Death of a Centaur: An Essay on Updike

A classic tension in life and fiction lies between the poles of unfettered individualism and the imperatives of the wider society. North America, and the United States in particular, became in the 20th century the home ground for an ethos that favoured individualism – especially the rugged, masculine kind – as the supreme value. Even religious inclinations were understood primarily in the context of personal benefit. The life, liberty and pursuit of happiness so central to the American project were interpreted increasingly as individual quests, rather than collective ones.

The ideal of the Self-Made Man, grown iconic in the stories of Horatio Alger and the reputedly solo exploits of Lindbergh, Elvis, even Einstein, becomes a problem in the relationship of a father and son. How can a man lift himself by his own bootstraps and still follow in his father’s footsteps? The failure, even the refusual, to recognize the debt owed to paternity is one of the less-known consequences of individualism, especially for males in American culture. The men’s movement that found its strongest – if occasionally cringe-making – expression in works like Bly’s Iron John is based upon one fundamental perception: that fatherly guidance is shockingly minimal in the experience of modern men, that for many there is a smoking hole where a father should be.

Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories from the early 20th century flirt with this theme. The father figure is either remote, implied, someone to be respected in his absence by recalling his views about drinking or literature, or he is suddenly and overwhelmingly present, exposing Nick to struggle and death in a way for which he is utterly unprepared. In Kurt Vonnegut, we see a retrospective longing to understand his distant, disappointed Dad. (Accounting for Kurt the younger’s long retention of the “Junior” in his pen name.) Recently, the most remarkable feature of the apocalypse imagined by Cormac McCarthy in The Road is a fiercely protective and starkly intimate relationship between an anonymous father and his nameless son. We wonder if only such a world-devouring flame could make such interdependence and devotion possible.


Given this framework, consider George and Peter Caldwell, the father and son central to John Updike’s 1963 novel The Centaur. A compelling, often aggravating aspect of the novel is the tortured working-out of their relationship, one based on misunderstanding and mutual inadequacy. Neither knows much about the other, a familiar enough story, but the novel is also preoccupied with the failure that son is to father, and especially that George is to Peter. The ancient mythology behind these two mid-century American men adds depth to their portraits, and a puzzling twist. A long-suffering and rather neurotic teacher, Caldwell gains a burnish of nobility when Updike casts him as Chiron, the immortal centaur who tutors the young heroes and minor divinities of the glade. His son Peter is a clear Prometheus figure, enduring the afflictions not only of the intelligent, artistic soul chained to a small-town high school, but those stemming from “that ancient sin – the theft of fire”.¹ Oddly, though, Chiron refers to his only child as Ocyrhoe, a Naiad, a freshwater spirit endowed with prescience and femininity. It is one of several curiosities about Caldwell’s approach to parenting.

The first mild indictment of George Caldwell as a father appears early, courtesy of the novel’s first narrator, an omniscient one: “He worried about the kid when he had the time.” [page 12, emphasis added] Only later, though, such as when Caldwell leaves a telling, more-than-collegial conversation with Hester Appleton, do we get a clearer sense of his ambiguous connection with Peter. He “heads for the stairs groggy with woes” [196], chiefly Peter’s education and the lack of money for it, Peter’s skin, Peter’s health. He remembers how, in the fearful days of the Depression, Peter’s face looking back from his Kiddy Kar had reassured him of solidity, of his place in the world. However, “[n]ow his son’s face…gnaws at Caldwell’s heart like a piece of unfinished business.” [196]

