Essay Writing Samples

Personal Responsibility in Nemesis by Philip Roth

Philip Roth is a famous author that explores a number of themes in his book, Nemesis. This sample paper explores the social position of Jews and the spread of polio in the years before the elimination of the disease. The book focuses on the idea of responsibility in an individual sense. 

Responsibility in Nemesis

Philip Roth demonstrates a number of themes in his book, Nemesis. Among these are the disadvantaged social position of Jews and fear caused by the epidemic spread of polio before the advent of a vaccine. The overarching theme of the book, however, is that of responsibility, particularly personal responsibility. This is evident due to his repeated use of the theme in describing the guilt the protagonist, Bucky Cantor, feels for his misguided belief that he spread polio amongst his friends. This theme of responsibility, often in the context of blame, is one that may also be found, if to a lesser degree, in two of Roth’s other books, Indignation and The Humbling.

Relationships in Phillip Roth’s Nemesis

The protagonist of Indignation, Marcus Messner, sees a number of relationships sour to varying extents due to interpersonal conflicts. After a dustup with the Dean of Men at his school seems to him to be another in a series of disagreements, Marcus turns inward and reflects on his role in the arguments.

“Why…am I in conflict with everyone? It began at home with my father, and from there it has doggedly followed me here. First there’s Flusser, then there’s Elwyn, then there’s Cauldwell…How had I gotten myself in trouble so fast” (Indignation 113)?

He does not consider that responsibility lies with anyone but himself. He, alone, got himself into trouble.

Similarly, the main character of The Humbling, the aging Simon Axler, when wondering at the recent breakup of his relationship with the much younger, sexually powerful Pegeen Stapleford, squarely blames himself. This is in spite of his predictions earlier in the affair that it would not end well. In his reflection, he blames the collapse on his act of bringing another woman, Tracy, into his bed with Pegeen, as Pegeen subsequently left him for Tracy.

“Because it was he, finally, who was responsible for what had happened. Yes, he had tried to satisfy her in every way, and so, idiotically, he’d introduced Tracy into their life and undone everything” (The Humbling 136).

After a personal reflection, Simon believes he is personally responsible for her leaving, in spite of the fact that he already knew the breakup to be inevitable.

Personal responsibility on Nemesis

Nemesis’ Bucky does the same thing when he takes personal responsibility for the equally inevitable and quite deadly spread of polio in his community. He takes survivor’s guilt – as he was scarred by the disease, too – to a new, dark level, leaving him with an “aura of ineradicable failure about him” (Nemesis 246). He can do no less, due to his need for personal accountability. This trait of Bucky’s was described by Roth himself in an interview with Nelly Kaprielian in 2012:

“Bucky is a man who defines himself solely by his virtue, and that’s a very dangerous thing. It isn’t just polio that’s going to ruin his life, but his aspiration to total responsibility.

This need is demonstrated fairly early in the book. Roth makes it apparent that Bucky is struggling with whether he should accept blame for the demise of two boys who died of polio, after the mother of the boys stated it was due to Bucky’s canceling baseball activities on the playground of which he was in charge. He talks with Dr. Steinberg, his girlfriend’s father, who, with a fatherly tone, advises him not to be too hard on himself.

“We can be severe judges of ourselves when it is in no way warranted. A misplaced sense of responsibility can be a debilitating thing” (Nemesis 102).

That warning is not taken by Bucky, and he actually assigns himself drastically more blame as the story continues and the epidemic worsens.

Further in, the depth of Bucky’s feeling of responsibility, and the fact that he makes an illogical leap to take on that responsibility, become apparent. Bucky relates to the narrator, a man who was one of the children Bucky knew who contracted polio, the intensity of his shame for what he believes is his role in the sickness and depth of his charges, at the playground and at a camp intended to separate children from the area the epidemic was striking:

“I was the Typhoid Mary of the Chancellor playground. I was the playground polio carrier. I was the Indian Hill polio carrier” (248).

When the narrator is taken aback by Bucky’s conviction, he reminds Bucky that “there’s certainly no proof” (248) he was the carrier. Bucky reveals his illogical leap: “There’s no proof that I wasn’t” (248). Absent proof, Bucky has charged and convicted himself.

As the book goes on, Roth relates how Bucky is completely embittered by his liability for the boys’ infection, and has sentenced himself to a life of unhappiness. In a heart-wrenching exchange, Bucky relates to the narrator the extent to which he has punished himself, and the extent of his sense of responsibility. Bucky takes on the duty of deciding what is best for his aforementioned girlfriend, Marcia, the love of his life. He decides that her life will be better if she is married to a man who is not damaged by polio, and shuns her, breaking his heart and hers.

“I owed her her freedom,” he relates, “”and I gave it to her. I didn’t want the girl to feel stuck with me. I didn’t want to ruin her life” (254).

This dramatic event is the ultimate demonstration by Roth of Bucky’s sense – and Roth’s theme – of personal responsibility.


Bucky’s repeated demonstration of his penchant for personal responsibility, both in his assuming of blame for children’s illnesses, and in his lifetime punishment of himself, drive the theme home throughout the book. In the other Roth works mentioned, Indignation and The Humbling, he merely dabbles in the theme. In Nemesis, the theme of personal responsibility is central to the book. This theme is not the only one to be gleaned from this book. It is, however, the underpinning of the story, without which the book might be only be moderately sad and uninteresting.

Works Cited

Roth, Philip. Indignation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2008. Print.

Interview by Nelly Kaprielian. “In Which Philip Roth Announces His Retirement (in English).” The Paris Review. 13 Nov. 2012. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.

The Humbling. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. Print.

Nemesis. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010. Print.

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