The centaur by John Updike

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About the author

John Hoyer Updike (March 18, 1932 – January 27, 2009) was an American novelist, poet, short story writer, art critic, and literary critic. One of only three writers to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction more than once (the others were Booth Tarkington and William Faulkner), Updike published more than twenty novels, more than a dozen short-story collections, as well as poetry, art and literary criticism and children’s books during his career.

Hundreds of his stories, reviews, and poems appeared in The New Yorker starting in 1954. He also wrote regularly for The New York Review of Books. His most famous work is his „Rabbit” series (the novels Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit Is Rich; Rabbit at Rest; and the novella Rabbit Remembered), which chronicles the life of the middle-class every man Harry „Rabbit” Angstrom over the course of several decades, from young adulthood to death. Both Rabbit Is Rich (1982) and Rabbit at Rest (1990) were recognized with the Pulitzer Prize.

Describing his subject as „the American small town, Protestant middle class”, Updike was recognized for his careful craftsmanship, his unique prose style, and his prolific output – he wrote on average a book a year. Updike populated his fiction with characters who „frequently experience personal turmoil and must respond to crises relating to religion, family obligations, and marital infidelity”.

His fiction is distinguished by its attention to the concerns, passions, and suffering of average Americans, its emphasis on Christian theology, and its preoccupation with sexuality and sensual detail. His work has attracted significant critical attention and praise, and he is widely considered one of the great American writers of his time.[4] Updike’s highly distinctive prose style features a rich, unusual, sometimes arcane vocabulary as conveyed through the eyes of „a wry, intelligent authorial voice” that describes the physical world extravagantly while remaining squarely in the realist tradition. He described his style as an attempt „to give the mundane its beautiful due”.

John Updike won the 1964 National Book Award for his third novel, The Centaur. The strangely compelling mixture of contemporary 1947 Pennsylvania and ancient Greek mythological figures like Chiron, Prometheus, Venus and Zeus enticed some critics completely into accepting Updike into the ranks of the America’s serious writers. The book also left a minority still questioning whether Updike was truly young, gifted, and profound or merely too clever by half. The ensuing decades made the reception given to The Centaur something akin to a microcosm of Updike’s entire career.

At the thematic heart of The Centaur is Updike’s contention that education American reader of his generation were more familiar with the Greek myths than the Biblical stories and thus could use them to analogize their lives to a greater degree. Through the allegorical symbolism centering upon one of the lesser known mythical figures—Chiron—Updike has fashioned a tale grounded in the accessibility the American high school experience to examine the sacrificial concepts bereft of Christian iconoclasm. In so doing, he not only exposes his fervent belief in the demythologizing of Christianity in 20th century America, but embeds his distinctly non-mythic characters and plot into a long-standing academic tradition.

Thus, the ascension of Updike via The Centaur into the upper echelon of American letters with a novel that is, ultimately, about a high school teacher who has given up on his own dream and psoriasis-afflicted son with dreams of becoming the American Vermeer.

Genre

A novel

Setting and Context

The events take place in Olinger and Alton, Pennsylvania after the World War II. They are mostly dedicated to George Caldwell, who suffers from depressive and suicidal thoughts, and his son Peter, who tries to help his father. It is a personal, social and family drama against the background of social issues. Mythological context helps to clarify intentions of the characters.

Narrator and Point of View

The story is mostly told from the third point of view by an omniscient narrator. However, there are several chapters, which are told from the first point of view by Peter.

Tone and Mood

To depict Caldwell’s uneasiness, lack of self-confidence and depressiveness, the depressive tone is used. The mood is troubling.

Protagonist and Antagonist

George Caldwell is the protagonist of the story. Zimmerman (Zeus) is the antagonist of the story.

Major Conflict

The major conflict is person vs. self. George Caldwell gives up on himself and it prevents him from living a normal life.

Climax

The moment, when George Caldwell finds out that he doesn’t have a terminal decease could be considered the climax of the novel.

Foreshadowing

An arrow, which strikes George’s leg, is foreshadowing. According to the myth, The Centaur Chiron starts thinking about death and eventually dies after getting an injury by an arrow. Keeping in mind that George is The Centaur Chiron, a reader knows his fate from the very beginning.

