The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

That Updike wants his readers to make the comparisons between his characters and their mythological analogues is apparent by the presence of the mythological index which, at his wife’s suggestion, he appended to the novel. Matching up various figures of the fiction with their ancient prototypes is not merely a parlor game, however, but yields a broadening significance to the fictional characters of the novel. To see George Caldwell as Chiron, Peter as Prometheus, Al Hummel as Hephaestus, and his wife, Vera, as Venus, elevates the work and ties it to the classical literary tradition of Western civilization. Such a fictional device, perhaps better called a trope, also figures in Updike’s other novels, especially The Poorhouse Fair (1959), Couples (1968), and the Rabbit Angstrom books.

Updike’s pantheon is fairly widespread in The Centaur. George Caldwell is Chiron, the centaur, who is sacrificed in order to protect the fire-bringer and legendary creator/artist, Prometheus, here associated with George’s son, Peter, the painter. George’s wife, Cassie, the keeper of the home fire and the one character linked to the land and fertility not only through her son, Peter, but also through her savage attachment to the farm that she coerced her husband to buy, is Ceres. Vera and Al Hummel make a good Venus and Hephaestus. The goddess of love and of the erotic, Venus seeks her fulfillment through flirtations at the basketball game...

(The entire section is 549 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

George Caldwell

George Caldwell, a general science teacher at Olinger High School and, at the mythic level, the centaur Chiron who is the teacher of the gods. Fifty years old and in physical pain, Caldwell is fearful about death and uncertain about the value of his own teaching. Despite his doubt and self-deprecation, Caldwell shows a deep sensitivity to the needs and fears of others. During the three days depicted in the novel, he and his son, Peter, are forced by car trouble and a snowstorm to spend two nights together away from home. They encounter a world that is realistic in detail yet explicitly mythic in its emotional and spiritual resonance.

Peter Caldwell

Peter Caldwell, George’s son, a fifteen-year-old high school student who at the mythic level is Prometheus, the Titan who brought fire to humans and was chained to a rock on Mount Olympus as punishment. Chiron accepted death in exchange for Prometheus’ freedom. In the period of the novel, Peter is troubled by psoriasis, a skin condition inherited from his mother, and is fearful about his father’s illness. Furthermore, Peter is struggling to understand his emerging sexuality and his relationship to the community of his childhood. A promising art student, he contrasts the grimy, uncultured bleakness of Olinger with images of glamour and wealth in New York City. Ironically, as he tells the story fourteen years later, Peter is an abstract expressionist painter in New York City, but his life with his black lover seems to lack the “firm stage resonant with metaphor” that he recalls in depicting his adolescence.

Catherine (Cassie) Caldwell

Catherine (Cassie) Caldwell, George’s wife and Peter’s mother. She is the goddess Ceres at the mythic level. No longer a beautiful woman, she is intermittently sharp and tender in her responses to George, Peter, and her father, who lives with them. Her greatest fulfillment is in her love of nature. As a result of her desire to live in the rural farmhouse in Firetown, George and Peter must drive eleven miles to Olinger High School. This journey precipitates their three days of adventure in the novel.

Pop Kramer

Pop Kramer, Cassie’s father, who at the mythic level is the...

(The entire section is 934 words.)