Turning a Phrase

Turning a Phrase
A Critical Analysis of
John Updike’s Short Story
( read the story )

by Thomas Jay Rush

I never understood why people said John Updike was a great writer, however, after reading this story I do.  This is an amazing story.  Mr. Updike’s use of the English language is wonderful – in the literal sense of the word.  He says things in ways that I’ve never heard before.  Is this because he is a southern writer or because he’s a very creative writer. I think it’s probably the latter.

In this simple story a young man is mesmerized by a girl that comes into the store he works in.  The girl, and two of her friends, come into the store wearing only bathing suits.  The story revolves around a description of the prettiest girl, the “queen bee” (Queenie thereafter), as she moves through the store looking for a jar of “Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream: 49¢”.  When the girls finally make their way to the checkout slot the manager of the store chastises the girls for being indecent.  The narrator, a young man that cannot seemingly help himself, quits in protest of the manager’s treatment of the girls.

Throughout the piece Mr. Updike uses the most pleasant choice of words.  His turn of phrase is quite entertaining.  This interesting turn of phrase makes itself know in the first sentence where Mr. Updike simply jumps right in with both feet starting the story with “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits” which is actually a partial sentence, but it totally works.  Other wonderful turns of phrase include him saying that the girl’s upper chest looked “like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light”, saying the girls walked up the “cat-and-dog-food-breakfast-cereal-macaroni-rice-raisins-seasonings-spreads-spaghetti-soft drinks-crackers-and-cookies aisle”, that his friend Stoksie had “two babies chalked up on his fuselage”.  These types of magical formulations appear in almost every paragraph, making reading the story a pure joy.  Careful study of the text, as I’ve done in the table below, is well rewarded.

The author uses a couple of other techniques that I particularly liked as well.  Throughout the beginning of the story he repeatedly refers to things as “white”.  White shoulders, white skin, two crescents of white skin under a girls bathing suit bottoms, white shoulders, white shirts.  This simple symbolism implies the purity of the girls.  It also reiterates the feeling a young man might experience when a slightly scantily clad young women comes near.

The author frequently uses words that can be interpreted as sexual.  For example he uses the word peach twice in the story, peach being a colloquialism for a pretty girl.  At one point he says that one of the characters opened a paper bag as if he as “peeling a peach”, clearly a reference to remove a pretty girl’s clothes.  Almost any time he describes any physical attribute of Queeny the words he chooses can be interpreted as being sexual: “racks”, “rub the inside of my apron”, he uses the word “pink” a lot.

Another technique I enjoyed is found near the middle of the story when the author says “Now here comes the sad part of the story” indicating with no ambiguity whatsoever the transition from the start of the story to the middle and end of the story.  This is an odd thing to do perhaps, but in this story it works perfectly.

The entire concept of the story – on top of its wonderful use of words and interesting phrases – is also very entertaining.  A boy, in a rash moment, thinking he might win the love of a pretty girl, figuratively jumps off a bridge but tragically does not win the girl. That’s cute – and so indicative of something a young man might do.

I think this is an excellent short story. It not too long – it moves quickly – almost every paragraph contains some interesting or delightful turn of phrase – and it tells a cute and fun story. This story was first published in the New Yorker on July 22, 1961, also later appeared in the collection Pigeon Feathers. A short film was made of the story which you may view here.

I do not find a whole lot of symbolism in the story.  Some writers interpret the A&P to be a symbol of middle class society – and Sammy’s rebellion against the A&P as a rebellion against convention, but I don’t see that.

A list of the interesting or unusual phrasing in this piece:


My Reaction

? In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits   This is the opening sentence.  It’s titillating.  Its interesting.  I want to find out about these girls. 
? soft-looking can   Describing a fat girl’s ass. 
? two crescents of white just under it   A place on the girl’s ass that is not tanned but shows.  Good observation. 
? one of these cash-register-watchers, a witch about fifty   Updike is mean to the regular customers in this story – he shows them disdain every time he mentions one. 
? By the time I got her feathers smoothed   He made the customer feel better.  The customer is a bird.  Other customers are compared to pigs, sheep, etc. 
? a little snort   There is a recurring theme of customers being pigs in this story. 
? one of those chubby berry-faces    A strange description of someone’s face, but you get the idea clearly. 
? white prima donna legs    Updike starts describing the prettiest girl as a queen early in the story and then calls her Queeny from there on.  This is how he describes Queeny’s legs. 
? dirty-pink – – beige maybe, I don’t know — bathing suit with a little nubble…    First of all he interjects the little ‘I don’t know’ in there reminding us that he was there and it is he that is describing this story.  Secondly – the use of the word nubble is titillating.  You can feel this young man’s boner growing. 
? looped loose around the cool tops of her arms    Why does he add the word “cool” here?
? shining rim    The slim sliver of white skin exposed by her bathing suit top hanging down because her shoulder straps are off her shoulders.  To notice that this thin strip of white skin even exists – and then to make it clear how sexy that is – is one of the reasons why this is a great writer. 
? like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light   An odd way, but wonderful, to describe her shoulders the part of her body  between the bottom of her shoulders and the top of her chest. 
? kind of dirty-pink…sort of oaky hair…

