Philip Roth’s “Nemesis” – is it any good?


philip-roths-nemesisThe first case of polio that summer came early in June, right after Memorial Day, in a poor Italian neighborhood crosstown from where we lived. Over in the city’s southwestern corner, in the Jewish Weequahic section, we heard nothing about it, nor did we hear anything about the next dozen cases scattered singly throughout Newark in nearly every neighborhood but ours. Only by the Fourth of July, when there were already forty cases reported in the city, did an article appear on the front page of the evening paper, titled “Health Chief Puts Parents on Polio Alert,” in which Dr. William Kittell, superintendent of the Board of Health, was quoted as cautioning parents to monitor their children closely and to contact a physician if a child exhibited symptoms such as headache, sore throat, nausea, stiff neck, joint pain, or fever. Though Dr. Kittell acknowledged that forty polio cases was more than twice as many as normally reported this early in the polio season, he wanted it clearly understood that the city of 429,000 was by no means suffering from what could be characterized as an epidemic of poliomyelitis. This summer as every summer, there was reason for concern and for the proper hygienic precautions to be taken, but there was as yet no cause for the sort of alarm that had been displayed by parents, “justifiably enough,” twenty-eight years earlier, during the largest outbreak of the disease ever reported — the 1916 polio epidemic in the northeastern United States, when there had been more than 27,000 cases, with 6,000 deaths. In Newark there had been 1,360 cases and 363 deaths.


  • Instead of spending an entire chapter giving backstory, the history is summed up into one paragraph so readers can understand what is happening without getting bored
  • “The first case” foregrounds that there are more cases to come, but gives just enough detail to keep the reader interested without spoiling the plot
  • We’re introduced to the protagonist without having to be told too much about them, so we can anticipate what they will be like and feel more drawn to the story
  • By including the protagonist so quickly, we know who to pay attention to and subconsciously begin to form opinions, hoping they will survive the epidemic
  • We learn where the novel is set, what the time period is and what conditions were like so it is easy to imagine the scenario
  • Despite the sentences being very complex, they’re broken up through punctuation and connectives so they’re not too difficult to read and comprehend
  • It is easy to see how quickly the Polio develops; readers can anticipate how much worse it will become throughout the novel
  • The introduction of Dr. William Kittell is significant as we find out more about characters and their lives without too much description to bore the reader
  • Since we’re thrown straight into the story, we immediately want to know what is happening and what is to come. If the novel started before the Polio epidemic began, I think it would be harder to be hooked as there would be no excitement to be drawn into
  • Although so many numbers/facts can be distracting, in this case they show the extent of the epidemic and help readers to picture how many people were affected
  • There is a sense of dramatic irony within the first paragraph, when it they were “by no means suffering from what could be characterized as an epidemic.” We already know that there will be an epidemic in the novel which is worse than any they’ve seen, so this makes us almost pity the protagonist as they’re unaware of what is to come.
  • The tone is generally one of mystery and suspense; we know wyat will happen, but not when, how or who it will affect. This forces the reader to continue reading as we need these questions to be answered in order to feel content.



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