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