Although he insists to Pop Kramer that “the kid’s like I am” [66], Caldwell doesn’t understand his son, and is often oblivious of Peter’s feelings and needs. His failure to wear the expensive gloves Peter has bought him is compounded by the hitch-hiker’s theft of them. Worse, for Peter, his father has no sense of how much his son enjoys driving with him, radio blasting, feeling “irresistible” together [78], in tune and in love with his future. Not only does George stop for the seedy hiker, he shatters Peter’s highway dream by flipping off the radio, fails to protect his son from their passenger’s leering and vulgarity, brings up Peter’s psoriasis (à propos of nothing in particular), and even suggests that this decrepit vagrant “’take him along!’” [89] to Florida. The loss of the gloves, after these samples of George’s obtuse and verbally incontinent interaction with Peter, might seem almost incidental. He rages at his father after the hitchhiker gracelessly leaves: “’Really, Daddy, what do you think about when you babble like that?’” [91] But for the boy, “the way he permitted my expensive and painstakingly deliberated gift to sift through him generated a clumsy weight” and somehow makes his father’s death seem “a grave and dreadful threat”. [92-3]

Caldwell’s weaknesses as a father, along with his personal and professional failings, are fed by the chronic and “infantile resentment…within his mature reconstruction” [23]. And as Peter notices in hindsight, “[b]reaking the barrier [of 50] had unbridled his tongue” [53]. Caldwell’s speech bears a startling resemblance to the ravings of another 20th-century American literary father, Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. (Loman’s grown son Biff’s complaints about the “vomit he spews from his mind” might have been echoed by a more caustic Peter Caldwell.) Unlike Willy, though, George is inclined to self-deprecation. Peter is barraged by paternal self-criticism; he regularly hears, as when the Buick’s driveshaft breaks, comments like, “’You poor devil….You deserved a winner and you got a loser’” [150] or “’What does it feel like to win?…Jesus, I’ll never know’” [142] when speaking to Peter and Deifendorf after the swim meet. This is garrulousness gone mad.²

 A particular verbal betrayal of his son stands out. Early in the novel, Peter is hurt when his father claims (to the hitchhiker) that “’misery and horror [were] my memories’” [87], and wonders where his birth fits into that narrow catalogue. George frequently expresses a constipated longing to be free of his family, as with his repeated wish that he’d put the dramatic Cassie on stage (though it is never clear that there had been any interest or opportunity to do that). At Minor Kretz’s diner, though, after Peter dresses him down for being “ridiculous” in his fears about Zimmerman and Mrs. Herzog, Caldwell makes it painfully plain that his regrets are not confined to being a husband: “’If I had your self-confidence I would’ve taken your mother onto the Burley-cue stage and you never would’ve been born….’ This is as close to a rebuke of his son as he ever came. The boy’s cheeks burn.” [209] Surely any number of direct, tangible chastisements of Peter would be preferable to this suggestion that George’s life is strained and impeded by his very existence.

Peter “gnaws at Caldwell’s heart like a piece of unfinished business” because his father believes him to be basically unsound, wholly unready for adult life, at a time when George feels his own death to be imminent. His comments to numerous adults, and especially his tendency to speak for Peter and pre-empt his answers to their questions, point to his oppressive sense of his son’s inadequacy. “’That poor kid’s as confused as I am,’” George tells the hitchhiker. [89] He barely hears Hester, the woman he feels he should have married, when she argues that Peter is less fragile than Caldwell thinks; shortly afterward, her questions about Peter’s education prompt Caldwell to blurt that “’it scares the living daylights out of me. As far as I can tell, the kid knows even less than I did at his age what the score is…’” [193]. In conversations with both Phillips and Zimmerman, the suggestion of a sabbatical for George prompts apocalyptic uncertainty about Peter’s ability to survive: “’He needs me to keep him going, the poor kid doesn’t have a clue yet.’” [223]

This profound dismay at his son’s inadequacy clarifies the puzzling early references to Chiron’s “daughter”, Ocyrhoe. Caldwell is haunted by Peter’s “face, dappled, feminine in the lips and eyelashes” [196] and his constant susceptibility to colds: “’Poor kid. I wish I could give him my mulish body.’” [290] He regards Peter’s interest in art with great suspicion, and links him with Cassie as a “real femme”. He feels that Peter wants “’the whole world in a candy box,’” [224] indicating that he regards Peter’s as an unrealistic and effeminate view of life. In his ennobled incarnation as Chiron, the wisest centaur, Caldwell is able to rejoice in his delicate and creative child, to fondly consider “how rich with life this girl was!…too intelligent to take her childhood easily; her tantrums had grieved [his] pride in her.” [96] Caldwell’s concerns for Peter are not openly expressed as sexual ones, but the Chiron sequences do suggest that he worries in part about his son because he is no mule, no broken-nosed football player, no Deifendorf (or even a Dedman).³

