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Herzog | Study Guide

Saul Bellow

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Herzog | Chapter 4 | Summary



Continuing his writing of letters, Moses Herzog's thoughts move backward in time from his life in New York to memories of his early life in Canada. At his desk in Manhattan, Herzog writes to Monsignor Hilton, the priest who had supervised Madeleine Pontritter's conversion to Catholicism. He relives his brief time living in Philadelphia and commuting to New York to escape his marriage to Daisy and his adulterous relationship with Sono Oguki. He remembers a visit with his son, Marco, and his meetings with Madeleine's parents. In an unexpected situation, the Pontritters encouraged him to marry their daughter at least in part to save her from her recent turn to religion, so once Madeleine leaves the Church, Moses divorces Daisy and marries her.

In their new life in the Berkshires, it became clear the marriage was a failure. Moses set aside the problems and renewed his commitments to domestic life. He began renovating the wreck of a house he had purchased with his only resources, the money his father left him. Madeleine makes fun of his inheritance. Thinking of his suffering in the marriage brings him to more memories of the immigrant community in which he grew up. He recounts the terrible struggles that dominated the lives of his impoverished parents and their neighbors. He recalls his father's kindness to the drunken boarder, Ravitch, and the tragedy of the Nachmans, which ended in madness and separation. He remembers his stingy, rich Aunt Zipporah, his mother's sacrifices to support her children's education, and his father's desperate attempts to sustain the family.

Most of all Herzog recalls his mother's forgiving nature even when his father risked and lost the little they had in a failed bootlegging scheme. And he celebrates the boyhood memory of praying with his brothers, a moment he believes unites his family with all of the history of Jewish wandering: "Napoleon Street, rotten, toylike, crazy and filthy, riddled, flogged with harsh weather—the bootlegger's boys reciting ancient prayers. To this Moses' heart was attached with great power." Herzog draws inspiration from the resilient love he felt within that community: "The children of the race, by a never-failing miracle, opened their eyes on one strange world after another age after age, eagerly loving what they found."


This is a chapter about human suffering and Herzog's conviction the global horrors of the past decades have made humanity immune to the suffering of individuals. He sees his own intensities, which he hopes to reflect in his work, as a call to return to the plight of the individual. This chapter alternates, as his mania does, between the misery of individuals and their acceptance of the challenges of survivorship. For Moses Herzog, however, that hope has degenerated to a series of rationalizations for situations harmful to himself and to those around him. In truth he was an unfaithful husband to Daisy and an uncaring father to Marco.

Moses considers events in his own life as well as in the life of his family in an attempt to discover value in the life stories of individuals. He thinks about the difference between ancient and modern tragedy: "the inner experience of the heart" versus the deepening of the individual character. A similar idea comes up as he recalls Madeleine's rationale for conversion to Catholicism: "I'm willing to go on living, and to bring children into the world, provided that I have something to tell them when they ask me about death and the grave." This observation, however, turns out to be a matter of her unreliable enthusiasms rather than ethical choice. He, on the one hand, intellectualizes his behavior as a means of rationalizing his poor choices with respect to Daisy, Marco, Sono, and Madeleine. He observes: "Modern character ... is inconstant, divided, vacillating." Thus, he could accept his flights of ambivalence and unkindness are not unique but typical of a man of his time, given his own mind and background.

Moses's rationalizations, finally, outgrow the parameters of the believable. Thinking of Madeleine, Gersbach, others who have betrayed him, and his own rank behavior, he comments: "Reality instructors. They want to teach you—to punish you with—the lessons of the Real." At his lowest points, it seems clear he has descended into self-delusion and a type of madness. This reveals a deep character flaw and an intellectual failure as well. He is overwhelmingly sentimental, self-serving in his misery, and on the verge of a breakdown.

The chapter ends with Moses's loving return to family history, his father's struggles, and his reverence for his father's "rags and bruises." He calls these stories of personal suffering, "Jewish antiquities, originating in the Bible." He concludes: "What happened during the War abolished Father Herzog's claim to exceptional suffering. We are on a more brutal standard now ... indifferent to persons." Yet he sees himself, "still a slave to Papa's pain," as unique. This emphasis on the individual comes back as Herzog remembers his father's self-references: "His I had such dignity." Thus, he returns to the suffering of his old friend Nachman and his personal search for dignity too.

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