The Centaur by John Updike Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In an interview in the Paris Review, John Updike confessed that The Centaur seemed his truest and liveliest book, a book which he was prompted to write in order to publicize the myth of Chiron, one of the few instances of self-sacrifice from the classical world. The novel contains an interesting, if at times rather disturbing, mixture of classical figures amid a realistic setting. The purpose of the actual presence of the mythological figures was to expand the significance of Peter Caldwell’s nostalgia and to counterpoint an ideal with a drab level of reality.

The story is told by Peter Caldwell, who describes himself as a mediocre abstract expressionist painter. In the course of the novel, Peter, who lives in Greenwich Village with his black girlfriend, re-creates a three-day period immediately after World War II, when he was a teenager. Through his recollection, Peter is able to understand his father, George, with a clarity denied him as a younger man, and he recognizes the self-sacrifice that his father made in order to enable his son to pursue his career as an artist.

The novel opens abruptly within the mode of the mythological by introducing Chiron—disguised as a high school science teacher—who has been wounded in the ankle by an arrow in accordance with the Greek myth. He limps out of the classroom on his remaining three hooves to Al Hummel’s garage to have the arrow removed. Chiron returns to his classroom by way of the school basement to avoid the principal, who hectors him throughout the novel. In keeping with the mythological setting of the first chapter, the centaur recalls meeting Al Hummel’s wife, Vera, in the guise of Venus, once before in the school basement. The image of her emerging from the steam of the...

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The Centaur Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Centaur, John Updike’s third novel, won for him his first National Book Award. Its story is of George Caldwell, a science teacher in a small Pennsylvania town, and his fifteen-year-old son, Peter. Updike’s own father was a teacher in the high school in Shillington, Pennsylvania, and the book was in part intended to be a tribute to his father.

In January of 1947, George fears he may have cancer and goes after school for X rays. He and Peter then drive to a swim meet in a nearby town; their 1936 Buick breaks down, forcing them to spend the night. The next night a snow storm sets in during a basketball game, and the repaired Buick cannot get them all the way home. They walk the rest of the way through the snow and find out that the doctor has called—George does not have cancer. Peter has developed a severe fever, so he stays home the next day as George goes through the snow to school, realizing that his fate is not to die, but to live.

Peter is remembering these events fifteen years later, and the reader realizes that they were not just ordinary trials of a schoolteacher and his son, but crucial experiences in one boy’s undertaking the universal task of finding one’s father—and one’s own identity. To reinforce this universality, Updike utilizes myth.

The book’s title comes from the identification of George Caldwell with Chiron, the noble centaur (half-man, half-horse) who gave his life so Prometheus might...

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The Centaur Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Centaur draws heavily upon Updike’s experiences growing up in Shillington, Pennsylvania, and pays homage to his father. In many ways, the novel is Updike’s most complex work, involving an interweaving of the myth of Chiron the centaur with the story of an adolescent boy and his father in the winter of 1947. The novel is part Bildungsroman, a novel of moral education, and part Künstlerroman, a novel of an artist seeking his identity in conflict with society or with his past. The nine chapters of the novel emerge as a collage, a narrative appropriate for the painter-narrator. Nearly thirty, Peter Caldwell, the artist-protagonist, is seeking to recover from his past some insight or understanding that might clarify and rejuvenate his artistic vocation. He reminisces to his black mistress in a Manhattan loft about a three-day period during the winter of 1947, fourteen years earlier.

Peter tells of his self-conscious adolescence, growing up an only child, living on a farm with his parents and Pop Kramer, his grandfather. His father is the high school biology teacher and swim coach, and his acts of compassion and charity embarrass the boy. On a mythic level, the father is depicted as Chiron the centaur, part man and part stallion, who serves as mentor to youthful Greek heroes. Chiron’s life is sacrificial—he suffers for his charges, just as Peter’s father suffered for (and often from) his students. Peter is eventually...

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The Centaur Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Campbell, Jeff H. Updike’s Novels: Thorns Spell a Word. Wichita Falls, Tex.: Midwestern State University Press, 1987.

Detweiler, Robert. John Updike. New York: Twayne, 1984.

Greiner, Donald. John Updike’s Novels. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1984.

McNaughton, William, ed. Critical Essays on John Updike. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982.

McTavish, John. “John Updike and the Funny Theologian.” Theology Today 48 (January, 1992): 413-425. McTavish argues that the influence of Karl Barth is especially apparent in Rabbit Run, The Centaur, and On the Farm. In the case of The Centaur, McTavish buttresses his argument by citing the epigraph from Barth that announces the novel’s theme, the covenant of grace.

Schiff, James A. John Updike Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1998. In this readable, up-to-date overview, Schiff endeavors to understand Updike’s entire body of work, putting individual works in context for the reader. Schiff provides commentary on works that have largely been ignored by the public as well as books that have received little critical attention. Includes an analysis of The Centaur.

Sethuraman, Ramchandran. “Updike’s The Centaur: On Aphanisis, Gaze, Eyes, and the Death Drive.” Literature and Psychology 39 (Fall, 1993): 38-65. Using the principles of Jacques Lacan, Sethuraman examines the Oedipal motivations of the main characters, who seem to be attracted to death wishes. The conflict between George, the father, and Peter, the son, show that both have failed to incorporate the Other into their personalities.

Updike, John, and James Plath, ed. Conversations with John Updike. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994. A collection of interviews given by Updike between 1959 and 1993. A revealing portrait of Updike’s background and personality; his views on life, sex, politics, and religion; and his evolution as a writer.