The Characters

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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 and as the object of Chiron’s lust and of George’s wishful thinking. She is also responsible for arousing Peter’s sense of manhood during their stay with the Hummels after the storm. Al is the owner of the local garage, and, through his prowess as a mechanic, he brings the mythical blacksmith up to date. Zimmerman, the principal of the high school, is Zeus, who, as an authority figure, reprimands George as Zeus did Chiron and provides a force against which George can rebel. Doc Appleton is Apollo but is also Asclepius, and Pop Kramer, Peter’s maternal grandfather, becomes associated with Kronos through his connections with clocks and time.

Although most of the main characters relate to their mythological models in a number of ways, the minor figures are usually linked in only a single way. A female teacher at the high school who sticks yellow pencils in her hair recalls Medusa, and the janitor, Heller, who inhabits the Hades of the basement, at one point finds some seeds and asks the Caldwells, father and son, how the seeds came to be there, which recalls the story of Persephone. Such notations have been seen by some of Updike’s critics as a bit overingenious, symptomatic of the book’s tilt toward cleverness rather than profundity.

The characterizations and the links with mythology were drawn by Updike from a variety of sources, including Josephine Preston Peabody’s Old Greek Folks Stories Told Anew (1897) and Herbert J. Rose’s A Handbook of Greek Mythology (1928). He also made ample use of Hesiod, both The Works and Days (c. 700 b.c.e.) and Theogony (c. 700 b.c.e.), and of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (first century c.e.). Finally, whether or not the reader makes the various mythic connections, the presence of such background material immeasurably enriches an already complex and profound story.

Characters Discussed

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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...

(This entire section contains 934 words.)

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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 dethroned Titan Kronos. He is an aphorism-spouting old man whose certainties contrast with George Caldwell’s pained and thoughtful skepticism.

Al Hummel

Al Hummel, a skilled mechanic and the owner of a local garage. He is Cassie’s cousin. At the mythic level, he is Hephaestus, the god of fire and craftsmanship. Hummel’s hunched and limping body reflects a childhood accident as well as expressing his dismay at the postwar economy and his grief in his childless marriage to Vera, who is notoriously unfaithful. An understanding friend to George, Hummel helped him to get the teaching job in Olinger. On the second night that George and Peter are stranded in Olinger, they trudge through the snow to Hummel’s house, where they sleep together in Peter’s great-aunt’s bed. The next day, Hummel helps them to shovel out their snowbound car for their return to the farmhouse in Firetown.

Vera Hummel

Vera Hummel, Al’s wife and the girls’ basketball coach at the high school. At the mythic level, she is Venus, the goddess of love. She is beautiful, amber-haired and slender, with golden skin and clear, delicate features. Her laughter is not, however, simply an expression of spontaneous joy; it is also a release and a consolation for her grief in her marriage to Hummel and, in her role as goddess, for her woe at men’s ribald mockery of sexual desire. Her scenes with George and Peter affirm that sexual sensitivity and responsiveness are central issues in Peter’s understanding of his father and his own emerging maturity. On the morning after the snowstorm, for example, Vera gives Peter breakfast and talks with him, providing glowing moments of release from the fears and anxieties he has carried throughout the previous three days.

Louis M. Zimmerman

Louis M. Zimmerman, the Olinger High School principal and, at the mythic level, Zeus, the ruler of the heavens. Both resented and respected in the small town, he is assertive, lecherous, and impetuous. In his insensitive evaluation of George’s teaching, his misappropriation of 140 tickets for a basketball game, and his affair with a woman on the school board, Zimmerman is a major source of George’s anxieties about money and his fear of losing his teaching job.

Dr. Harry Appleton

Dr. Harry Appleton, a local medical doctor, a plump, pink, balding man. He is Apollo, the god of healing, at the mythic level. Like Peter, Doc Appleton has psoriasis, and his matter-of-fact concern for Peter’s skin condition parallels his humane directness in discussing George’s symptoms and fears. His telephone call to Cassie reporting the results of George’s X rays lifts the dread that has characterized the three days of adventure.

Hester Appleton

Hester Appleton, Doc Appleton’s twin sister and the Olinger High School teacher of French and Latin. At fifty years old, she is plump and virginal, and, at the level of myth, she is the goddess Artemis. With her precise, sensitive use of language and her expressions of concern for George, Hester affirms his significance as a teacher and as a person.

Ray Deifendorf

Ray Deifendorf, a student at Olinger High School and a successful competitor on the losing swimming team that George coaches. Deifendorf is somewhat lewd and insensitive, but he feels deep affection for George. Years later, Peter learns that Deifendorf has become a high school teacher.




Critical Essays