The centaur

by John Updike

Hardcover, 1963




New York, Knopf, 1963.


In a small Pennsylvania town in the late 1940s, schoolteacher George Caldwell yearns to find some meaning in his life. Alone with his teenage son for three days in a blizzard, Caldwell sees his son grow and change as he himself begins to lost touch with his life. Interwoven with the myth of Chiron, the noblest centaur, and his own relationship to Prometheus, The Centaur is one of John Updike's most brilliant and unusual novels.

Media reviews

New Writing 9
Purports to tell the story of the evolution of a father's relationship with his son in a small town in modern Pennsylvania. At least this is how the average dopey reader would undertand the story, until, that is, he is confronted with an index ... having belatedly realised that the modren-dress story is a retelling of the legends of classical Greece.
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Above all there is that beautiful Updikean wordplay, here manifested in attributive metaphors. Half the sentences in this book could be studied for Updike’s uncanny ability to lay visual markers on unrelated nouns, embedding man-made objects into natural surroundings by modifying the images of the artificial with those of the natural.
This is a poor novel irritatingly marred by good features. The title, grindingly reinforced by the tasteful Hellenic fragment on the cover, sounds the warning note of “significance” and the severe intention is further signaled by a dark quotation from Karl Barth on the title page: something about man being “a creature on the boundary between heaven and earth.” As if one were not tuned by this time to the “universal” wave length, there follows on the next page, before our story really begins, a précis of the myth of Chiron, the weary centaur who sacrifices his immortality as an atonement for Prometheus. Then, lest we forget, the author has appended, at the suggestion of his wife, an index of the mythical references which crop up throughout the text... The fact is that Updike does himself a great disservice by enameling his tale with the elaborate reference. At the center of all that wearisome pedantry he has a neglected germ of literary imagination. The father is carefully and sympathetically observed with a shambling heroism, fatigued and gullible, which is nicely set off against the irritable fondness of his son. He has chosen however to inflate this compact moral set-up, blowing it up into a volume which is out of proportion to its weight. It finally becomes flounderingly portentous and pompously intoned, like Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea.

User reviews

LibraryThing member rmckeown
3. The Centaur by John Updike

As far back as about 4th grade, I have loved writing stories. I never received much encouragement from the teachers until I reached high school. William A. Votto, Jr. was my junior year English teacher. He liked an essay I wrote about a football game kick off, and he encouraged me to write. I spent numerous afternoons talking with him about reading and writing. He became the first person to plant the idea that reading and writing as closely bound together. Bill Votto also introduced me to The New Yorker magazine. I stopped at a news stand on the way home that day and bought the latest issue. It had a story by John Updike. I immediately fell in love with Updike’s masterful use of the English language.

Updike became my favorite writer. He was also the first writer I began gathering as many of his writings as I could. Today, my personal library has well over 340 books by and about John Updike. I was also lucky enough to meet him on several occasions. I even attended a writer’s conference in Boston one year and heard him speak. March 18th would have been his 81st birthday. He died in January 2009.

Of all his books, The Centaur is my absolute favorite. In fact it securely holds first place at the top of my favorite novels list. I once told him about this choice for his best work, and he said, “Well, it’s my favorite, too. It is the warmest story I ever wrote.” In 1964, it won the National Book Award for fiction.

The Centaur tells the story of George Caldwell, science teacher at Olinger High School. The fictional town of Olinger is the setting for one of his numerous collections of stories. Interwoven with the story of George and his brilliant son, Peter, is the myth of the centaur, Chiron, the teacher of Achilles. Peter plays the role of Prometheus. In the myth, Chiron is wounded, but since he is immortal, he must suffer for all eternity the pain of his wound. He gives up his life for Prometheus.

For a sample of Updike’s power with words, I turned to a random page and began reading,

“My father and I scraped together the change in our pockets and found enough for breakfast at a diner. I had one dollar in my wallet but did not tell him, intending it to be a surprise when things got more desperate. The counter of the diner was lined with workmen soft-eyed and gruff from behind half-asleep still. […] I ordered pancakes and bacon and it was the best breakfast I had had in months. My father ordered Wheaties, mushed the cereal into the milk, ate a few bites, and pushed it away. He looked at the clock. It said 7:25. He bit back a belch; his face whitened and the skin under his eyes seemed to sink against the socket bone. He saw me studying him in alarm and said, ‘I know. I look like the devil. I’ll shave in the boiler room over at the school, Heller has a razor.’ The pale grizzle, like a morning’s frost, of a day-old beard covered his cheeks and chin” (169).

If you have never read Updike, pick a genre – poetry, novels, short stories, or essays on art, books, writers, and philosophy. You will not be disappointed.

