The Centaur

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First edition ( Knopf, 1963) TheCentaur.jpg
First edition ( Knopf, 1963)

The Centaur is a novel by John Updike, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1963. It won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction. Portions of the novel first appeared in Esquire and The New Yorker . [1]

John Updike American novelist, poet, short story writer, art critic, and literary critic

John Hoyer Updike 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, 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.

Alfred A. Knopf American publishing house

Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. is a New York publishing house that was founded by Alfred A. Knopf Sr. and Blanche Knopf in 1915. Blanche and Alfred traveled abroad regularly and were known for publishing European, Asian, and Latin American writers in addition to leading American literary trends. It was acquired by Random House in 1960, who was later acquired by Bertelsmann in 1998, and is now part of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. The Knopf publishing house is associated with its borzoi colophon, which was designed by co-founder Blanche Knopf in 1925.

The National Book Award for Fiction is one of four annual National Book Awards, which recognize outstanding literary work by United States citizens. Since 1987 the awards have been administered and presented by the National Book Foundation, but they are awards "by writers to writers". The panelists are five "writers who are known to be doing great work in their genre or field".


The French translation of the novel won the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger (Best Foreign Book Prize).

The Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger is a French literary prize created in 1948. It is awarded yearly in two categories: Novel and Essay for books translated into French.

Plot summary

The story concerns George Caldwell, a school teacher, and his son Peter, outside of Alton (i.e., Reading), Pennsylvania. The novel explores the relationship between the depressive Caldwell and his anxious son. George has largely given up on life; what glory he knew, as a football player and soldier in World War I, has passed. He feels put upon by the school's principal, and he views his students as hapless and uninterested in anything he has to teach them. Peter, meanwhile, is a budding aesthete who idolizes Vermeer and dreams of becoming a painter in a big city, like New York. He has no friends his age, and regularly worries that his peers might detect his psoriasis, which stains his skin and flecks his clothes every season but summer. One thing George and Peter share is the desire to get out, to escape their hometown. This masculine desire for escape appears in Updike's famed "Rabbit" novels. Similarly, the novel's image of Peter's mother alone on an untended farm is one we later see in Updike's 1965 novel Of the Farm .

Reading, Pennsylvania City in Pennsylvania, United States

Reading is a city in and the county seat of Berks County, Pennsylvania, United States. With a population of 87,575, it is the fifth-largest city in Pennsylvania. Located in the southeastern part of the state, it is the principal city of the Greater Reading Area, and is furthermore included in the Philadelphia-Reading-Camden PA-NJ-DE-MD Combined Statistical Area.

High school football secondary school competition in gridiron football

High school football is gridiron football played by high school teams in the United States and Canada. It ranks among the most popular interscholastic sports in both countries. It is also popular amongst American High school teams in Europe.

World War I 1914–1918 global war originating in Europe

World War I, also known as the First World War or the Great War, was a global war originating in Europe that lasted from 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918. Contemporaneously described as "the war to end all wars", it led to the mobilisation of more than 70 million military personnel, including 60 million Europeans, making it one of the largest wars in history. It is also one of the deadliest conflicts in history, with an estimated nine million combatants and seven million civilian deaths as a direct result of the war, while resulting genocides and the 1918 influenza pandemic caused another 50 to 100 million deaths worldwide.


Like James Joyce in Ulysses , Updike drew on the myths of antiquity in an attempt to turn a modern and common scene into something more profound, a meditation on life and man's relationship to nature and eternity. George is both the Centaur Chiron and Prometheus (some readers might see George's son Peter as Prometheus), Mr. Hummel, the automobile mechanic, is Hephaestus (AKA Vulcan); and so forth. The novel's structure is unusual; the narrative shifts from present day (late 1940s) to prospective (early 1960s), from describing the characters as George, Vera, and the rest, to the Centaur, Venus, and so forth. It also is punctuated with a feverish dream scene and George's obituary. Near the end of the novel, Updike includes two untranslated Greek sentences. Their translation is as follows:

James Joyce Influential Irish novelist, short story author and poet, 20th century

James Augustine Aloysius Joyce was an Irish novelist, short story writer, poet, teacher, and literary critic. He contributed to the modernist avant-garde and is regarded as one of the most influential and important authors of the 20th century. Joyce is best known for Ulysses (1922), a landmark work in which the episodes of Homer's Odyssey are paralleled in a variety of literary styles, most famously stream of consciousness. Other well-known works are the short-story collection Dubliners (1914), and the novels A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Finnegans Wake (1939). His other writings include three books of poetry, a play, his published letters and occasional journalism.

<i>Ulysses</i> (novel) novel by the Irish author James Joyce

Ulysses is a modernist novel by Irish writer James Joyce. It was first serialised in parts in the American journal The Little Review from March 1918 to December 1920 and then published in its entirety in Paris by Sylvia Beach on 2 February 1922, Joyce's 40th birthday. It is considered to be one of the most important works of modernist literature and has been called "a demonstration and summation of the entire movement." According to Declan Kiberd, "Before Joyce, no writer of fiction had so foregrounded the process of thinking".

Centaur fictional creature of a combination of a man and a horse

A centaur, or occasionally hippocentaur, is a mythological creature with the upper body of a human and the lower body and legs of a horse.

This quote is from Bibliotheca 2.5.4, and describes the death of Chiron.

The Bibliotheca, also known as the Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus, is a compendium of Greek myths and heroic legends, arranged in three books, generally dated to the first or second century AD.

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  1. "National Book Awards – 1964". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-11.
    (With acceptance speech by Updike and essay by Harold Augenbraum from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
Preceded by
Morte d'Urban
J. F. Powers
National Book Award for Fiction
Succeeded by
Saul Bellow