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?
I think the question, “Is America a place for the infirm?” can also be transformed into a question of “Is America a place for minorities and for the weak?”
One scene in particular at Indian Hill, when the campers and counselors perform Native American rituals seems particularly ironic to me. Native Americans throughout the United States and Central America were eradicated in large masses by new diseases brought by Europeans that their immune systems could not defend. In addition, their land was taken away, their culture denied, and their livelihoods destroyed. And here, at the summer camp, children and adults are participating in a form of blackface and cultural appropriation because of a Jewish camp director’s lifelong dedication towards the Indian culture (which I find ridiculous personally in that context). Infirmity in the case of Native Americans was just a weapon to destroy groups of people that represented different interests to America. America is not a place for anyone who holds different ideals. If Bucky wasn’t inundated with his ideals of masculinity and duty, would his life still have ended up the way it does?
As a young female reader, I think that the questions of Bucky’s manliness are extremely interesting. It’s a tad repulsive to me that the female characters in Philip Roth’s novel are flat, superficial and stereotypical. The women in the novel are surrogates; they are compliant troopers that somewhat drive the male characters towards achieving their goals, forming their identities, or saving the day at the playground. On the other hand, the male characters all play heroes (whether they are soldiers, doctors, mentors, etc.). I sympathize with Bucky and the fact that he feels the need to ride out into the world alone in order to help others or ‘find himself’ or whatever, but I’m not quite sure how to react to the fact that the women of this book have been portrayed as being so dull. Marcia, in particular, ends up being nothing more than a sex object who wants nothing more than to “hungrily kiss[ing] his face”. Shouldn’t women have more to do with a man attempting to find his manliness?
I think it is worth noting that Bucky is perhaps the only character of which Roth constructs a very complex dynamic identity in the play. The development of the other characters varies, but never matches that of Bucky. That said, I don’t think is a fair critique to say Marcia is nothing more than a sex object. If anything, Marcia would be the one who objectifies Bucky to an extent since, in the end, it is her who initiates most of the sexual encounters in the play. On the other hand, I think she is important in serving as an opposition to Bucky in many aspects, and in that sense, it allows the readers to better understand the issues of social reproduction at play. For instance, in Indian Hill, she takes the optimistic stance and, in opposition to this, Bucky shows his incapability of accepting that he is out of Newark and nothing that terrible can happen there. However, towards their final encounter, and interesting tensions is laid out when they both seem to suffer of the same overreaching sense of responsibility: Marcia, to an extent, wants Bucky by her side in order to fix him and prove herself a good woman. Bucky, on the other hand, thinks rejecting Marcia is his only chance to prove himself a man. This attitudes are tainted by the gender archetypes of the time, but they serve to better inform the context of the novel and serve as a platform for conversations about femininity and masculinity.
If Nemesis is evocative of Oedipus the King in many aspects, can we juxtapose the two literary works with regard to their plot developments? If both Oedipus and Bucky are guilty of hubris by disrespecting the gods, or God, what can we say about Bucky’s tragic flaw (Aristotle calls it hamartia and interpreters mostly define it as a fatal flaw, or a failing of some sort of morals or character)? As spatially and temporally distanced readers, engaged in dramatic irony by being aware of the nature of fecal transmission of polio, can we blame the further poliomyelitis infections on Bucky’s shaking Horace’s hand? Can we say the novel blames him?