Nemesis is upfront about its thematic preoccupations, explicitly engaging philosophical questions that have nagged humanity since the dawn of time: Why would a benevolent God allow suffering? What is the role of fate in human events? How much are we affected by the lives and decisions of our parents?
Mr. Cantor lives through these philosophical and ethical problems as if he were a character in a fable. At every turn in the story, he is dogged by the question of what is the right thing to do. Early in the story, the question is whether to shut down the playground. Then the question is whether he should go to Indian Hill. Later, after he has contracted polio, the question is whether he should continue making a life with Marcia.
Throughout his life, Mr. Cantor has been guided by a conviction in God and in certain ideals of courage and sacrifice handed down to him by his grandfather. In the polio epidemic Mr. Cantor encounters a situation to which his ideals and his conviction and God do not seem to apply. He is helpless before the murdering scourge of the disease. He can find no way to be true to Marcia and his own sense of responsibility. Once Mr. Cantor contracts polio, his best hope is to lessen the suffering he has caused by swearing Marcia away, even though it sentences him to a lifetime of misery.
In the final conversations between Arnold and Mr. Cantor, the reader sees the latter’s embittered view of God not as a benevolent, all-powerful being but as a vindictive, malicious enemy.
Roth has Mr. Cantor implicitly critique monotheism in a moment when he glories in the sunshine of Indian Hill:
a sun that seemed benign and welcoming rather than malevolent, a nurturing Father Sun, the good god of brightness to a fecund Mother Earth.
Mr. Cantor’s eventual understanding of God as an adversary, not an ally, partially explains the novel’s title....
(The entire section is 513 words.)