Such worries, only hinted at by his father, are clearly expressed by Peter. He wears shoes a size too small, wishing he had “a dancer’s quick and subtle hooves” and “grace notes like Fred Astaire” [57]; he finds the frank physicality of his one 4H meeting horrid; he paints and has a precocious admiration for Vermeer; he describes his psoriasis as “the coarsely mottled outer petals of a delicate, delicious, silvery vegetable-heart I was peeling toward” [165]; in his Alton hotel reverie, “[a] virginal sense of the forbidden welled over me like a wind and I discovered myself a unicorn…” [165]; on his Promethean rock of pain, he is visited by Deifendorf, who offers instructional tips on heterosexual love, which to Peter “’seems so brutal.’” [177] A series of encounters – one in childhood with a derelict whose words “score” him for life, one with the blackmailing Alton drunk who harasses Caldwell for being an abusive “’old nance…an old lech’” [157-8], and especially the episode with the slimy hitchhiker – bring Peter’s sexual uncertainty into harsh relief. “Something dainty [in the man they pick up in the car]…made me wonder if he were a fairy….I felt, as long as my love of girls remained unconsummated, open on that side – a three-walled room any burglar could enter.” [79-80]. Such vulnerability, of course, makes his later sexual progress with Penny cause for both exultation and relief.

Peter Caldwell, as concerned as he is about his sexuality, is more shaken by the “addled and vehement shipwreck of a man” [103] that is his father. He tells his side of the story from an adult remove, but we (unlike Caldwell) are able to see the intelligence and foresight of this 15-year-old, as well as his adolescent fear and fumbling. While his father “was often a joke” [63] between Peter and his artistic mother, the overheard conversation between George and Cassie on the first morning becomes a frightful burden for him. As Peter listens to the radio while George drives them to school, he sees his own creative future in a glorious America, but also a lyrical vision of what he might do for the troubled man beside him: “I carried my father in the tale of a comet through the expectant space of our singing nation.” [78] Peter is immediately thrust, though, back into the prosaic world as they pass the Seven-Mile Tavern, Potteiger’s Store, the Clover Leaf Dairy and finally an alarming man with an extended thumb. Still, he tries to sustain his ‘Daddy’, and shows himself to indeed be his father’s son; his “simple plan, which was to get him home” [143] is undertaken about as effectively and as systematically as George’s flailing attempts to do the same service for Peter.

Yet Peter dislikes comparisons with his father, generally siding with Cassie in a smirking, mother-son conspiracy. He is mildly chastened when his profuse explanations and apologies to Vera at their snow-bound breakfast result in her saying, “’Hush. You sound like your father’” [274]. The night before, Peter is seized by “absolute rage against this fool” [240], Zimmerman, in part because the principal has repeatedly bludgeoned him, in front of Penny, with the patronizing phrase “’like his father’”. Having continually faced the school’s senior ‘Titans’, “these tall criminals” [122] at Kretz’s diner, Peter cannot bear such a comparison from the man he sees as his father’s chief tormentor. He garners some enjoyable limelight in the senior students’ mockery of George, a delicious conspiracy fuelled by their “fermented guilt and fondness” [121] for the man, not to mention his own. And he is delighted by the final nod of approval: “’You got a great father there, Peter.’” [122]

