Venus is actually an echo of an echo, as he gives us a vision of Venus as she is realized in Botticelli's 15th century painting.
As is the case with Venus and Paris, the goddess has to do very little but simply be present to inspire our hero to realize his greatest desire. Her price for this is the Golden Apple, often time referred to as the apple of discord, as the apple, a prize to be given to the most lovely of the goddesses, was claimed by Hera and Minerva in addition to Aphrodite.
P," first appeared in The New Yorker in July of 1961. Even more at that time than today, The New Yorker was the magazine of the well cultured, and Updike's allusions certainly would not be lost on them. There is of course an undercurrent of satire in this story as the noble characters of yore are placed inside a brightly lit A&P and the events turn not on a mythical golden apple but rather on a jar of herring.
In this story, Sammy the narrator is explaining himself in a way that a Homeric character certainly would not have to. He is trying to explain what possessed him so suddenly to quit his job at the local supermarket. And as with the unawares Paris, who is suddenly beset by the three goddesses in the story of the golden apple, into the A&P and Sammy's life comes trouble in the guise of beauty. "In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits." The prohibitions against such informal attire was not their concern anymore than Hera, Aphrodite and Athena would be concerned about rules of human decorum.
While Sammy first eyes the girls as a teenage male, the poet inside him comes forth to justify his desire, especially for the one whom he names Queenie. She is the confident one and clearly the leader of the three by regard of her confidence and beauty. "She was the queen. She kind of led them, the other two peeking around and making their shoulders round. She didn't look around, not this queen, she just walked straight on slowly, on these long white prima-donna legs." (Updike, p188) But despite the lust in his own nineteen-year-old heart, Sammy is disgusted, both by the leering butcher and the manager who embarrasses the girl and her companions about their improper dress. For Sammy, insulting the girls, especially Queenie, is akin to calling Botticelli's work pornographic. It is with regard to this last insult, that Sammy takes his stand and quits his job on the spot, much the same as Paris renounced his family by choosing love above all else when he could have had wisdom or the whole world as offered by the other two goddesses. The manager even brings up his family obligations, telling Sammy how disappointed his parents will be. But as Sammy says "once you begin a gesture, it's fatal not to go through with it"
Only Sammy is not living in a very heroic time, and unlike most every heroic movie and book since the beginning of history, Sammy is never recognized for his chivalry. Unlike Paris, who gave up all in exchange for the opportunity to possess beauty in the form of Helen, Sammy in the modern age is left with nothing but his hormones and his shaky principles. He acts decisively, but the girls have already disappeared from his life by the time he exits the store. He knows from this point that life will be very different. Ending the story on this melancholy note he says,."..my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter"(Updike, 191)
While Sammy is not aware of the great irony involved, Updike most certainly is, and is no doubt aware of the long current of literature from the time of Homer that has cast beauty, Eros, Aphrodite, or Venus as the provocateur, just through her mere presence and the desire that implies. In some cases, Eros inspires us to act foolishly and impulsively and in some cases quite nobly, but always so it would seem against the world's better judgement as was the case with both Paris and later with Sammy.
Sandro Botticelli's fifteenth-century painting, given several names but usually referred to as The Birth of Venus (c.1482) is one of the most famous and well-known images of all time. It is a depiction of Venus, the Greek goddess of love, resplendently nude, standing quite tall atop her shell as she is blown ashore. She, like Queenie, is the tall one flanked by two other attendant females.
According to critic Ronald Lithown, Botticelli's painting is a "celebration of the beauty of the female nude, represented for its own perfection, rather than with erotic or moral overtones." (Lithblown, p 52). In the same passage Lithbown also mentions just how indifferent Venus seems to us all. And despite that indifference, or perhaps because of it, the attraction of Venus is so great. Queenie too seems quite indifferent to Sammy and in fact to everything, including rules of proper dress. But Sammy forgives her; to him she can do no wrong. "You never know for sure how girls' minds work," he says. (Updike-188).
She is a goddess, and that she is indifferent is irrelevant to Sammy almost to the point that he is willing to make any excuse for her. Sammy believes and perhaps its true that she is unaware of the impact she has, taking out her money from her. Not willing to admit the desire it brings to him, not willing to tarnish his goddess by his desire he instead calls her action, "so cute," without even the slightest hint of irony. Sammy's awe is no different from Paris or any of the millions of Botticelli' admirers.
Now her hands are empty, not a ring or a bracelet, bare as God made them, and I wonder where the money's coming from. Still with that prim look she lifts a folded dollar bill out of the hollow at the center of her nubbled pink top. The jar went heavy in my hand." (Updike 190)
From the outset Sammy can't keep his eyes from her, anymore than Paris could keep from choosing Venus to be the fairest. The imagery that Updike uses to describe Queenie is clearly echoing the Venus of Botticelli. Consider the description he lays before us.
She had on a kind of dirty-pink-beige maybe, I don't know, bathing suit with a little nubble all over it and, what got me, the straps were down. They were off her shoulders looped loose around the cool tops of her arms, and I guess as a result the suit had slipped a little on her, so all around the top of the cloth there was this shining rim. If it hadn't been there you wouldn't have known there could have been anything whiter than those shoulders. With the straps pushed off, there was nothing between the top of the suit and the top of her head except just her, this clean bare plane of the top of her chest down from the shoulder bones like a dented sheet of metal titled in the light, I mean, it was more than pretty." (Updike 189)
And speaking of her elegance, Sammy says, "She held her head so high her neck, coming up out of those white shoulders, looked kind of stretched, but I didn't mind. The longer her neck was, the more of her there was." (Updike 189)
Queenie just blown in from the sea in search of Kingfish herring is absolutely all Botticelli': the long, white legs, bare feet, her beautiful white body and her dark blonde hair, slightly undone as an effect of the sea air., a serious indifference, and just like the Venus in the portrait, an unusually long neck that adds rather than detracts from the beauty of an idealized and idolized female image. The cool hues of the painting, mirroring the goddess's aloofness also bring to mind the cool fluorescent lights of the A&
But more important than the image the beauty, is the impact that this Venus has on her environment. Sammy feels it is his lucky stars that have led her to…