Comparing conflict in John Updike’s A & P and Katherine Mansfield’s miss Brill

An important element in a short story is the conflict. Since the short story is constrained to deliver its message as compared to a novel, the story is mainly focused on the conflict, and the conflict serves as an important tool to shed light on the characters. The conflict can be internal, or it can between characters, or a character against a situation. The conflict affects the outcome of the plot by offering an unexpected twist or a revelation about a character.

In John Updike’s short story, A & P, the main conflict lies within Sammy. The story is told from Sammy’s point of view, and the readers see the events unfold as Sammy sees them. The first level conflict in the story concerns the girls who come in the store wearing swimsuits and walking around barefoot even though the beach is far from town’s center. Sammy enjoys watching them, and although he knows that they were doing this to get attention, he does not reprimand them.

Everybody in the grocery just leave the girls alone although they notice that the girls were not acting according to norms. In this situation, readers get a glimpse of how Sammy thinks – he sees the people shopping in the grocery as sheep, huddling together without strength to voice out their opinions. Later in the story, Sammy demonstrates how he is different from the other people in the grocery when he quits on the spot after Lengel the manager tells off the girls. Although not explicitly said, in Sammy’s eyes the girls were different from the other shoppers and he has taken an affinity with them.

He looks at them with interest, and notes how they dared to wear their swimsuits in a conservative grocery in the middle of town five miles away from the beach. It was simply not done, and the girls did it. Driven by pride, Sammy quits his job – first to show off to the girls, to be treated as their “unsuspecting hero”, and consequently to separate himself from the sheep-like customers in their community.

The interesting twist in Sammy’s conflict is that he needs his job to support himself and his family. He quit his job on impulse, without thinking of its consequences, and when Lengel asked him to think about his decision he stubbornly stood his ground and walked away knowing full well that he needed the job but that he cannot swallow his pride. Updike devoted most of the space describing the girls through Sammy’s eyes and yet only gives a few sentences to hint that Sammy’s family has financial problems, and that young as he was he was already carrying the responsibility of an adult man.

Thus, it exacerbates the gravity of the situation – Sammy quits his job first and as he walks out it dawns on him that things will be much difficult for him.

Sammy’s way of handling his own conflict is significantly different compared to Miss Brill’s, which one may consider as more subtle as seen in the story written by Katherine Mansfield. Some of the conflicts in the story are obvious, especially between Miss Brill, the story’s main character and the people whom she meets and talks to during her usual Sundays at the park. One of the said conflicts includes a discussion with the English man and his wife about what sort of glasses frames would fit her.

The story itself would show that Miss Brill is the more stubborn kind who is quite hard to please and who takes things the way she sees and feels about them. She tries to emphasize her opinions and beliefs almost every time which may be why she enjoys having people to talk to and converse with.

The story is also peppered with different sorts of people who spend their Sundays at the park too just like Miss Brill. They, too, have their own share of conflicts which the story does not really pay attention to and offer quite a contrast and much interest and appeal to the story.

Like Updike’s story, this story is seen from Miss Brill’s eyes. Thus, the readers see that Miss Brill likes to spend her Sunday afternoons watching other people, participating in some kind of play which only she recognizes, and acts her part. From these, the readers can deduce that Miss Brill tries to get away from her problems – she only focuses on the external things, on people around her and their petty quarrels, on material luxuries such as her fur and her pastry.

She does not divulge anything about herself, rather she even disinherits negative emotions. At the beginning of the story Miss Brill gives human attributes to the fur and its eyes as though it were alive. Also, she seems to feel some kind of sadness, but corrects herself. At that point it only seemed like she was merely looking for the more appropriate emotion. But at the end of the story when she locked away her necklet, she seemed to hear something crying. She not only refuses to feel negative emotions, she even tries to displace her feelings on other objects.

Her internal conflict is that she has separated herself from her true self, and she realizes her loneliness when she overhears two young people talk about her unpleasantly. Her preoccupation sheds light on the fact that she sees herself as acting in more ways than one – she was not only part of a show during Sunday afternoons watching the band, but she was actually playing a part all her life, masking her true emotions and pretending to be satisfied even when she was empty.

If Sammy resolved his conflict by taking command of the situation through the tangible action of quitting his job, Miss Brill, on the other hand, resolved the frustration of not having anyone to talk to or not being part of the entire scene by believing that she is part of the entire scene, like an actress carefully awaiting her cue in the Sunday afternoon in the park menagerie.

She remains quite oblivious to the comments that other people have about her as she continues taking part in what she believes is a play that Sunday afternoon. Her thoughts are suddenly devoid of any conflict as she plays her role that afternoon, just like a well-trained actress in a play, which she plays quite well.

Miss Brill does not do a brazen gesture, nevertheless carries herself well as her response to the conflict in front of the public. However, both Miss Brill and Sammy still has some internal conflict to deal with, although they both handled the more immediate conflict at hand the best way they know how. In both stories, the respective conflicts the characters faced served to enlighten the reader about the character and his and her own problems and where they are coming from.

Although the resolution of the immediate conflicts were made, it paved the way into bringing into the fore deeper conflicts in the characters, showing that no character, just like real individuals, is as simple as he or she first appears to be.


Updike, John. A & P, in Portable Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing, 6th Edition, Kirszner and Mandell Publishing Co. Thomson & Wordsworth.

Mansfield, Katherine. Miss Brill, in Portable Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing, 6th Edition, Kirszner and Mandell Publishing Co. Thomson & Wordsworth.