Myth and reality in J. Updike's novel “The Centaur” - John Updike

Essays on literary works - 2023

Myth and reality in J. Updike's novel “The Centaur”
John Updike

The novel by D. Updike “The Centaur” belongs both to the mythological and at the same time to the art growing from the earth.

How to retell the most precious memory? How to recreate your boyish world for your girlfriend? How to do this if the past, like the present, is unsteady, unstable, their outlines are blurred and the line between what was and what seems to be, between order and chaos, is barely perceptible?

This is exactly the world in the novel “The Centaur”. Artist Peter Caldwell talks to his beloved, tells her about himself, about childhood, about his father, thinks about the present, returns to the past.

You don’t immediately understand when the action takes place: in 1947 or fifteen years later, or in general during the time of the centaurs. You can, of course, try to retell the book in chronological order, prosaically "stretch" it in the order in which the events took place, selecting only real episodes, discarding mythology. But one cannot arrange Updike's novel in this way: in art, from a change in the places of terms, the sum always changes. The world in the novel “The Centaur” is a world in which yesterday and today are bizarrely mixed. But Updike's book is not a puzzle, designed only for sophisticated ingenuity and special knowledge. It can be perceived as a fairy tale, and then it will not seem strange that the hero of the novel is still alive and active after we read the obituary dedicated to him, that the teachers are not shot with a traditional slingshot, and he is wounded by a real arrow. There is a lot of bizarre fiction in the book. And the pain of being hurt is real.

What does a person live for? That's what Updike's characters have always asked, and three generations of the Caldwell family have wistfully asked about it.

What is the opposite of chaos? That black abyss into which one inevitably falls sooner or later and into which all mankind today can be plunged every minute? What protects, what protects a person from chaos, what gives strength to live?

Maybe religion will save? But she did not save the grandfather-priest, who was so homesick on his deathbed. His sad experience closed the path to religion for his son and grandson. Many people are protected from chaos by another faith - faith in the possibility of transforming society. But the heroes of Updike, and even himself, do not have it.

Various types of human feelings can also save us from chaos: belonging to the homeland, city, factory, school, as well as awareness of the connection with other people. But Updike's hero is lonely. Nor can love help him. The wife is already hard of hearing her husband. The feeling that arose for Vera Gammel was closer to the fantasy world than to reality.

But still, the world and man in Updike's novel do not drown in chaos. George Caldwell's mainstay is kindness.

He is a strange person, behaves strangely. Even his ugly hat, found in a scrap box, so hated by his son, is, in fact, a jester's cap, just without bells.

According to the reaction to the world, according to the intonations of speech, the hero is no longer sixteen, but fifty, and still he has not matured at all.

He feels responsible for all people. Caldwell's kindness, however, is not rewarded. The hero is doomed because he is helpless, kind and pathetic.

His kindness is not inherited by his son. Peter doesn't try to imitate his father. It's from a different test. He opposes chaos in a different way. From childhood, he perceives the world in visible outlines, in colors. Peter becomes an artist. Capture elusive moments on the canvas, hold on to this world of yours... After all, no one else, not a single person on earth will see like that, depict a small farm near the town of Olinger in the state of Pennsylvania. And then this tiny little world will also sink into oblivion after countless other worlds and little worlds.

But the writer Updike does not obey nature at all. He transforms it, he authoritatively creates his world.

Mythology, with all the degrading details about the life of the gods, still retains in the novel the meaning of norm, model, harmony.

Updike's desire for harmony, for aesthetic order is deeply contradictory: he wants to give a mold of that part of the chaos in which his characters live, that is, inevitably let chaos into his pages. But at the same time, curb it, keep the elusive, strange, bizarre.

If you completely trust the writer, his reality and fantasy appear in an increasingly harmonious, one-of-a-kind combination.

In the very first chapter, it is clear how Updike's different plans fit together. The teacher was shot with an arrow. It hurts, and the class laughs. Laughter is disgusting, it turns into a shrill bark. The teacher himself has one vision more terrible than the other: it seems to him that he is a huge bird, then that his brain is a piece of meat that he saves from predatory teeth. He runs out of the classroom, closing the door, "to a bestial triumphant roar." Just as disgusting is the return to class. Caldwell is afraid. And not in vain. Because the director of the school, Zimmerman, came to the class. He is also Zeus the Thunderer. Caldwell's arrow is a lightning rod.

The class behaves meanly, plays along with the director, and Caldwell allows himself to be mocked.

With great difficulty, the teacher forces himself to continue the lesson. He does it with enthusiasm, talent, but no one listens to him. And the hero involuntarily thinks that he is a bad teacher, and life has been lived in vain. This is the reality that stands behind the phantasmagoria of thoughts, feelings, actions in the first scene of the novel.

The wounded Caldwell runs from the classroom, from the school to Gummel's garage, where they take out an arrow for him.

The realities of the city of Olinger are still around - a school, a tram, a warehouse, a Coke box ... But these realities are already being replaced by mythological ones, Caldwell is already clattering his hooves, when talking about modern children, he recalls his students - Achilles, Hercules, Jason , the garage is like a cave, and when he leaves, cyclops cackle after him.

All this resembles some kind of chaos. However, chaos and fear are still opposed by man. This is how the teacher will say about it, finishing a difficult lesson: “A minute ago, with honed flint, with smoldering tinder, with anticipation of death, a new animal with a tragic fate, an animal ...” rang out, a roar swept through the corridors of a huge building; faintness overwhelmed Caldwell, but he controlled himself ...

Updike's transitions from one artistic world to another are not always smooth, sometimes they are dizzying. Then the tuning to one wave is lost, and everything becomes dead, the structure is exposed, behind the brilliant stage one can see the dusty backdrops of the scenery. The author himself feels this, because Peter says not without reason: "I cannot overcome the last line."