Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The central theme of the book is Peter’s discovery of the meaning behind his father’s sacrifice, especially in a world where the very idea of sacrifice holds no religious or cultural relevance. The teacher/father has relinquished his own ambitions for the good of the artist/son; the intellect has prepared the way for the integrating effects of the artist. Yet, and it is a large proviso, Peter, who now is guardian of the imagination, has not been able to profit from his inheritance. It is in the fiction which unfolds that Peter rummages back through his memories, in search of a new starting point for the creation of a meaningful future for himself.

It is at this juncture that the Chiron myth clearly becomes of value. In the original story, Chiron, accidentally wounded by a poisoned arrow, gives up his immortality for the sake of Prometheus, while Prometheus provides Chiron with an opportunity to escape from an eternity of pain. Stripped of this mythological base, The Centaur revolves on the ancient notion that the old order must give way to a new one—in this case, that the scientific man must succumb to the liberating imagination of the artist. Peter’s dilemma is that he cannot justify his father’s sacrifice merely through his works. He has already admitted to being a second-rate painter, but he can atone for his own guilt by a combination of work and faith, a faith that is present in the portrait of George Caldwell presented in the thoughts of his son. In some ways, Peter’s task is to recall or recapture the real teaching of his father through nostalgia, through memory.

Perhaps it will be through the tension exerted between work and faith, between past and present, between imagination and intellect that Peter will at last be able to fashion a life without guilt over his father, a life that allows a mature growth toward personal meaning. The novel as reminiscence provides Peter with the first step toward a full maturity, however belated, in which he can truly begin the process of refashioning himself.