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Herzog | Study Guide

Saul Bellow

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Herzog | Chapter 1 | Summary


The chapters in the novel are indicated by white spaces and lines, but they are not numbered. They have been numbered for the purpose of clarity in this study guide.


Moses Herzog is alone; Madeleine Pontritter, his wife, has taken up with his best friend, Valentine Gersbach. Herzog, a semiretired college professor whose specialty is romanticism, laments the failure of his second marriage and finds himself compulsively writing letters. Needing to "explain, to have it out, to justify, to put in perspective, to clarify, to make amends," Herzog writes letters, both on paper and in his head. He writes to his dead mother and to others, living and dead, including public figures, historical figures, friends, and strangers. Besides the letters, he is sensitive to his environment in the city and the country, reveling in the lyric details of his surroundings.

Much of this chapter recounts events in the past via Herzog's musings and letter writing. Herzog recalls the scene in which Madeleine asks for a divorce as well as later events including his visits to doctors. He spends even more time recalling in lascivious detail the physical attributes of the women in his life, including Daisy, his first wife; Madeleine, his second wife; Wanda, a Polish woman he met on a European tour to salve the pains of Madeleine's departure; and Ramona, a New Yorker of Jewish Argentine background who is his current voluptuous and sensitive lover.

Herzog, encamped in the Berkshires, reviews the recent past. It was a very hot summer in Manhattan, his family was gone, when he phoned an old friend, Libbie Vane-Erikson-Sissler, and arranged to visit her on Martha's Vineyard, a small island off the Massachusetts shore. She talks him into coming to stay at her home. Ramona had invited Herzog to stay at her house in Montauk, a village on Long Island. But Herzog is wary of becoming more fully entangled with Ramona, figuring she is likely looking to get married. He needed a change of scene but couldn't, however, get away from his thoughts. He buys some expensive vacation clothes he can't afford, plans to borrow the money from his wealthy brother, and packs to leave.


The reader learns Herzog, for all his worldliness and education, is a bit of a dupe. He and Madeleine had established themselves in an old house in the Berkshires (western Massachusetts mountains) where he could write and she could study in peace. This is where they met the Gersbachs. When Madeleine convinces Herzog to move to Chicago, she directs him to find work for Valentine so the Gersbachs can move too. He complies and finds a place for the Gersbachs to live while fixing up a house for himself and his family. Once everyone has settled, Madeleine announces the marriage is over. She also prevents Herzog from spending time with their daughter, June. Claiming to love Madeleine, Herzog, in retreat in the dilapidated country house, is at a loss as to why or how all of this happened.

Alone in his misery, Herzog worries he is losing his mind. The only voice the reader hears is Herzog's, which reveals he is more self-indulgent than insane. A good deal of his identity depends on the attention of others, most specifically the women in his life. Besides the sensual descriptions of his women, past and present, he is also vain and sees himself as a something of a dandy in his appearance. Despite his lascivious, self-indulgent nature and his sad-sack whining, he has the gift of self-irony which he believes redeems the selfish portions of his character. He is laugh-out-loud funny in a kind of desperate comedy against himself. Still, he wishes he could be better with his women and with his son whom he barely sees, and even with his work. He is a good starter but a poor finisher; he knows himself well enough to appreciate his attributes and his failures.

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