 What is more difficult for the junior Caldwell, though, is the paternal way that George has with Deifendorf: “He loved my father. It pains me to admit it, but there existed between this obscene animal and my father an actual affection….I resented how lavishly my father outpoured himself before the boy…” [102] Peter is resentful as he listens to his father’s blunt and funny counsel to Deifendorf after class, or sits in on Caldwell’s hapless attempts at impersonating a swim coach (and Deifendorf’s profanely disrespectful responses to them) after that evening’s meet. In part, Peter finds it contemptible that his father even tries to talk like a coach, but there is a stronger reason for his distaste with the relationship: “This was unfair; for wasn’t it after all what I wanted to hear from him – the confident, ordinary, world-supporting accents of other men?” [105, emphasis added] He arrives at the YMCA, and following a jealous attempt at mocking Deifendorf, Peter hears just such a longed-for accent, but it is not addressed to him. “’I’m proud of you, Deify.4 You kept your promise to the best of your ability. That makes you a man.’” [141] Later, even though his own son’s future is too terribly mysterious to contemplate, Caldwell manages to offer career advice even to the professional layabout, Johnny Dedman. Peter “is overswept…by a wave of distaste for all that mediocre, fruitless, cloying involvement” [206-7], in no small measure because there seems to be no room for involvement with him. Even in heavily ironic hindsight, it irks Peter that Deifendorf followed in his father’s footsteps, while “an authentic second-rate abstract expressionist living…with a Negro mistress, me” [103] had scorned to do so.

But for all his teenaged resistance, Peter is sufficiently self-aware to know that he actually is like his father, and not only in his height and big feet. Even at 15, he recognizes that “[m]y conscience and my father were rarely on opposite sides” [116]. He is smart and funny, and inclined to self-deprecation (“’Ha, I doubt if I’m much of a catch,’” he responds to Vera’s teasing about Penny [276]). He can be garrulous and argumentative, as he is in attacking Minor Kretz’s “black Republican stupidity…[which] embodies everything in the world which is killing Peter’s father…” [204] In his anxiety to have Penny know his dread epidermal secret, he shares with his father the deprived son’s need to have, as Cassie acidly remarks about George, “’some new way of getting sympathy.’” [289] Most tellingly, though, is a sudden realization fuelled by Peter’s frustration at George’s continued obsession with Zimmerman. As the oppressive and impassable snow falls, Peter rages about his father’s superstition and paranoia and implores him to relax. He kicks the dashboard and receives a submissive non-answer to his furious interrogation. “From the weariness of his voice, it seems his final effort of explanation. I’m killing my father, Peter thinks, amazed.” [258] We see why the prescience of the child is a “torment”.

Years later, looking back from his bohemian loft and his less-than-shining career, next to his Negro mistress, he knows that he is not as far from Olinger and Firetown as he imagined he would be. He misses the “sudden white laughter…[of] souls…trying to serve the impossible. My father for all his mourning moved in the atmosphere of such laughter.” [269] He considers the passage from grandfather to grandson, and wryly notes, “Priest, teacher, artist: the classic degeneration.” [269] For all that Peter wishes he could give his woman everything, even “be a Negro for you”, he recognizes and accepts where he comes from, just as his father finally attains some degree of acceptance of his eventual death and even a little tentative joy at what he can still do for others. Once, Peter had felt ashamed, but strangely important, as senior Titans regaled the diner with Caldwell tales and made him feel like “the petty receptacle of a myth” [121]. But from his adult perch, even as he rambles on with storied memories that have long put his lady to sleep, Peter is able to graciously admit, “I am my father’s son.” [269]


