The Centaur

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Peter Caldwell, a second-rate painter living in Greenwich Village, remembers three days during his adolescence in 1947 and infuses the experience with mythological significance. Updike uses a mixture of realistic narration and mythological figures, Peter as Prometheus, his father, George, as the centaur Chiron, to structure a novel which opens with a invocation of the father’s godlike presence and concludes with the son’s perception of his father’s human mortality, his loss of deification. Peter’s artistic vision collapses in the face of his father’s spiritual resignation to the demands of everyday life.

George Caldwell, a high school science teacher, sacrifices himself for the good of his son and the community in which he lives. Like Chiron, who relinquished his life to exonerate Prometheus (the fire-bringer and legendary creator) George literally sacrifices his own ambitions and desires for the good of his artistically talented son. During the three days of the novel’s duration, George and Peter experience a series of events, some of mythic significance, some mundane, as they struggle through a winter snowstorm to the comfort of their home in the country.

Part of the novel’s fascination, and confusion, lies in the fact that the chapters of mythology are interspersed among the chapters of reality without stylistic separation, thereby creating a disjunctive intellectual shift in the reader’s perception. Although widely...

(The entire section is 577 words.)