Nemesis and the Persistence of Tragic Framing: Bucky Cantor as Job, Hebrew Prometheus, and Reverse Oedipus

By Stangherlin, Nicholas | Philip Roth Studies, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Nemesis and the Persistence of Tragic Framing: Bucky Cantor as Job, Hebrew Prometheus, and Reverse Oedipus


Stangherlin, Nicholas, Philip Roth Studies


The Prometheus archetype is a recurrent presence in Philip Roth's works and it is in the Nemeses tetralogy that the author further develops the syncretic use of topoi and symbols of Hebrew and Greek mythology and Attic tragedy that had only been hinted at in American Pastoral. If in the Zuckerman novels, particularly in Zuckerman Bound and The Anatomy Lesson, the figure of Prometheus is alluded to with a certain degree of irony, in the American trilogy it acquires a more epic grandeur and tragic gravitas.1 Moreover, in American Pastoral, Roth introduces Jobian themes, which he is able to integrate within the context of the Swede's Promethean transgression of the boundaries of ethnicity and history. The objective of this article is to analyze the characteristics of the protagonist of Nemesis, Eugene "Bucky" Cantor, in order to define those elements that make him not only a Promethean figure, but a modern incarnation of the biblical Job. Moreover, I will discuss those traits that Bucky shares with the figure of Oedipus; it will be observed how the very co-existence within the protagonist of the intrinsically divergent features of Job, Prometheus, and Oedipus contributes to heightening the tragedy of his fall. The tragic and mythological elements in Nemesis-such as the choral "we" voice at the beginning and end of the narrative, the ironic twist of a seemingly malevolent fate that characterizes the plot, Bucky's hubris, his hamartia and his Oedipal shortsightedness- have been identified by a number of critics. More than merely being "half-baked allegories" and "allusions" (Kaminsky 111, 114), the mythological topoi in the novel inevitably trigger reader expectations and are relevant to the framing and construction of the narrative and the characterization of its protagonist. The identification of these archetypes and their evocative force is fundamental to the comprehension of the existential quandaries contemplated but arguably not answered by the novel. Rather than dismissing the presence of tragic or mythological figures as marginal, this essay examines how they are used within the text and how they problematize the novel and our reading experience. To this end, I will consider how the narrator, Arnie Mesnikoff, attempts to deconstruct the tragic frame of the narrative and the heroic status of Bucky in the last chapter and how these elements resist being deconstructed due to the fundamental ambiguity of Arnie's narratorial agency.

In his review of Nemesis, J. M. Coetzee states that the words of the Book of Job are echoed in the questions posed by Bucky regarding divine justice. However, he also adds that "Roth's novel evokes a Greek context more explicitly than it does a biblical one" and that the title Nemesis "frames the interrogation of cosmic justice in Greek terms" (Coetzee); in particular, Coetzee observes the similarities between Bucky and the figure of Oedipus in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. The parallels between the two figures are apparent, particularly if we consider the nature of heroes and gods in Sophocles' universe and the relationship humankind entertains with cosmic forces in Sophocles and Aeschylus, described by Dario Del Corno as follows:

The magnanimity of Sophocles' heroes does not save them from suffering: the grander they are the more unfortunate, because this is the necessity inherent to their human condition, fully immersed in a world of unsolvable contradictions, of conflicts with forces that are inevitably prepared to overwhelm them. The gods are the symbol of these forces and necessities, not only as a dramaturgical function, but as a sign of a conviction that views their agency as the root of human damnation [. . .]. The gods in Aeschylus are the guardians of a superior justice [. . .]. However, Sophocles' tragedies boldly reveal the gods as being responsible for all human misery. (213, my translation)

The idea that cosmic forces can overwhelm anybody, however righteous he or she may be, is present in Nemesis, as is the idea of a human existence inevitably characterized by suffering. …

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