Herzog | Study Guide

Saul Bellow

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Herzog | Motifs


The Outdoors

For the student of romanticism, for the nature lover, places in the outdoors offer prospects for transcendence. This feeling exists specifically in wild nature but also sometimes in the wild conjunctions of the bustling city and encroaching nature. As any nature lover knows, a walk in the fields and woods is antidote for the melancholy of ordinary life. Participating in the rhythms of a world beyond the body becomes a healing moment. It allows a brief embrace by the world's body, an exchange of the ravages of time for respite in the stimulations of focus and forgetting. Herzog's mood in relation to place is palpable in the novel. (The writer's technique of matching human mood with the weather or effects in nature is called pathetic fallacy.) In this novel the "place passages" offer some of Saul Bellow's most lyric writing.

These space poems on the page have the power to lift the reader from the linearity of the text to a shared and timeless space. For example, Moses sees a river in his mind while looking at a flushing toilet: "Moses pressed the pedal and through the stained funnel of the toilet he saw the river frothing." In another example he is irritated, listening to Madeleine Pontritter's and Shapiro's pretentious conversation, and turns his attention to the lawn. Bellows writes, "An oriole's nest in the shape of a gray heart, hung from twigs. God's veil over things makes them all riddles." Here, nature reflects Herzog's deep unhappiness in his marriage, long before Madeleine leaves him for Valentine Gersbach. This moment highlights the sublime illumination that runs so effortlessly through the novel.

Interior Space

Place evokes identity. For Moses Herzog, the immigrant outsider, the interior remembrances of home mean love and familiarity. Herzog carries his childhood home within his memory, and he uses it to derive comfort. In the homes of others, interior space represents information about fitting in, about identity, and belonging in the present. The novel contains many long passages about place that stand out in terms of lyric expression, emotional effect, and in some cases, humor.

Examples include the descriptions of Ramona Donsell's lavishly decorated and comfortable apartment, replete with her Aunt Tamara' antiques, the effects of which are explicit: "Ah, so this is where you are," said Ramona, upon finding Herzog admiring antiques in her sitting room. This draws a clear connection to Herzog being in a state of constant reflection. "These old-time interiors," says Herzog, "They drugged you with schmaltz" (Yiddish for chicken fat, a staple oil of the East European diet).

The merry mood of the seduction at Ramona's begins with Herzog freshening for dinner in the hostess's lavish bathroom, his ablutions focused by a page-and-one-half description of the inviting bathroom plumbing: "This was a luxurious little room, with indirect lighting (courtesy to haggard faces)." The journey into the bathroom ends with social commentary: "He pressed the toilet lever ... it flushed with silent power; the toilets of the poor always made noise."

The unfamiliar and unappealing description of Madeleine's rooms in New York accompanies an earlier seduction. The setting could serve as a warning of what is to come as they go down a corridor where "bags of garbage were put out on the once luxurious carpet," down a "decayed" elevator and into a "moldy lobby and ... crowded street."

The Ludeyville House

The problems in Moses Herzog and Madeleine Pontritter's marriage play out in the Ludeyville house. It reflects their different personalities and highlights why the couple is not a match capable of a truly soulful union. It stands indifferent of its care, a physical reflection only of what is put into it by its occupants. It absorbs their different attitudes about finances: Madeleine spends money frivolously and bounces checks, buying fancy items for a rundown farmhouse in the sticks, while Herzog anguishes over wasting his father's hard-won dollars.

Though Herzog guards his self-esteem by keeping Madeleine's side of the story from the reader, a slip comes out when he reveals their attitudes and activities while living together at the Ludeyville house. "And anyway," Madeleine complains, "this crappy old house ... needs four servants, and you want me to do all the work." Circumstances can be detected between the lines—between the descriptions of stacks of dirty dishes in the sink and Herzog putting all of his attention on his intellectual work.

When Herzog returns to the house, it has become more dilapidated, wild, and rundown, but the mess can be redeemed. The house reflects Herzog's sentimental journey. It shows how much Herzog has changed by the end, when he invites Ramona to dinner. He's finally ready to take care of his house, and he's ready for a relationship.

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