Sunday, July 17, 2011

Idealism

The discussion of John Updike's classic short story "A & P" over at Three Guys One Book got me thinking about that story. It's a rather straightforward* narrative in which Sammy, a young grocery-store employee, quits his job after watching his boss berate three young women who have dared to come into the supermarket in their bathing suits. (And yes, it is steeped in the narrator's longing for the girls.)

The reactions to this story generally seem to fall into two camps: either the reader buys into the main character's worldview and sees his final gesture as important (if not noble), somehow necessary and inevitable; or the reader doesn't identify with the character and sees Sammy as shallow/ pitching an unnecessary hissy fit.

I fall somewhere in the middle. That is, I think Sammy sees his gesture as important, and yet I think the story ends not with triumph, nor with a shrug, but with dread. With regret--not that he quit his job, but that he lives in a world that will not reward him for quitting his job. That's always how I've seen the story, and in rereading it, I think the last line bears out this interpretation:

"... my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter."

People often talk about how wonderful it is that young people are idealistic, at the same time they are desperately trying to cure them of that idealism, for fear they won't survive otherwise. And to me, this struggle between the nobility of idealism and the practical notions of survival--i.e., the acceptance that you may have to do things you don't agree with in order to put food on the table--is one of the central struggles of adolescence. It's one of many reasons I love to write and read young-adult literature.



*Straightforward in style, that is. People certainly find depth in it, and argue over its meaning, but my point is that its structure and narrative line are not experimental in style.

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