is a novel by John Updike, published in 1963. Winner of the National Book Award, the novel uses the myths and legends of the ancient world in order to add gravitas to what would otherwise be a mundane, modern scenario.
The story opens as George Caldwell, a teacher at Olinger High School in the 1940s, is wounded by an arrow in his ankle, shot by one of his students. The pain is such that he has to abandon his class and limp away, heading to the old mechanic Mr. Hummel in order to have the arrow removed. George imagines himself to be the centaur Chiron from the ancient myth, a daydream begun when he flirted with Hummel’s wife, Vera, who is also a teacher at the school. George and Vera took on roles—she was Venus—as they flirted. George frequently lets his imagination get the better of him.
George complains to Hummel about the principal, Zimmerman. George believes that Zimmerman is his enemy and is seeking a way to push him out of his teaching position. George reflects on his glory days; he was once a football star and was a war hero during World War I, but these triumphs now seem very far away. He is depressed by his work, which disappoints him, and about his lack of money.
George’s son, Peter, is a student at Olinger. Peter suffers from psoriasis and is very worried about his father, who talks about death regularly. George is always talking negatively about himself, and dresses poorly as a reflection of his own lack of self-esteem. Every day after school George and Peter must travel a long way to get to their home, which lies outside the city limits. Peter is saddened that on these long drives he and his father do not have serious, intimate conversations, but always wind up arguing and fighting. Peter’s worry over his father drives him to visit George during the school day between classes to check on him, and the stress is making his condition worse.
George is convinced that he has a terminal disease. He feels poorly, and complains to his wife about it. She dismisses his concerns, but George makes a doctor’s appointment anyway. George decides to travel to Alton to get X-rays done, since the school’s swim team has a match there. He takes Peter, who is bored and irritated. Peter goes to the movies while George goes to the swim meet. When Peter rejoins George he finds that they lost the meet. They get in the car to go home but it refuses to start. They get out to look for help and encounter a severely inebriated man, who begins to threaten George, believing that George has kidnapped Peter and means him harm.
They spend the night in a hotel, then return home the next day. George deals with Zimmerman, who criticizes his teaching so much George becomes convinced he is about to be fired. George contemplates Zimmerman’s faults, which include keeping a mistress and acting in a predatory manner towards the young female students.
Peter expresses dreams of being an artist. After school, they once again have tremendous trouble returning home, and George and Peter are forced to spend the night at the Hummel household. George is awkward spending time with Vera after their flirtation, but for Peter it is an amazing experience; at his own home he perceives chaos as his parents fight—George never wished to live in the country and never wanted to own a car, and his problems getting home only exacerbate this. At the Hummel house, by contrast, things are calm and affectionate, and Vera, a beautiful woman, seems like an ideal woman and homemaker to Peter.
George attempts to attend a baseball game but finds there is no ticket waiting for him, and later the car once again refuses to start, but this time there is no one to help. When he finally does get home he finds out that the doctor reports he is in perfect health—the X-rays show nothing wrong with him. George is curiously depressed by this.
A snowstorm descends and George and Peter are once again stranded. For three days they are prevented from returning home, and George observes in Peter a change—Peter is no longer a child.
Peter grows up and graduates, and becomes an artist as he wished. As he looks back on the events at Olinger, he begins to understand the sacrifices his father made in order to ensure his own future, and appreciates his father more as a result. George was very much like Chiron, who suffered intensely after Prometheus stole fire from the gods, and begged to be killed as a result.
The novel ends on an ambiguous note, following George as he contemplates what he has experienced. It is implied that he returns to school without the dissatisfaction he’d been carrying around, accepting his fate as a mediocrity and his duty to support his son, but it is possible this is in fact George deciding to end his life in a final capitulation to disappointment.