Polio: The Nemesis

So far in Philip Roth’s Nemesis we encounter Bucky Cantor – a primary school PE teacher – who is the playground director in the summer, the season of Polio infestation. Cantor has been denied membership in the army due to his poor eyesight, which as left him feeling inadequate and ashamed – he feels he is being judged by the wider community for his lack of participation in the war effort:

“He was ashamed to be seen in civilian clothes, ashamed when he watched the news reels of the war at the movies, ashamed when he took the bus home to Newark from East Orange at the end of the school day and sat beside someone reading in the evening paper the day’s biggest story…he felt the shame of someone who might by himself have made a difference as the US forces in the pacific suffered one colossal defeat after another” (p.27).

It is evident that Cantor has a strong affinity towards the children, and is distraught by the fact that they are dying as a result of this “summertime disease”, so much so that when his girlfriend Marcia, suggests that he leaves the school to accompany her and, to some extent, save himself from contracting the illness, he refuses, saying that “I can’t leave them. They need me more than ever. This is what I have to be doing” (p.85). This bond he shares with these students is seen once again in his resentment towards God for directing this disease towards the children only:

“But for killing Alan with polio at twelve? For the very existence of Polio? How could there be forgiveness – let alone hallelujahs – in the face of such lunatic cruelty?” (p. 75).

We see in this instance, a central question the novel poses: what is the significance of polio being contracted by young children as opposed to teenagers, adults or those of an older generation?

It is clear that Cantor is disappointed with God. He has taken away his father, his mother and most importantly his paternal figure and mentor in life – his grandfather. This naturally brings about the next question: why does God do the things He does – why does He interfere in this way? Can we link this involvement of God during contagion-based crises to any of the other texts we have read so far? How do they compare to Nemesis?

This interference has made Cantor reflect upon the idea of what a “real family” should be, and how himself had not grown up in one, as he was raised by grandparents as opposed to the boys in his class who were “sons of their parents” (p.123). What are some elements that define what a family truly is, looking at previous texts?

We see Cantor’s distress over the fact that children are dying as opposed to adults, with the death and funeral of Alan, who will “remain twelve forever” (p.63). This idea of death freezing one’s existence in time alludes to the notion of the timelessness of death – a concept that appears subtly in the novel and primarily when Cantor reflects as to whether his mother would have looked as his grandmother does, had she been alive, which goes to show that the image that he has of her is a picture frozen in time, unchanged by external circumstances, as is now the case of Alan.

It is undeniable that the playground has a sense of eeriness to it. It seems to be the both the breeding ground for polio, and is slowly consuming the children – it appears to be an entity of its own and a central cog in the drama of the novel, affecting several, if not all, of the plots and subplots. Can you think of instances in previous texts where a non-human figure has been this influential in the action of the story? Perhaps blood and money in Dream of Ding Village? Can you think of any others?

We have encountered an array of narrators in the texts we have read. What is the significance of this text being narrated by a man (who was once a child in the Newark playground), who was infected by polio, keeping in mind what we have aforementioned about the degree of unfairness about children being the targets of this disease?

We hope this leads to an interesting class discussion about this text!

By Camila, Simi, Sudikchya and Silviu


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  1. Thanks for raising so many interesting questions for us to discuss!

    To attempt to answer a few of them, I believe the issues of manhood, family, and frustration towards God are all strongly linked to the issue of children being the primary victims of polio. Similar to Animal from Animal’s Village, Mr. Cantor also has a strong sense of wanting to prove himself as a man, and one of the ways he wishes to do so is by getting married into a “normal family” and raising children. This is especially evident in the way the novel addresses the deaths of boys (as opposed to girls) in more detail, and also in the way Mr. Cantor treats them as his sons. Donald in particular is actually labelled as an almost-son, and his death causes Mr. Cantor to shriek in the same way a woman earlier in the novel did: “It was the shriek of the woman downstairs from the Michaels family, terrified that her child would catch polio and die. Only he didn’t just hear the shriek- he was the shriek.” (225)

    As for the plague being treated as an almost living force, I believe it seems to allude particularly to the “Angel of Death” (/God/Holy Spirit) during the Passover:
    “Polio is going after kids, and it will sweep through this place and destroy them all.” (114-115)
    “It was always as if polio would never notice that there were kids in these woods– that it wouldn’t find them here. […] How could it possibly hunt them down here?” (229)
    The imagery of sweeping through and hunting down children effectively conveys this point.

    To pose one question myself, what does everyone think about the evaluation of Mr. Cantor’s grandfather? Domestic violence, or just strict man?

    So many interesting moments and themes going on… Looking forward to class discussion 🙂

  2. I think Bucky’s frustration toward God is caused no less by his self-perception than by the sheer fact that children are the main victims of this cruel disease. Throughout the novel, people in hysteria try to find someone or something to blame–first the Italians, Syd’s hotdog, Horace, etc. But interestingly, Bucky seems to be the only one who finds the reason in none of these. He doesn’t think that the Italians are responsible for the disease, as he cleaned up their spit with ammonia, and he doesn’t worry about contracting disease after eating at Syd’s. He doesn’t fear shaking hands with Horace, while Kenny the mature boy freaks out about his filthiness. He seems to be the most rational character, put aside his rather incomprehensible accusation of God.

    Nobody in this novel is as mad at God as Bucky is. He not only questions His responsibility and conscience but also considers Him as “lunatic cruelty” (75) who created Polio virus to kill children on purpose. When Bucky learns that he contracted the disease as well, he himself becomes the victim of endless accusation, converting “tragedy into guilt” (265). It seems that Bucky perceives himself as the sole bearer of responsibility, besides God. He allows no one else but God to share his guilt. Can it be said that he falsely equals himself with God in terms of influence and responsibility? Can it be related to hubris?

  3. We’re still confronted by the impulse to assign blame during these epidemics, and in “Nemesis” the question remains cloudy — who is responsible for the mass suffering? God? The carriers, like Bucky, who unknowingly propagate the disease before being affected by it themselves? Interestingly, this vector phenomenon relates to the current Ebola epidemic — the virus burns out quickly in human hosts, meaning the host is immediately incapacitated and either dies or survives within a short window of time. The main danger in the virus’ mutations is the possibility that a strain will develop that has a longer incubation period, turning some infected people into carriers (like Bucky) and propagating the disease much more widely.

    Objectively, Bucky did help spread the disease, making him somewhat responsible for its spread, but that does not mean he’s necessarily deserving of blame. After all, Bucky was unaware of his carrier status until Donald got infected, and he never had any malice or intent to spread disease. It’s also difficult (as usual) to assign blame entirely to God, who seems impossibly cruel and random if truly he is intentionally killing children.

    On page 248, Bucky calls himself “the Typhoid Mary of the Chancellor Playground”. Mary Mallon was a cook in New York who was found to be a carrier for typhoid, and as a result of public paranoia and fear she was quarantined on a nearby island for years, all alone. Eventually the state released her from her extreme and psychologically difficult imprisonment, asking her to sign a contract saying that she’d never work as a cook again. After her release, however, Mary began to intentionally infect people and work as a cook in hospitals and other places specifically in order to spread disease. Bucky calls himself a ‘Typhoid Mary’, assigning himself a lot of blame even though there is a key distinction between him and Mary Mallon — Bucky never purposefully spread disease. This is itself a comparison to Oedipus, who declared himself to be a guilty wretch once he realized he was responsible for the plague. Oedipus, like Bucky, unintentionally propagated the disease but assumed full responsibility and blame after he realized his role.

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