Responsibility in Epidemic, Again

Hello, hello, hello. We have less than a month guys, keep it up! Oh you want the convener’s post? Okay, let’s dive on in! (Geddit? Dive…like swimming…like Bucky…never mind).

In Philip Roth’s Nemesis, we have the opportunity to see how the devastating disease polio disrupt the city of Newark and it inhabitants. Through a first person narration (which interestingly most of the novel seems to be third person) by Bucky Cantor’s former playground student Arnold Mesnikoff, we see how polio can affect not only physically to the Newark population but also mentally and emotionally as well. Bucky’s rise and fall in the novel raises many important questions about responsibility, guilt, religion and justification.

The novel illuminates the theme of responsibility, as we can see from the ideals passed down from Bucky’s grandfather and the inner turmoil that Bucky has between staying in Newark and going to Indian Hill. As early as his childhood, Bucky has been learning the meaning of responsibility and duty. His grandfather, from the start, wanted to “teach the boy that a man’s every endeavor was imbued with responsibility” (22). This he took to heart, applying it to every part of his life, from killing and cleaning the rat in the store and (for a good while) to his playground director job. Yet the rise of the polio contagion breaks this idealistic lifestyle. Moreover, the contagion serves to underline the idea of responsibility and how pressing it can be in such a dire situation. Does responsibility still matter in times of disease outbreak? Is it wrong to save yourself rather than save others?

In choosing between taking a job at Indian Hill and staying as the playground director in Newark, Bucky faces the difficult dilemma of fulfilling his obligation and fulfilling his duty as a fiance and family member. WIth the idea of responsibility embedded in him, he gives himself the burden, at first, of taking care of the children playing in the playground. He sees this as his duty, his moral and legal obligation. Therefore, he protects and shelters the children, he sees their families if they passed away and he makes sure the playground is clean and suitable for play. Nevertheless, as the polio epidemic increases, Bucky places more and more weight on his shoulders, setting up his breaking point when he breaks his duty and leaves for Indian Hill. But how can Bucky justify his self-imposed additions of responsibilities? His job was a playground director – a person who makes sure the playground has good upkeep and supervises children who play on it, not a therapist, social doctor or self-imposed superhero. Yet what makes him place more duties on himself when it wasn’t even in his realm of responsibility in the first place?

Blame is one of the central themes of the novel Nemesis. Bucky blames God for what has happened in the Newark. While talking with Doctor Steinberg he thinks “Does not God have a conscience? Where’s His responsibility? Or does He know no limits?” He thinks that if God created everything, then he should also have created Polio. His grandfather raised him to be a responsible person. When a disaster such as Polio struck his hometown he wanted to find the person responsible for the catastrophe.  As there was no one you could held responsible for such a big disaster he started blaming the God. Was he right in blaming God? Is God to be blamed for everything that happens in the world?

Later in the novel, we find that he shifts the blame to himself. He thinks that he is the one that brought calamity to the children of his hometown and to the children of the Indian Hill. He wanted someone to be held responsible for the adversity and he found that person-himself. He left Steinberg family not only because he wanted Marcia to have a better life but also to punish himself for what he thought was his crime.  Was punishing himself the right thing to do? Was he also punishing the Steinberg family by punishing himself?

Throughout the epidemic, Bucky constantly struggles with ideas of guilt and responsibility. As addressed above, he quietly asks the question,  who is to blame for the spread of polio? In the beginning Bucky believes that it is no one’s fault, but then as more people start looking for the responsible party, he scapegoats himself, and even blames God. However, towards the end, the narrator reasons the argument on guilt and responsibility, with chance.

“Sometimes you’re lucky and sometimes you’re not. Any biography is chance, and, beginning at conception, chance — the tyranny of contingency — is everything. Chance is what I believed Mr. Cantor meant when he was decrying what he called God.” (page 242-243)

Both the most and the least athletic kid got polio, both of them purely by chance. Bucky and Alan’s family struggle to comprehend why regardless of being the image of a perfect child and student, he still died of polio. Then, Bucky tries to understand how young strong men are killed in the war, side by side with little kids dying out of the merciless disease. The answer is always the same, “chance — the tyranny of contingency”. It is merely a chance whether you will die in a car accident the next moment, or die of heart attack in thirty years. Was Bucky really aiming at chance, when blaming God? Chance cancels out the possibility of holding a responsibility for spreading a disease. The act of infection is done by chance, and is independent of the act of carrying the disease. Bucky blames God for the creation of the distress, but if the contagion is purely by chance, then He is not to be blamed, or is He?

Summing all up, the conditions of an epidemic, as we have seen throughout all our  readings so far, question moral and ethical actions of both the community and the individual. Nemesis provides an insight into most of the dilemmas held during epidemic, from responsibility, guilt,  the struggle between the individual and the communal well-being, possible prevention, and God who created everything, including disease right? At the end, the narrator leaves everything to luck and chance, or not really.

“Maybe Bucky wasn’t mistaken. […] Maybe he was the invisible arrow.” (page 274-275)

What do you think readers? After all we have read throughout this course, is an epidemic anyone’s fault?


