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LIT 201: The American Short Story
Date: Oct. 10th
Topic: Class difference and other themes in John Updike's "A&P" and John Cheever's "The Swimmer"

Please come prepared to discuss the following questions:


Do you think the narrator of "A&P," if riding in a car with friends, would pretend to hate a song on the radio he secretly liked in order to appear cooler?


Updike at one point likens the store to "a pinball machine" as the narrator waits for the girls to emerge from one of the aisles. Why do you think he chose this somewhat archaic reference rather than something more contemporary like "Centipede" or "Doom" or "Madden 2000"? Whatever happened to Quisp cereal?


How can Cheever get away with calling his story "The Swimmer" when the guy was probably walking or running more than swimming? Does he think we're stupid or something? Besides, why wouldn't the guy just stay at the first house and keep drinking?


Do you think Updike means for the store's manager to stand in for Adlai Stevenson, who was president at the time the story was written? There's a word for the ultimate conformist type, taken from the title character of a book written in the 1920s, but I can't remember what it is. Do you know what I'm talking about?


Why do you think Updike chose to pass secret messages to me through this story rather than a novel like "Couples" or "Rabbit, Run"? Given his somewhat arch characterization of middle-class commerce, do you think he was serious about taking down Sam Walton?


The title of the story implies that, for Updike, the supermarket is not only the physical setting but also a state of mind. Give some examples that indicate Updike's attitude toward the supermarket and the people who shop there. Then explain how someone is supposed to make a living on an Assistant Professor salary of $24,000.


Edmund Wilson once wrote, "Doorbell broken--please knock." How might this sentiment be applied to Cheever's Neddy Merrill, who finds himself looking through the windows of his own deserted house? Compare Neddy Merrill's feelings at that moment to the feelings of, for example, a fictional Assistant Professor after a humiliating and unfair performance review by the head of the English Department. Describe the head of the English Department. How pompous do you think he would be? Would he be fat and smell of adult diapers?


Have you ever taken an impulsive action, like Updike's 19-year-old narrator who quits at the end of the story, and had it backfire? Have you ever had a brief affair with someone much younger than you--let's say she's a student in your writing workshop--and she promised not to tell anyone, but then she did?


At the end of Updike's story, the narrator remarks "I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter." Do you remember how old you were when the last trace of hope was crushed out of you?

10. Do you really think I planned my life this way? Explain.

More literary humor:
The Breakfast Table
Mauve Gloves and Manual Typewriters
Beckett's Lucky

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