--Jim, 1/27/13
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LibraryThing member AlanWPowers
One of Updike's three best, according to Updike--on two, this and A Month of Sundays. I add Rabbit at Rest, which I consider his best because of his application of his great theme to Florida--existential isolation of American bourgeoise culture.
In this one, Updike gives a very considerable portrait of both American H.S. education, and of his father, a HS teacher in the forties. If the HS teacher is wounded by an arrow from a student in the forties, no teacher emerges without being wounded now, though our news informs mostly how wounded the students are.
U.S. Ed reform is doomed, especially headed by a coach, Sect'y of Ed Arne Duncan, who has never taught calculus, physics, literature, history--anything which requires more than "Attaboy, you can do it." And in fact, governments discourage an educated populace. Great teachers are killed: Socrates, Christ, and Giordano Bruno, to start a long list.
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LibraryThing member wirkman
This early novel by John Updike remains my favorite. The opening page is as good as any he's written, and the handling of myth and realism is balanced and not too strained. This is not a University Novel, to be taught, but a Public Novel, to be read.

Updike is at his best, as far as I can tell, in short story form. That being said, this novel from the early '60s still impresses, and will, I suspect, continue to impress long after his dozens of later, more popular fictions, fade from memory.… (more)
LibraryThing member Crypto-Willobie
Well, it's Updike, so at least it doesn't suck stylistically... but this novel was a failure. In one sense it's the cap to his earliest 'Olinger' material (Olinger Stories, Poorhouse Fair, Of the Farm) but it's also a failed experiment, an attempt to wed a mythic subtext to a modern story. like Joyce or Barth, but he just doesn't pull it off. The mythic material isn't well-integrated, the modern family dynamics are underdeveloped. I was expecting to enjoy this, so I was very disappointed -- had to force myself to finish it.… (more)
LibraryThing member RoseCityReader
Despite its title, I was surprised by how myth-centric this novel is. It is the story of a high school science teacher and his student son. It is also a re-telling of the myth of the centaur Chiron who, wounded, gives his life (his immortality) to Prometheus.

This is a book I may appreciate more in the recollection. While reading it, I was distracted by the allegory. Sometimes, the mythical references were too vague or convoluted to catch and I had to refer to the index at the back to make sure I wasn't missing something important. But at times, the myth is more than allegory -- Updike sometimes refers to the hero as Chiron and describes his hooves clacking on the school stairs, for instance -- which I found jarring. Also, the hero was annoying, not just to me as a reader, but to his son, wife, and co-workers in the story. I can't figure out how this ties in with the myth of Chiron.
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LibraryThing member arouse77
i realize this is meant to be a modern classic, but dudes, this is a weird little novel.

into what would otherwise be a poignant and well written character study, Updike has entwined strange tendrils of Greek mythology.

the opening scene is exemplary of this trend; we have our main character, a high school teacher, shot with an arrow by one of his students through the leg and trailing a bloody hoof.see, he's a centaur, apparently. once he reaches aid in the form of a mechanic able to cut the arrow, he goes back to class and struggles to complete his lecture under the jaundiced eye of his in-school nemesis, the vice principal.

the point of making any of these characters mythical creatures is completely lost on me and the execution seemed inconsistent from both a psychological and practical sense. a centaur that drives? how many legs do they have again?

to my mind this choice distracted from what would have otherwise been a solid, if somewhat gray, snapshot of a father-son relationship captured over the course of a handful of wintry days.

not bad per se, a little bizarre. perhaps just not to my taste.
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LibraryThing member JuliaEllen
While this novel starts off pretty slowly (and a bit confusing until you can just accept that the main character switches between being George Caldwell and Chiron the Centaur), but as you get into it, it gets more engaging. A very good father/son story.
LibraryThing member ijhodgson
Outstanding early novel from Updike. Underrated, and on a par with 'Catcher in the rye' for insights into childhood relationships and growing through adolescence (though this is from the parent perspective).
LibraryThing member starbox
Utterly beautiful, fabulous, CLEVER writing. I couldn't put it down.
Set in small-town America in the late 40s, this is the tale of a father (the hapless George Caldwell; teacher, bit of a failure, derided by students and the principal, loved- but sometimes exasperating to- his teenage son). And of his son- a student at the same school, concerned with his first girlfriend, his psoriasis, his family...)
Set over three days one January, there are ongoing issues with the clapped out family car getting stuck in snowdrifts. Meanwhile George is having tests for what he suspects may be cancer...