Have a happy reading and continue diving! 😉

Love, प्रेम, co љубов

Wes, Krishna and Evgenija


 Add your comment
  1. Hi people who are supposed to comment…. the conveners are waiting for your comments 😀

  2. Hi guys!
    I find it interesting how Arnie says “Chance is what I believed Mr. Cantor meant when he was decrying what he called God” (243). Sometimes God favors His people, sometimes He does not. Gone are the days of Passover, when He would lead the Israelites out of Egypt and shield them from the plagues He sent to vanquish their enemies. Now all people are equally likely targets from God to “plant a knife in [their] back[s] too” (263), to use Bucky’s cynical words.
    I agree with when you said that “Chance cancels out the possibility of holding a responsibility for spreading a disease.” In addition to the fact you mentioned (that carriers of the disease don’t spread it to every single person they meet, since “the act of infection is done by chance”), I also see the implication that it is merely a matter of chance that Bucky is assumed to be the spreader. If it hadn’t been him, who is to say God or whoever would not have found another person to be his replacement and spread the disease?
    I think, for that reason, that even if the contagion was “purely by chance” it doesn’t mean that God is not to be blamed. After all, whether or not it is Bucky spreading it there is still the matter of the creation of the disease in the first place. This is why Bucky cannot be an atheist like Arnie, because he needs someone to shoulder some of the blame he places upon himself: even if he doesn’t knowingly spread the disease, he still does it. Yet it’s not entirely his fault because WHY DID GOD HAVE TO INVENT POLIO IN THE FIRST PLACE?
    That concludes my attempt to understand Bucky’s tormented mind. Thanks for the thought provoking conveners post that made this happen!

    • Hi Rosy,

      I really like your argument that Bucky cannot be an atheist because he needs someone to blame. It seems as if Arnie accepted that sometimes bad things happen without someone or something causing them. I think for Bucky it is hard to comprehend that bad things can happen to anyone, regardless of their actions. He has been trying so hard his whole life to be a good responsible person (as his grandfather taught him to be), and his effort would lose it meaning if bad can happen regardless of it. Why try to be a good person, when you can die any second out of nowhere?

      And last, I would like to link to a video I remember we had on our national TV as part of a commercial. Not necessarily true but it has a point. “God did not create evil. Just as darkness is the absence of light, evil is the absence of God.”

      Link to the video here:

      Continue reading,

  3. Hi Rosy!

    I was going to answer your question but looks like Evgenija already has! The video that she posted, I believe is how one can explain why there are bad things in a world if it is under a loving omnipotent being. While one reason for Bucky hating God is that he needs somebody to blame, another reason I believe he hates God is because God does not fit his own perception of what is right, moral or correct responsibility. By criticizing God based on Bucky’s own ideals, Bucky is making God to a weak, impotent, dependent god, whose existence is beholden to a notion in his mind. If there is no God, then who cares what happens but if there is a God, Bucky needs to discover for himself who this God is and try to understand God rather than using his own conception of God.

    Nice question Rosy!


    • Hi Wes,

      Sorry for my late reply, but I really like your answer to Rosy’s comment. Bucky clearly has his own perception of God and strong opinions of what God should be and should do. He has such a high expectation towards God and thinks that God must be responsible to everything. Interestingly, while he is blaming the absence of God, he is also blaming himself for not taking responsibilities of the situation. By doing so, Bucky seems to consider himself as a God-like figure who should be responsible to everyone around him. He thinks himself as God of the playground, God of his children, God of his family, and God of the infected people in his neighborhood. Where does this high self-esteem come from? How does he develop this self-esteem? Mainly from his Grandpa’s education and expectation? From this perspective, Bucky is not only physically deformed in this disease, but he has already been psychologically deformed due to the social culture that he lives in. Polio maybe a trigger to provoke Bucky’s psychological disfunction obvious. Which contagion does this book really talk about? Polio? Or, a more invisible but destructive social disease?

      Just some random thoughts above.


  4. Hi Evgenija, Wes and Krishna

    I find it really interesting how Bucky assumes so much responsibility. I feel that the story is named ‘Nemesis’ because it is partly Bucky’s tragedy. In Greek mythology, Nemesis was the spirit of divine retribution to those who had been overcome with hubris. Bucky narrows down the culprits to two: himself and God and in doing so, in his constant questioning of why God created the contagion and why he had to spread it, equates himself with God. Later he also feels responsible for the life of Marcia in the same way that he claims that God is responsible for the lives of Alan and Donald and the others who died of polio.

    Another thing that I wanted to bring up that we didn’t have too much time to cover is the idea of manhood. Bucky has constant thoughts on what it means to be a “man” and this idea of manhood is present throughout the text. Evgenija mentioned Bucky’s grandfather in her comment and I agree that his grandfather was the one who gave him several ideas about hiding his feelings and being responsible. But his grandfather wanted him to be a man and Bucky’s biggest insecurity perhaps is that he couldn’t fight in the war with all his friends. Thus Bucky always tries to act like the man his grandfather wanted him to be.

  5. Hi Abhi,

    Wow, that is a great connection to Greek mythology. I didn’t know that Nemesis was a spirit, the character of this spirit’s character makes this book a lot more sense. I agree that Bucky equates himself with God because he compares himself and his own moral views to that of God’s.

    I also agree that Bucky’s insecurities and actions are a result of his Grandpa’s teaching of manhood to him. That’s why he stands his ground to the Italians, even when later he goes to Dr. Steinberg and reveals his insecurity about his actions. It’s sort of an older American view about males and how males should act in society. Basically be stoic and responsible and don’t show your feelings, wow what a true American.

    thanks for your input Abhi!

  6. As Rosy mentioned I also understand the need of Bucky to believe in God in order to blame him for causing the Polio and the suffering. Bucky tries to be a man like his grandfather taking responsibilities and fulfilling his duties. He thinks that there is always someone that is responsble for whatever happens in the earth. As he cannot find any one to blame or find someone to be responsible for Polio, he blames God. God created everything. So, he should have also created Polio.
    I also really like Abhi’s idea about Bucky equating himself to God. He feels that he is as much as responsible as the God. He blames God for creating the Polio but blames himself for spreading it among his loved ones.


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