kind of prim face…

  Use of “kind of” and “sort of” is the character talking.  It gives us an idea of where this kid speaking came from. 
? oaky hair that the sun and salt had bleached   A good description.  Very clear what color it is. 
? She must have felt in the corner of her eye me and over my shoulder Stoksie…    An odd but poetic way of putting it.  Weird punctuation.
? but she didn’t tip   She didn’t let on that she had noticed the boys noticing her.  I find the word “tip” suggestive somehow. 
? …her eyes moving across the racks, and stopped, and turned so slow it made my stomach rub the inside of my apron…    His stomach was not the only thing rubbing against the inside of his apron.  The word “racks” is suggestive.
? …when Queenie’s white shoulders dawned on them…   Describing the other customers as they encountered this girl walking around with her bathing suit top down.  The word “dawned” is perfect. 
? cat-and-dog-food-breakfast-cereal-macaroni-rice-raisins-seasonings-spreads-spaghetti-soft drinks-crackers-and-cookies aisle    A funny way of saying it.  You can feel the young writer flexing his muscles.
? The sheep   Again a stab at the customers this time as sheep. 
? this jiggled them   Used to describe how the customers felt when the encountered Queeny’s white shoulders – but the word “jiggled” implies that they encountered something else as well. 
? house-slaves in pin curlers   Another mean shot at the customers. 
? …all those stacked packages, with her feet paddling along naked over our checkerboard green-and-cream rubber-tile floor .    The words “stacked” and “naked” again hinting at the authors growing interest in this girl.  The “green-and-cream rubber-tile floor” just a fun way of saying it and very visual.
? …two babies chalked up on his fuselage already    World war two reference which would have been prevalent when this was written.  Shows a nineteen year old’s lack of respect for fatherhood. 
? Great Alexandrov and Petrooshki Tea Company   A joke that in the 1950’s would have been read as the Russian’s taking over the country. 
? big summer colony out on the Point… we’re north of Boston.    The summer colony is of rich people – like Queeny, not him.  He lives in a town where some people “haven’t seen the ocean for twenty years”.  This paragraph is where Updike inserts setting.  He doesn’t make a big deal of it.  It is just naturally part of the story. 
? varicose veins mapping their legs   Again with the attack on the older women shoppers. 
? twenty-seven old free-loaders tearing up Central Street   OK John.  Let’s attack the old guys bums now.  Showing disrespect for everyone – as young late teenage boys do. 
? Diet Delight peaches    The girls are peaches.
? sizing up their joints   Joints is interpreted loosely here. 
? Now here comes the sad part of the story    He’s helping the reader understand that he’s moving into the middle of the story. 
? The whole store was like a pinball machine…. around the light bulbs..    This is such an unusual way to put it but it is 100% understandable.  This is perfect.  The little added “around the light bulbs” is perfect. 
? an old party in baggy gray pants    A bum.  A little bit of respect here “old party” but he means bum. 
? into my fingers icy cold   Technically this says that his fingers were icy cold but its clear he means the jar.  Interesting that the word cold or cool is used frequently in this piece.  Queeny is cool – unapproachable – unattainable. 
? Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream: 49¢.   Wonderful detail.  Its things like this that makes this story stand out.  This is a memorable detail. 
? the hollow at the center of her nubbled pink top   The word “nubble” again.  What does that make you think of? 
? The jar went heavy in my hand   What he’s saying is that he was stunned when she reached into her bathing suit top to get her money, as any nineteen year old red-blooded American boy would be. 
? Then everybody’s luck begins to run out.   Especially the author’s.
? haggling with a truck full of cabbages   Lengel, a new character, doesn’t just come in he comes in from haggling with a truck full of cabbage.  He’s not haggling with a truck driver, nor with the cabbage, but with the truck full of cabbages.  Another perfect detail. 
? the girls touch his eye    He doesn’t just see them – they “touch his eye”. 
? the way it [her voice] ticked over “pick up” and “snacks.”    The use of the word “ticked” is interesting.
? All of a sudden I slid right down her voice into her living room…   What an interesting way of saying it.  In other words he understood her.  This is almost cinematic – you can almost see the camera going down her throat and arriving in her living room. 
? a really sweet can   “can” is an old fashioned word now.  It makes the story a bit nostalgic. 
? her lower lip pushing   Every time this guy describes something about this girl’s physical body it is titillating.  “Lower lip pushing” is titillating. 
? her very blue eyes.   The word “very” here is quite effective.  Queeny is no ordinary person with ordinary blue eyes. 
? shook open a paper bag as gently as peeling a peach   That’s pretty gentle.  Not to mention that if one thinks of the girls as peaches then “peeling a peach” has a sexual connotation. 
? it begins to make a little song    Let’s throw sound into the party while we’re at it.  Just an added bit of fun. 
? two smoothest scoops of vanilla   A tasty way to describe Queeny’s tits. 
? her narrow pink palm   Take every opportunity, John to remind us of her sexuality.  The use of the word “pink” is suggestive. 
? they flicker across the lot to their car   Why “flicker”?  Because of the electric eyes?  Just fun.
? Leaving me with Lengle and a kink in his eyebrow.    Lengle is pissed.
? I started to say something that came out “Fiddle-de-doo.”    That is just funny.
? …like scared pigs in a chute.   Let’s take one more shot at the customers before we end. 
? The bow tie is theirs, if you’ve ever wondered.    Never did – but thanks for letting me know.
? in my white shirt that my mother ironed the night before    Why does he add this detail?  Cause he’s an great writer that’s why.  It hints toward the difficulty he is going to have when he explains why he lost his job. 
? the door heaves itself open    I would have just said the door opened but like the artist he is Updike never passes up an opportunity to be wonderful. 
? outside the sunshine is skating around on the asphalt.   How can someone ever think to say something so interesting? 
? my girls   Now they are his girls.  He wishes.  He will probably never see them again. 
? as if he’d just had an injection of iron   Iron backbone – what Sammy just exhibited. 

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