And then Updike weaves a strand of Greek mythology into the narrative. The reader may pick up on some- I noted Hephaesteus in Mr Hubble, a lame but highly proficient engineer with a faithless wife. And the eponymous Centaur, where the narrative on George suddenly transforms him into such a beast. It was massively clever (although I thought Updike's index at the back, informing the reader of all the mythological allusions may have been a bit OTT.) I didnt see too many similarities between Caldwell and a Centaur - but representing the teacher in this guise DOES allow Updike to wonderfully describe a certain event towards the end in - I think - a still more moving way than if he'd just baldly written of the teacher.
The best book I've read this year- I'm off to order some more Updike books of Ebay. Masterly writing.
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LibraryThing member icolford
Published in 1963, when the author was 31, The Centaur emerges, like an early flowering, from John Updike’s singular genius. This award-winning novel, set in 1947, chronicles several days in the life of 50-year-old George Caldwell, a teacher of general science at a small-town Pennsylvania school, and his 15-year-old son Peter. George is convinced, despite assurances to the contrary, that he is dying, and more than once maintains that he was never meant to reach such an advanced age. It is not so much that he imagines he’s suffering from a specific illness or ailment. Rather, a prevailing sense that he has failed repeatedly on numerous fronts, has outlived his usefulness and is no good at anything pervades his waking hours, colours his perception of the world and his place in it, and thereby shapes his character. Peter is trapped in the wake of his father’s overwhelming despair. Tormented by psoriasis, the marks of which he strives to keep hidden, he seems to exist in a state of constant shame and intense emotional vulnerability brought on, at least in part, by his father’s unrelenting self-criticisms and declarations of failure and ineptitude, and by his own struggle to not regard his father as ridiculous. The action of the novel follows George and Peter on their difficult travels between their isolated home in the rural countryside to Olinger High School, where George teaches and Peter is a student, and their attendance at several school-related athletic events. In this novel Updike employs Greek myth to illuminate his characters’ actions, passions and motivations. George is Chiron, reputedly the wisest of the centaurs who, gravely wounded, sacrificed his immortality to save Prometheus. Peter is Prometheus, the deity who stole fire and gave it to humans, and who was punished by being chained to a rock. The story of George and Peter, their often querulous interactions and their exchanges with other characters, is certainly engaging and more than simply entertaining, and the novel’s success is due largely to the astounding richness and fluidity of Updike’s language, which explodes from the page, lending each and every scene pinpoint clarity, endowing even mundane gestures and observations with the quality of a miracle. Updike’s third novel, constructed around themes of redemption and sacrifice, is wise and frank, funny and moving. If the Greek myth motif comes across as somewhat heavy handed, it does not detract from a work that is widely regarded as a landmark in 20-Century American fiction and a major achievement by one of the most gifted writers of his generation.… (more)
LibraryThing member slmr4242
John Updike has such a gift with language and storytelling that I almost always find myself enmeshed, sometimes against my own will. The Centaur was one of those books wherein I was far more interested with the premise and the sentences than the overall structure. Still, Updike is always entertaining, so I cannot help but rate him a little higher than I would anyone else.… (more)
LibraryThing member whitewavedarling
Updike's prose is so artful, this story is gorgeously told, and there are scenes that will stay with me for some time. Yet, for whatever reason, this book existed as a sort of gray area for me--I wanted more myth or less, and firmer footing in one realm or another. Because although the movement between viewpoints added to the book, there was something about the emotional context and characterizations that kept me at such a distance from the story, I never quite got the impact that I've gotten from Updike's other works.

I may read this again, when my mind has more bandwidth for the complexity, and I'm sure I'll recommend it to particular readers, but this isn't the Updike work I'd start with if you're new to his prose.
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LibraryThing member nbmars
This book was published in 1962 when, according to the paperback book’s cover, The New York Times could still call Updike “the most significant young (sic) (!!) novelist in America. I obtained a copy for free at the Gaithersburg Book Festival, saving a full 75¢ off the cover price. It was worth every penny.

The base story, which takes place in Pennsylvania in 1947, is pretty simple. A father, George Caldwell, who is a high school science teacher, and his 15-year-old son Peter get stuck in a snow storm a few miles from home. For three days they are unable to coax their car up a fairly steep hill that would allow them to return home. The son observes his father “in action,” only to find that he is somewhat naïve, easily taken advantage of, but generally beloved by those with whom he regularly deals. Updike loves to show how his characters’ weaknesses reduce their own happiness, but somehow make them more human and lovable.

The writing style is pure Updike, showing off. The chapters alternate in styles. The first contains elevated (some might say pretentious) writing in which a great deal of mythology is intermixed to the extent that the reader really can’t tell what actually is supposed to have happened to the characters. Other chapters are simple lucid narratives that ground the reader to the basic story. But even in these chapters, Updike shows a piercing sensitivity to typical human foibles. Here is a description of two former high school athletes:

“They are ex-heroes of the type who, for many years, until a wife or ritual drunkenness or distant employment carries them off, continue to appear at high school athletic events, like dogs tormented by a site where they imagine they have buried something precious. Increasingly old and slack, the apparition of them persists, conjured by that phantasmal procession—indoors and outdoors, fall, winter, and spring—of increasingly young and unknown high school athletes who themselves, imperceptibly, filter in behind them to watch also.”

Although the writing is indeed beautiful, I’m not sure Updike makes the mythological references fit the underlying story as well as he might. The mythical centaur is a half man-half stallion creature: intelligent but also physically powerful and sexually potent. That just doesn’t fit the main character, who is more of a Caspar Milquetoast. Even though he claims, “I never made a decision in my life that wasn’t one hundred per cent selfish,” the previous 216 pages belie that assertion.

Nevertheless, this is a fine book for anyone who enjoys truly expert manipulation of the English language with some penetrating psychological observations.

Evaluation: A large number of mythological characters make their way into grandiose but for me touching and satisfying novel that won the 1964 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction.

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