Summary

Having been injured by an arrow during a lesson, a teacher, George Caldwell, has to interrupt the teaching process to deal with sharp pain. The depressive centaur is driven to an edge by his work, humiliation, teasing and lack of money. According to him, the best things in his life have already passed. His glory as a promising football player and a hero of the World War I has been forgotten long ago.

This way of thinking saddens his son. Although Peter has a girlfriend, he can’t stop worrying about his father. The more George talks about death, the more worried he becomes. The family lives outside the city, so the father and the son have to drive to the school every day. Instead of long heart-to-hearts, they have either arguments or useless small talks. Trying to protect his father, Peter often comes to his class during the breaks. The boy’s case of psoriasis becomes even worse under these circumstances.

Meanwhile, George starts suspecting that the headmaster, Zimmerman (Zeus), is going to dismiss him and looks for a reason. He complains about feeling ill to his wife. He does it a lot, though this time is different. George goes to a doctor. When the examination is finished, the pair goes outside, the father decides to go to Alton to make his x-ray done and then go to a sport club to support his team.

The boy tries to support his father but it proves to be impossible. He goes to a movie, while his father is busy supporting the school’s swim team he coaches. Later on, Peter finds out that the team loses. They have to get back home but the car doesn’t start. They look for help but find only a drunken man who begs for money. He thinks that George wants to rape the boy. This episode sobers George, since he understands that death was close.

After the night in a hotel, they come back home. Unfortunately for George, his problems don’t cease. He claims that he is a commie and an atheist. He notices how the headmaster’s mistress leaves his office and is consequently afraid of revenge. When he comes to watch a baseball game, there is no ticket for him. The car doesn’t start again and no one stops to help them. The results of his examination don’t show any trace of a serious illness. In spite of this fact he can’t carry on, and he accepts death.

Themes

Father-son relationships

George and Peter love each other and both try to do everything possible to protect each other. However, wishing is not enough. Readers have a chance to see a classic problem of misunderstanding, when both parties assume too much and never speak openly or listen to each other. To cast aside mythology and historical references, we will get a story about the importance of a father figure in a life of a teenage boy.

Teacher-student relationship

George Caldwell was a good teacher, who knew the subject perfectly and was clever enough to explain the material in a funny and witty way. Surprisingly enough, his students were not interested in the things he taught. Who needed general science? That was absolutely useless information for them. Although his students misbehaved during their lessons, they were always happy to chat with him after classes. According to Peter, they sucked energy out of him, asking him for a piece of advice or just wasting his time on aimless chatting. This is example of a strange kind of friendship between a teacher and students, who consider themselves to be enemies during the lessons, but communicate amicably as soon as the lessons end.

Death

All characters in this story have different views on death. For George Caldwell, it is the only one solution of his emotional and physical torment. For Pop Kramer, it is something that shouldn’t be hurried up. For Peter, it is just evidence that he is not good enough for his father to want to live. However, the theme of death is one of the most important in the story

Self-sacrifice

George also believes that his death might help both his wife and his son. According to one version of a myth about Chiron, he sacrifices his life for Prometheus. George thinks that he is a burden, which prevents the rest of his family from a happy life, and doesn’t believe that he has enough strengths to work on their mutual happiness. His suicide is more like self-sacrifice for the others’ sake.

Symbols, allegories and motifs

Olympus (Allegory)

Mount Olympus has been considered a home of the Greek gods and goddesses, a sacred place: Olinger high school is an allegory of Olympus. Mighty Zeus, “cloud gathering king of the weather” is, quite obviously, a headmaster. Venus, a goddess of beauty, is a physical education instructor, while her husband Hephaestus is a local machinist. Due to the fact that the gods and goddesses in the Greek mythology are equipped with natural human feelings, Olinger high school is a perfect allegory of Olympus.

An abyss (Symbol)

An abyss is a symbol of despair. When George’s level of despair reaches its limit, he masters all his courage to take “a very great step, for which all the walking in his life had not prepared him”. The abyss is so deep that it “would take an eternity to get there” and as deep and overwhelming as George’s gloom.

Misery (Motif)

George Caldwell is sure that his death would be “the best thing he ever did” for his family. He is ashamed of himself and the fact that he is not able to provide his family with a decent life. According to George, he is “a walking junk heap”. He even recommends his son “to trade in on a new old man”. His lack of wish to continue living his life becomes one of the main motifs of the story.

Resources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Updike

http://www.gradesaver.com/the-centaur

 

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