 In The Centaur, Updike unsparingly reveals the gulf of mutual incomprehension, and the sneering or oblivious words, that divide father from son. Perhaps because of the early death of his own father, Caldwell “had never rid himself of the idea that he might soon be moving on. This fear, or hope, dominated [his] home.” [273] A pathetic line from Death of a Salesman – Willy’s admission to his neighbour that “I never had a chance to talk to [my father], and I still feel – kind of temporary about myself” – could easily have been spoken by a less frenzied and more introspective George. Because for all Caldwell’s constant blather, and Peter’s exasperation with it – “’Stop telling me …things all the time. Let’s stop talking’” [264] – their relationship is most compromised, as with so many sons and fathers literary and real, by what they are chronically unable to say to each other. In the hotel, after the car has died, Peter’s father “looked at me, and seemed on the verge of an apology, confession, or a definite offer. There was a word – I did not know it but believed he did – that waited between us to be pronounced.” [164, emphasis added] It is never said. When the car fails to make Coughdrop Hill in the snow for the second time, Caldwell slumps at the wheel in defeat and Peter is frightened to see “his father’s silhouette go out of shape this way. He wishes to call him to himself but the syllable sticks in his throat, unknown.” We wonder about the syllable he seeks – live? love? rise? go? Dad?— but Peter instead asks about tire chains.

In McCarthy’s The Road, the magic incantation by which father and son repeatedly consult and console and reassure each other, in the midst of their hellish migration, has two syllables. Okay? Okay. Such a simple verbal trick is lacking for George and Peter Caldwell, these brainy and verbal men. In the persona of Chiron, the teacher and father laments his inability to relieve the gentle Ocyrhoe of her prescience, and by his submission hopes “to earn her forgiveness for his inability to work her cure.” [96] A frustrated Peter does ask for forgiveness, this essential thing; he appears to ask for absolution for having been born. Sadly, this important request only occurs during his flight of Promethean fantasy: “Daddy, don’t rest! What would you do? Can’t you forgive us and keep going?” [189] Forgiveness is the consolation that each desires but cannot ask for.

The indeterminate death of Caldwell in The Centaur, however, is not the grim death of a Loman. Updike permits grace notes in the final pages of this three-day odyssey of a father and son. As they finally approach home, a fevered Peter has been annoyed by his father’s humiliating announcement at Potteiger’s store – “’he wants to see his mamma’” [283] – and his anxious statements of the blatantly obvious. Through this chronic alienation, he still sees in his father, as he tries to walk in his snowy footsteps, “the shape of the neck and head of a horse I was riding.” [285] There is no artificially sweetened ending, no joyful final reconciliation, no opening of mutual understanding and delight. But there is a stubborn acknowledgement that the individual is not all. We see the small but significant joy of a self-sacrificing father, and the gratitude of a bemused but still loving son, even if, in an individualistic culture, “few living mortals cast their eyes respectfully toward Heaven, and fewer still sit as students to the stars.” [299]


¹ From “Old Greek Folk Stories Told Anew”, preamble to The Centaur (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1963.) For all further quotations from the novel, the page number(s) will follow in square parantheses.

 ² An interesting authorial sidebar to this comes from a recent magazine review of Updike’s work as a critic, and specifically his astounding productivity and compelling (or compulsive) attention to detail: “That Updike seems hard-pressed to discriminate, at times, between the telling thing and the telling of everything suggests a strength that becomes a weakness…” (Wyatt Mason, “Among the Reviewers: John Updike and the book-review bugaboo”, in Harper’s Magazine, December 2007, p. 99)

³ There are in The Centaur a few subtle references to Caldwell’s own sexuality, which may suggest that his worries about Peter are founded in his own erotic diffidence. Cassie makes a nasty (and quite out-of-the-blue) remark as George and Peter leave – such a contrast to the welcoming “’My heroes!’” on their return home – about hating “’a man who hates sex’” as he gives her “one of his rare kisses.” [69] This comes after her vague remark that it is “’so sad that they don’t allow men to marry their mothers’”, to which George replies that his mother “’ate [his father] alive.’” [56] At the risk of stretching a point, there is also the remembered encounter of Caldwell/Chiron in the school basement, during which the nearly naked Aphrodite/Vera tartly comments, “’You don’t like women.’” [24]

4 ‘Deify’, indeed! This jocular, locker-room familiarity is something Peter never hears from his father. Given the ways in which Updike’s narrator exalts the god-like, Deifendorfian body, I suspect that the punning nickname, with its hint of the reverence George has for the youthful Adonis, is not accidental. The Deification of Deify, if you will.


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