Lorraine Balint--- Intro to Literature Tues. PM--- Sept. 9, 2003
Chauvinism: def.2 (American Heritage Dictionary): prejudiced belief in the superiority of one's own gender, group, or kind.
"Male chauvinism" as a widely-used term seems to have gone out of fashion in the last twenty years. If anything, there are a variety of chauvinisms, called "special interests" or "issues", which have taken the place of the phrase. This story brings into confluence several different "chauvinisms."
Judging by the character "Sammy's" behavior, attitudes, and actions as set forth in "A & P", he doesn't strike this feminist as particularly male chauvinistic, as I used to understand it. He objectifies the women he encounters, to be sure, and makes snippy and snotty comments on their appearances and actions, but in a typically youthful manner (being age 19) and without real malice or dangerous salaciousness (the story being set, apparently, in the "innocent" early 1950's, when records were sung by crooners and made of "wax", when a young man's romantic conquests--- or offspring--- were "chalked on his fusillage", when non-electronic cash registers chinged out change, and before two-piece bathing suits evolved into "bikinis".) Sammy doesn't even seem mildly rebellious against authority, having accepted this less-than-thrilling cashier job in deference to his parents' wishes, until the store manager's apparent humiliation of the three girls initiates his first streak of independance.
His epiphany isn't even what, years later in the 1970s, used to be called an "Alan Alda-- Phil Donahue" type of male sympathy with the girls, especially the "Queen"--- Sammy is glowing from the fact that he handled a dollar bill the Queen had stored in her bosom, after all, and he still admires the plump girl's rear end, and disparages their tall, "striking", "Goony" friend. Though his choice to quit DOES signal that he may well move beyond modest middle-class expectations and ideals, it's not completely the result of a quickening of male sensitivity or lack of ulterior motives.
Sammy, who has perceived that the young ladies must be from a higher social strata than his own (a class which, in those days, was more likely to have owned a built-in pool, which may explain why they wore bathing suits in the middle of a town some miles from the nearest beach) wants to IMPRESS them with his "sympathy" and "empathy", to be their "hero". It's a futile sacrifice in that regard. Still, Sammy HAS proven himself capable of forming a resolve based on an humane principle, and carrying it out--- thus, setting a precedent for future sacrifices of this nature, and perhaps, some day, in a better cause
The girls themselves, are chauvinists of a sort, their own concept of their superior status allowing them to walk into a public place in a manner of dress not usually acceptable in that setting. (What, didn't they have "Shirts and Shoes Required" signs posted at the entrances to stores in those days? Or maybe it was just ASSUMED, as Sammy himself observed during the story?) Their own attitude is demonstrated by the fact that they didn't just run into the store, quickly asking for directions to the proper aisle for herring snacks (at least, not until they had been there for quite a while), and then getting out of there with their purchase A.S.A.P. No, they made a great show of strolling through the entire store, attracting attention from the "sheep" (a.k.a. A&P customers), "buzzing" together like they were in their own new and interesting "hive".
Lengel the Sunday School-teaching store manager, is also a chauvinist, though probably deserving of more sympathy than he gets in this story. He "hides" behind his manager's office door all day, yet "doesn't miss much". He has just put in a session of "haggling" with a vendor, and must have been feeling harassed, and ready to pass the humiliation on to someone else. The (mostly) undraped ingenues, who confound Lengel with their protestations of "decency" (while very probably, if unconsciously, igniting some repressed lust, as they have to Sammy and his married co-worker, Stokesie) , are the perfect target for the store manager to over-dramatize his authority. He's right, really, but his manner of expressing it is presented as beyond what was necessary to make his point . Lengel gets the most fitting come-uppence for his self-righteousness, when Sammy's departure forces him to take over the cashier job, and to interact with the "herd" of customers this "good shepherd" appears to have been avoiding.
In short, all the chauvinists in the story DO "see the light" from their various points of view, but not in some conventional "moral" sense, and only in Sammy, does the "lesson" seem to stick. (As in all stories told from a first-person basis, one is left wondering if this was based on an incident from Updike's own youth, or a story he heard from a friend, and if so, how did it reflect his own personal growth experience.)