The Centaur

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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 criticized at the time of its publication, The Centaur is now regarded as one of Updike’s finest and most demanding works, the one which firmly established him as a major novelist. Placing an interesting perspective on adult nostalgia for lost childhood, the story suggests the need for an adult mythic vision fashioned from our adolescent fantasies about our parents and the past amid a growing awareness of their fallibility and our misplaced veneration.


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.

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Critical Context