Literary Analysis Essay on Nemesis by Phillip Roth

Published: 2021-07-08
1115 words
5 pages
10 min to read
Carnegie Mellon University
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Nemesis is a novel written by Phillip Roth and published in 2010. It tells the story of a polio epidemic that broke out in 1944 and the effect that it had on a Jewish community in Newark. Roth does an excellent job of depicting the terror that the disease induces over the bewildered and frightened Newark neighborhood considering that its vaccine was not licensed until 1962. He brilliantly brings out the desperate lack of information about polio, the helplessness of parents whose children have been afflicted together with the speed and severity with which it spreads. In the course of the epidemic, child after child either dies or is crippled by the disease.

The main protagonist in Nemesis is a 23-year-old athletic young man called Bucky Cantor who works as a physical education teacher and playground director. He has gone through some rather unfortunate events in his life. His mother died while giving birth to him, while his criminal father abandoned him a long time ago. His poor eyesight prevented him from enrolling in the military and getting a chance to fight in the Second World War. Cantor was brought up by his grandparents and currently lives with his grandmother. He goes about his job with dignity and enthusiasm as it gives him an opportunity to teach children some valuable life lessons. When there is an outbreak of polio in the neighborhood, Cantors girlfriend is afraid that he will contract the disease if he remains in Newark. She convinces him the leave his job and joins her at her summer camp in which the disease has not reached. Unfortunately, Cantor contracts polio and spreads it to the camp whereby one camper dies and several others become ill.

Cantor's decision to disconnect from his life can as he had lived can, in a way, be applauded. He decided to quit his job as a playground director at the behest of his girlfriend. It was a wise decision as he had recently been engaged to her and it was a no-brainer that they should start spending some time together. Agreeing to her request proves that he loves her and genuinely values her opinions. There is also the safety aspect of the decision. An outbreak of polio had occurred in Cantor's neighborhood and it was common sense that he should move to somewhere safe before he became infected.

On the other hand, the decision was not such a good idea. By quitting his job at the playground, Cantor lost his source of income. Unless he found another job quickly where he relocated, which was unlikely, he would suffer from some financial hardships. He would be forced to rely on his girlfriend for everything, a situation that could have an adverse effect on their relationship. In addition, quitting meant he had lost a job that he enjoys doing and which makes children look up to him. It is revealed that it is Cantor who brought polio to his girlfriend's summer camp, resulting in the death of one camper and the illnesses of several others. All this would not have happened if he did make the decision to leave Newark. One of the characters says You can't wash polio away. You can't see it. It gets in the air and you open your mouth and you breathe it in and the next thing you got polio (Roth, 67).

In Nemesis, Philip Roth makes the reader get a physical and mental picture of the city of Newark. For example, the way he explains Cantor's school can easily make someone think it is real and not some fictitious place. The author provides a detailed description of various parts of the city in a clear and precise manner in such a way that even someone who has never been there getting the idea. Considering that he was born and raised in the city, it is not surprising that he knows it very well. In addition, his descriptions match what Newark looked like in the 1960s. He does not mention any of the modern buildings or establishments that were not there at the time.

In a free country like the United States, people can do whatever they want, as long as it is not against the law. They can go wherever they want, interact with anyone, and no one can force an individual to do something against their will. Cantor displays various types of free will. For instance, he willingly agrees to quit his job in order to join his fiancee and escape the polio pandemic. He also willingly teaches children important life lessons despite the fact that it is not part of his job description. He does all these things voluntarily because he wants to rather than because someone is pressurizing him to do them.

There are many ways in which living in a city like Newark can give someone an edge in life. Given that cities contain millions of people, it is easy to meet people and make connections to do with careers or businesses. It's never difficult to get a social event to attend. In a big city, meeting other people is a rather effortless task. The diverse manner in which major metropolitan is designed allows an individual to broaden his or her spectrum of professional and personal relations. Discovering common interests with others and learning about various cultures assists someone in grows into more understanding and open individuals. Having a social lifestyle while living in a big city can expand someone's horizons while at the same time interactions even more meaningful.

In addition to presenting opportunities for socialization, big cities give people myriad shopping and fine dining options. Cities such as Newark have played the role of cultural melting pots for a long time. Restaurants that have every imaginable dish on their menus can be found everywhere in Newark. For instance, the Ironbound district has hundreds of restaurants offering exotic European, Asian, and South American cuisine.

From this course, I have learned a lot about the city of Newark. I now know how to analyze books whose storylines are set within the city, such as Nemesis. Although I have never actually been there, I now know so much about the city that if I paid a visit unaccompanied I would never get lost. I also got to learn about the city's history, cultural way of life, and how its residents interact with one another. Something I found rather interesting is how the Newark of the 1960s is portrayed in Nemesis. Perhaps the only modification to the course that I would suggest is the inclusion of non-fiction books about Newark as part of the readings.

Works Cited

Roth, Philip. Nemesis. New York, NY: Vintage, 2011. Print.


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