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Herzog | Study Guide

Saul Bellow

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Herzog | Chapter 2 | Summary



In the cab headed toward the train station, Moses Herzog studies the cityscape and the neighborhoods that trigger memories. He thinks about Madeleine Pontritter's odd parents, a divorced couple who live apart but conduct their social lives together. He imagines what Simkin, Madeleine's divorce lawyer, thinks of him and reflects on his mother-in-law who had enabled her daughter's affair, lending her apartment to the secretive lovers.

Herzog has a moment of panic among the crowds in Grand Central. In the confines of the railroad car, he relives his panic at Madeleine's betrayal and the people in their life together who aided her deception.

Finally, on the train headed toward Massachusetts and the beach, he writes letters. He writes to the credit department at Marshall Fields (a Chicago department store), stopping Madeleine's credit. He writes to her cousin, Zelda Umschand, justifying himself, and to his old friend Lucas Asphalter, a scientist who, with mouth-to-mouth respiration, saved the life of his lab monkey who was suffering from tuberculosis, a bacterial lung infection. Asphalter tells Herzog Madeleine and Gersbach have been lovers for over two years. Herzog writes public figures including the president; Martin Heidegger, the German existentialist philosopher and Nazi sympathizer; and Emmett Strawforth of the U.S. Public Health Service, whom he had known as an undergraduate. Lastly he writes to Dr. Edvig, the psychiatrist who treated both Herzog and Madeleine.


The reader comes to know a great deal about Herzog in this chapter in which, in his remembered past, he travels away from the city and the site of his troubles to the shore and a promise of cooling off at the beach; in his memories Herzog rehearses the end of the marriage and his naïveté and ignorance of what was going on. His mood changes at various stops along the way, as the weather, the mode of transportation, the city, and countryside change. The letters to public figures put his despair into a social context, while his reminiscences accuse those who abetted Madeleine in her deceptions. Readers also learn that at a crucial moment, naked in their bedroom, when she attacks him, first verbally and then physically, he had considered striking or killing her.

The changing weather on his return from his European recovery trip seems to indicate the changes in his inner atmosphere. These memories generate reflections on the women whom he met along the way and who saved him from his despair. There is a March blizzard in Chicago, an unnatural change in the weather, on the day Valentine greeted him on his return. Later he learns about Valentine and Madeleine from Asphalter, and his thoughts turn to letters: this time despair about the Bowery, one of the poorest sections of Manhattan which backs onto Wall Street, seat of the country's wealth. He is plagued by social and personal issues, and his mood shifts from vengeful to desperately sad to recriminating and angry.

At the same time, the text draws attention to itself with little jokes that demonstrate Herzog's mood swings. The woman who reports on Madeleine's adultery is a student in human anatomy at the med school. He calls the office he writes to at Marshall Field's to stop Madeleine's aggravated overspending a "credit nerve center." Betraying a double standard, he calls his own inability to manage money "dignified blundering." Rejecting Val Gersbach's phony compassion, he comments, "At moments I dislike having a face, a nose, lips, because he has them." Herzog's memory of playing ping-pong with an old school chum whose later work he attempts to disparage elicits the following description: "He had a white buttock face with a few moles, and fat curling thumbs that put a cheating spin on the ball."

His bleeding-heart sympathies for himself and for others are in full display as well. He overdramatizes his childhood situation by citing the Indian film Pather Panchali (1955, directed by Satyajit Ray, depicting harsh conditions in a Bengali village of the late 1920s). By equating his early life and his mother's struggles to the far surpassing social tragedy the film demonstrates, Herzog reveals the extent of his capacity for exaggeration and pity.

And his complicated and misplaced empathy and code of values extend to his betrayer, Valentine Gersbach, when he falteringly applies sympathy to Gersbach, who lost his leg as a child. Herzog reasons Val's suffering is worse than his own and, therefore, worthy of his feelings. He also reconsiders his own suffering. In a self-pitying and vengeful letter to Dr. Edvig he reveals his values. He identifies the doctor as an "intellectual of Protestant, Nordic, Anglo-Celtic" heritage, as though ethnicity is destiny. The doctor, however, has failed to live up to his esteemed background, acting unprofessionally in treating both Herzog and Madeleine.

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