18 Mar 2022


Medical Realism in Nemesis

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In medicine, there are various issues that are of concern particularly in regards to diseases or epidemics and how they are spread. One of these concerns is the issue of medical realism whereby the quality of the individual to understand the realistic and possible actions to undertake during a disease outbreak and take effective and practical action. In simple terms, the individuals in society should be equipped with knowledge of various diseases in order to prevent them from occurring or spreading. The fictional novel Nemesis by Philip Roth is seen as a case where an outbreak of polio has taken place and continues to spread without control. The novel centers on a young physical education teacher, Eugene “Bucky” Cantor, who has to deal with the polio epidemic as it threatens to infect the children he teaches and himself. The following paper focuses on the real fact about polio and the way it compares to the story in Nemesis .

Polio Facts

Polio is a disease medically identified as poliomyelitis but may also be referred to as infantile paralysis. According to medical research, this is an infectious disease that is commonly spread by the poliovirus. In some of the cases that take place, the muscles of the affected victim are weakened resulting in a significant inability to move. Usually, the effects of the virus can be presented within a few hour or days after infection. The disease has been identified to affect mostly children but it may also affect the adults. Due to the enhanced technology and research carried out on the infectious disease, medical practitioners have been able to come up with an effective vaccine whose use can be able to prevent the occurrence of the disease. Polio is known to have its most severe effects among the older adults due to lower immunity of the bodies. 

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The spread of the polio virus was evident in the 1950s where it would affect up to 35000 people a year in the United States. The virus is spread when an uninfected person comes into contact with stool that is infected with the virus mainly through the mouth. This is mainly when the stool has come into contact with a medium such as water or food. Additionally, the virus could be spread through oral-to-oral transmission whereby the saliva is the medium carrying the virus (NPR, 2010). Throughout the 20th Century, poliomyelitis was the most feared disease in the world as it would affect the socialization of the community. Upon the onset of the illness, the individual is most infectious from the first to midway the second week. However, the virus continues to affect the throat of the affected individual as long as it is in the throat and feces. The illness was eradicated from the United States in 1979 but continues to persist in various regions including Southeast Asia, Eastern Mediterranean and Africa.

Comparison to Nemesis Depiction

Philip Roth in the novel Nemesis , has presented the characters as having the medical concern due to the epidemic of polio. The story begins in 1944 in the summer season. As the children are off from school, they are out playing at Weequahic a Jewish playground. The protagonist of the story, Bucky Cantor, would like to ensure the children can continue enjoying their holiday. However, there is a widespread panic among the parents and the children alike as each of them fears contracting the disease. This is despite the fact that area had not yet received any victims of the illness (NPR, 2010). However, the residents of the area believe that the dangerous disease could strike at any time. Bucky continues to keep the children carefree and active through various physical activities. The panic at the time is presented due to the ignorance of the people as it is seen as a mysterious disease with unknown sources.

However, there are numerous people who are not pleased that the Jewish children are not affected as seen when the various children from the nearby Italian neighborhood. The children come to the neighborhood and instead spit on the pavement just to provoke them. As it was believed that the possible agents of the illness were flies, excessive heat and human contact, Bucky acts as the protector of the children from the infected ones. He forces the Italians to leave after which he ensures that the pavement is cleaned using hot water and ammonium (Roth, 2010). However, it is only a few days before two Jewish boys contract the illness and within a short while die from the illness. This is seen as the beginning of Bucky’s belief that the God is to be blamed for the illnesses taking place (Roth, 2010). The young man who had a strong religious background had been brought up believing in the mercies of God has now turned against him. He even cancels a trip with his fiancé as he believes that God does not want to protect these innocent children.

Symptoms &Treatments

The polio virus is seen to be presented in two basic forms. The first is seen through a minor illness that does not involve the central nervous system it is usually referred to as abortive poliomyelitis. However, the other form comes as a major illness that attacks the central nervous system. As a result, it may be affect the limbs of the individual causing paralysis but it may also be non-paralytic. Individuals with a normal immune system the infection may not present any symptoms hence it is asymptomatic. The rare cases when the minor symptoms are presented, the infected party has upper respiratory tract infection which includes sore throats and fevers. There are also cases where gastrointestinal infections that may cause the ailing individual to feel nauseated, vomit, constipate or have pains in the abdomen. There are very rare cases where the person has diarrhea. Influenza like symptoms may also be presented including chills, shivering, dry coughs, body aches or loss of appetite.

According to research, only 1% of the cases of polio may attack the central nervous system. In this case, the patient may be seen to have contracted aseptic meningitis whereby symptoms such as headaches, neck, abdominal, back and extreme pain may be identified. Fevers, lethargy, irritability and vomiting may be other similar symptoms that have been identified. From the infection of the central nervous system only between one to five individuals out of a possible 1000 will go on to become paralyzed (Roth, 2010). Upon progress, the individual will usually have weak muscles and he or she may be unable to control them before complete paralysis is presented in the individual. The condition is referred to as acute flaccid paralysis. The occurrence of the will usually lead to the identification of the paralytic poliomyelitis such as bulbar, spinal, or bulbospinal. Encephalitis is another occurrence of the polio virus which identifies the case where brain tissue has been affected. Though it is rare, it has been restricted to infants only where symptoms such as seizures, headaches, fever, confusion, changing mental state and spastic paralysis may occur.

Comparison to Nemesis

According to an interview of Philip Roth on the fictional novel “ Nemesis ”, the author stresses that the events of the polio outbreak were only based on the events that were taking place in the country. As a result, the outbreaks were in no way catastrophic as presented by the author (Roth, 2010). The author identifies that within days after the Italian thugs had come to maliciously infect the Jewish children, one of the children at Weequahic playground was infected and within a few more days, they succumbed to the disease. The author also confirms that the infection was only a representative of his imagination and not the actual events (NPR, 2010). This is seen where drastic reduction of children at the playground reduced from ninety to thirty. This is a clear indication that the infectious virus was killing the children at an extremely high rate. 

However, the symptoms that are presented on the illness are as real as they occur. This is where the novel indicates a newspaper article that was putting parents in Newark on alert of the polio virus. The parents were cautioned that they should contact the nearest physician after they saw their children presenting with some of the various symptoms of fever, headaches, sore throats, stiff necks, nausea or pain in the joint areas. The summer time was identified as the ideal polio season. The mentioned physician Dr. William Kittell would indicate the forty cases that had affected Newark would not be identified as an epidemic despite the fact that they occurred nearly double than the expected rate so early in the season (Roth, 2010). Muscle weakness was prevalent as seen in Franklin Delano Roosevelt the most renowned victim of the disease infected at the age of 39. He had to wear steel-and-leather braces that would enable him to walk.


The novel is seen as a clear portrayal of a medical emergency in a population of Newark. The physicians in the region who were assumed to be knowledgeable did little to assist the residents particularly the parents. Dr. Kittell only identifies the symptoms that should be a cause for parents to visit the physician. However, the announcement made on local media only results in panic among the people. There was little assistance from the local leaders as seen with the Newark Mayor beginning the “Swat the Fly” campaign beginning a belief that flies carried the virus. The novel is clearly identifying the task the physicians and local leaders have in ensuring residents receive the appropriate information concerning a disease that could become an epidemic.


Polio Breaks Out In Newark In Roth's 'Nemesis' .” NPR, Online. (2010) Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2010/10/05/130353198/polio-breaks-out-in-newark-in-roths-nemesis  

Roth, P. (2010) Nemesis . New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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StudyBounty. (2023, September 14). Medical Realism in Nemesis.


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