Nemesis, the Greek goddess of revenge and retribution is the mythological woman who gives title to Philip Roth’s novel about Polio-stricken New Jersey. Set in 1944, our narrator tells us the story of Eugene “Bucky” Cantor, a 23-year old Jewish playground director whose life is filled with loss: his mom died at childbirth, his dad was imprisoned for stealing and was never present in his life, his grandfather — who took the role of father — died three years before the novel takes place to a heart-attack, his girlfriend Marcia took a job at a faraway camp in the Poconos, and at present, Bucky’s playground children are one-by-one contracting Polio and dying. Not only is Mr. Cantor stricken by the loss of people, he was also born with very poor eyesight, a factor that prevents him from joining the army and as he sees it, from serving the nation honorably, and helping his fellow generation in the battle of WWII. It’s hard to believe that a character struck by so much loss is still so devoted in preserving the well-being of others. What determines a person’s character? What factors define whether a person will turn out good-intentioned or bad-intentioned?
In page 27, we get a glimpse into how devastated Bucky was after being rejected by the army for his eyesight. “He felt the shame of someone who might by himself have made a difference as the U.S. forces in the Pacific suffered one colossal defeat after another.” One interesting thought here is that bureaucracy has no sympathy. The rules are the rules and it doesn’t matter if Bucky is better able than anyone else to join the war, his eyesight doesn’t meet the army’s requirements. His disability predetermines much of his life: the job he can get and the way he perceives himself. Partly this, and partly the unfairness of Polio stealing away the lives of the purest children, like Alan, are what cause Mr. Cantor to begin questioning God and religion: “How could there be forgiveness—let alone hallelujahs—in the face of such lunatic cruelty?” In Nemesis, Roth paints a picture in which the Jewish community seems to be the most affected by the outbreak of Polio, and in a way, this shows the historical persecution of Jews. At the time the novel is set, the Jews are still being persecuted by Nazi Germany. Not only is humanity striking against the Jews, but also contagion. This idea brings us back to the title, Nemesis: what is Roth trying to tell us about Revenge and Retribution? Could it be that the Jews are being punished by Nemesis for something they’ve done as a community? (It’s very unlikely that this is where Roth is guiding us; a Jew himself, Roth actually graduated from Weequahic High School, in Newark, around 1950.) Perhaps, the whole point of the novel is to challenge the idea of revenge and retribution. Can anyone fairly judge people and grant them the retribution they deserve? Is there an alternative to looking for a scapegoat, or for someone to blame? Is it possible for humans to find justice without blaming one another?
At the same time that Nazis used the Jews as scapegoats for all the bad things that were happening to Germany, many families in the book are looking for scapegoats, someone to blame for their children contracting Polio. One of these cases is the mother of the brothers who bullied Horace. When Mr. Cantor calls her to give her his support for her kids contracting Polio, she insults him, asking him how he even dares to call her, after causing the children of the neighborhood to get Polio. In this way, Nemesis shows us the inevitable human nature of seeking for the guilty one. Also, What’s up with Horace? What should we make of him? He’s described as an idiot, and a moron. Before learning that he actually has a medical condition, the description of Horace seems to be that of a very bad person, but when we readers learn he’s actually mentally disabled, it is striking the cruelty with which he’s described and treated. Could Nemesis be punishing this community because of their cruelty towards an innocent child? They even point fingers at him saying he’s a carrier of Polio. Why is the community so cruel towards him? Horace suffers of a collective discrimination because of his mental disabilities that makes him a pariah, an outsider, rejected by the rest. Likewise, Mr. Cantor’s eyesight disability causes him to be rejected by the army, however, with his strong build and charismatic personality, he is very respected in the neighborhood.
Towards the end of the section, we find that Mr. Cantor has taken up on Marcia’s offer for him to take the job close to her. Many are the reasons why he is finally convinced that leaving is a good idea, but are these reasons respectable? Mainly, his leaving is questionable because he’s leaving his grandma, an old widow who devoted her life to him. But can we really judge him? The typical quote about having kids is, “And just like that, they’re gone.” This raises the question, What’s a child’s duty to their parents, or those who raised him/her?