Philip Roth’s Nemesis tells the story of 1944 polio outbreak in Newark, where Mr. Bucky Cantor works as a playground director after being unable to join the army due to his impaired vision. The death of Alan, a 12 year old, triggers mass hysteria as villagers undertake a frantic search for the causes of polio. As the cause of the disease remains unknown, extreme measures such as “exterminating alley cats” are taken but fail to stop the spread of the illness given that they are unrelated to polio. Parents and villagers insist on “disinfect[ing] everything” and forbid play and enjoyment to an extent that seems to prevent life from happening altogether.
In this context, blame and responsibility become central themes in the novel. First, we must consider the use of scapegoats (Italians in the beginning, Jews towards the end) and its implications given the historical context of the novel. Moreover, morality is used to cast a judgement over those infected. For instance, many villages consider Alan had an exquisite character, hinting at the fact that there might be some divine justice in the disease. On the other hand, we must think of the character of Bucky and whether his attitudes towards his own responsibility in spreading the disease render him likable or not. Although once an active participant of communal life, Bucky becomes increasingly isolated as he is haunted by guilt to the extent that he leaves Marcia and becomes a hermit. All these, motivated by his desire of living with integrity:
“[H]is last opportunity to be a man of integrity was by sparing the virtuous young woman he dearly loved from unthinkingly taking a cripple as her mate for life” (Pg. 262)
Bucky is haunted by the frustration of not serving in the army and by the idea that he might have been one of the sources of the contagion, all this embedded in a quest to validate his manliness. This, considered in the moral and historical context of the play prompts to ask: is America a place for the infirm?