John Updike’s short-story “A&P” (1961) and Dagoberto Gilb’s “Love in L.A.” (1993) feature contrasting narrators, each of whom is representative of a different social ethic and moral vision. In Updike’s story, the protagonist, Sammy, begins as a shallow, disdainful personality, but ends by taking a stand against what he views to be th hypocrisy of society. In Gilb’s story, the protagonist, Jake, lives a superficial existence which is sustained from the story’s beginning to its end. Both writers are trying to comment on what they feel is a crucial conflict between the superficial demands of society and the significance of individuality. The main difference between the two stories is that Updike’ story remains optimistic while Gilb seems to be making a cynical observation about the nature of modern existence.
Despite the ultimate difference in vision, the two stories begin by introducing characters who are, by and large, immersed in a superficial life. For example, Sammy, in “A&P” works in a job he hates. he spends most of his time wishing he was elsewhere and categorizing the customers who shop in the A&P into denigrating categories. He’s bored and feels constrained by his job but he wants to remain socially respectable. Beneath the surface, he longs to do something that will take him out of his pedestrian compliance to society and show that he’s an individual. By contrast, Jake in “Love in L.A.” relishes his superficial life. He’s unemployed and fantasizes about gaining a better life for himself, but does nothing to make it happen. Sammy is trapped in a world where he has little or not freedom and Jake is self-contained in a world of absolute freedom where he lives only a selfish existence.
The easiest way to demonstrate the difference between the two characters is to examine their interactions with women that are portrayed in each of the stories. The way that the two characters relate to women is indicative of their moral nature. This morality points to the theme of each of the stories. For example, Sammy in “A&P” is sexually attracted to the girls who come into the store wearing nothing but bathing suits, but he is not aggressive toward the girls, and initially watches them from a distance. When Sammy sees the girls walk into the store his first impression of then is that they are both sweet and vulnerable. Of the two girls, he favors the younger one who is a bit more overweight: “Shew as a chunky kid with a good tan” (McMahan, 441). His feeling for the girls is one of friendliness mixed with sexual attraction.
Jake, by contrast, plows into Mariana’s car while is fantasizing about getting a better life and car for himself. instead of accepting responsibility for the car accident and acting in a legally correct way, he lies to Mariana and tries to get her to date him. His initial interaction with her shows his contempt both for honesty and for women in general. He reacts to Mariana like a dog reaching a bowl of treats: “He inhaled her scent like it was clean air and and straightened out his less than new but not unhip clothes” (McMahan, 46). Similarly, when he sees that Mariana comes from a strong family and that she is responsible to her father, he begins to feel her wriggling out of his influence.
The way that each of the characters interacts with women is also the main device by which tension in the stories is created. In “A&P” the tension builds between Sammy’s appreciation of and sympathy for the girls and his responsibilities and obligations to his job and family. In “Love in L.A.,” the tension in the story grown out of the reader’s not knowing whether Mariana will fall for Jake’s lies and trickery. The reader understands that Jake is a liar when he gives Mariana false information about his insurance coverage: “He made up a last name adn address and wrote down the name of an Insurance company an old girlfriend had once belonged to” (McMahan, 46). The suspense in the story comes from whether or not not his lies will succeed.
The biggest difference between the two protagonists is that Sammy is an heroic character trapped in a mundane situation whereas Jake is an antihero who roams freely through a landscape that should be heroic. Both stories make use of irony. The main irony in “A&P” is that Sammy quits his job on behalf of two girls he doesn’t even know and never sees again. The irony in “Love in L.A.” comes from the fact that despite the car-wreck, absolutely nothing changes in Jake’s life. he learns nothing from the experience, but merely integrates it into his deceitful adn superficial reality. The difference in the way that the climax impact the protagonists of the stories is a demonstration of different themes. Updike’s theme is that individuality is more important than conformity, while Gilb’s theme is that the superficiality of modern society is dangerously close to destroying individuality.
Seen in this way, Sammy and Jake show two types of characters in narrative fiction: dynamic and static. A dynamic character is one that changes throughout the course of the story or novel and a static character is a character who does not change. the use of a dynamic character encourages the interpretation of a theme based on catharsis, whereas a story that features a static character is making a thematic comment about the lack of catharsis. In simple terms, a static character, like Jake, usually indicates an ironic lack of growth while a dynamic character like Sammy shows growth and development. Although both Updike and Gild showed the conflict between the individual and ideas of social conformity, the use of characters in dynamic or static roles created two difference forms of narrative tension as well as two distinct climaxes. these elements fuse into separate and distinctive themes. The preceding comparison of the protagonists of the stories demonstrates the link between character and theme in narrative fiction as well as showing the way that irony functions in relation to character development and the articulation of theme.
McMahan, Elizabeth. Literature and the Writing Process. Parson/Prentice, 2011.