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Herzog | Study Guide

Saul Bellow

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Herzog | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Herzog's Crisis

As the book begins, middle-aged intellectual Moses Herzog has hit a crisis in his life. Madeleine Pontritter, his second wife, has fallen for his best friend, Valentine Gersbach. She has left Herzog and taken their young daughter with her. Moses, enraged and deeply depressed, has been unable to finish writing his latest book, leaving him with over 800 pages of scattered notes on the subject of romanticism. At the novel's opening Moses is living alone in a partially renovated wreck of a Victorian house in the Berkshires (western Massachusetts mountains) that he used all of his inheritance to purchase. It was to have been a retreat where he and his second family might thrive. Instead it has become representative of the wreck of the marriage and his personal vanity. On the verge of a breakdown, Moses compulsively writes letters as a means to achieve balance and clarity. He writes to the living and the dead, to politicians and philosophers, to family members and celebrities. He is obsessed by the conviction that the post-Holocaust world has seen such horror—the industrialized slaughter of millions—that individual tragedy is no longer relevant. He has conflated his problems with the vexed situation of the modern world. He is a complicated man: deeply sensitive and at the same time both hot and cold to the women he exploits. To add to his guilt and distress, Moses has a son, Marco, from his first marriage, whom he loves yet has neglected.

The novel flashes back to the beginning of the five emotional days that lead Moses out of New York City and bring him back to the house in Massachusetts in the present: Exhausted and in distress, Herzog contacts an old friend, Libbie Vane-Erikson-Sissler, who summers on Martha's Vineyard, an island off Massachusetts south of Cape Cod. Libbie invites him to come over and cool off. Herzog travels from New York to the Vineyard, arrives at Libbie's in time for dinner, and recognizes he is so miserable the kindness of friends is more than he can bear. He goes to his room, ostensibly to get ready for dinner. Instead he sneaks out of the house, leaving a note, and rushes back to New York.


In Manhattan he has dinner with Ramona Donsell, a beautiful and, in his view, sexually accomplished woman who offers to share her life with him. He is reluctant to make a commitment when he hasn't really finished with the residue of his second marriage. Still, he is intrigued by Ramona. While he waits for her to prepare for bed, he thinks of Sono Oguki, the lover he had while married to Daisy. He left Sono to court Madeleine. His thoughts, of which he seems not entirely in control, seem to indicate Sono would have been a much better choice than Madeleine. He suspects the same is true of Ramona. He spends the night, and they part amicably the next morning.

Madeleine, Gersbach, and June

Herzog learns through a letter from an old babysitter his daughter, June, might be suffering mistreatment at the hands of Madeleine and Gersbach. Hoping to sue for custody, he contacts Simkin, a lawyer for the Pontritters who admits to bad blood between himself and Madeleine. Herzog arranges to meet Simkin at the courthouse. While waiting, Moses passes the time watching a number of cases. Most alarming is one in which a young man and woman have been accused of murdering her three-year-old son. Struck ill by the horror, Moses cannot get the images of terrible violence out of his head. Skipping the meeting with Simkin, Moses rushes back to his apartment. Shaken, he cannot stay in New York City. He feels he must confront Madeleine and Gersbach and see his daughter.

The flight to Chicago only takes 90 minutes. Moses rents a car and drives to his deceased father's house, where his stepmother currently lives. He lies to his stepmother about wanting some worthless Russian rubles in order to get access to a desk drawer. Moses really wants his father's old pistol, which, luckily, still has two bullets in the chamber. He admits to himself he sometimes thinks he is capable of murdering Madeleine and Gersbach for their betrayal. While his stepmother reminisces, Moses delves into his own childhood memories of his parents' immigration to America, the reversals of the family's fortunes, and the trials the family faced.

He nostalgically recalls a life of simple family connection in an impoverished immigrant community; in fact, he observes this is all he has ever really needed. Instead, what it seemed he needed in the recent past was an ambitious intellectual project and the reverence that might be attached to such an accomplishment. He also needed a marriage to a bright, driven, beautiful, younger woman. And he needed an elegant country home in a part of the country dominated by established elite WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) families. Having had adulterous affairs during his first marriage, he recognizes his history revolves around relationships with attentive, beautiful women. Moses's thoughts wander again to the subject of Ramona and the possibility of getting serious with her. He considers marrying her. He is, however, wary and confused about this.

After Herzog leaves his stepmother, he drives across town to spy on Madeleine and Gersbach through a back window. He recognizes their behavior with June is tender and appropriate. He decides not to use the pistol.

Next Herzog pays a surprise visit to Gersbach's wife, where he is unwelcome. Phoebe Gersbach is in denial about her husband's affair with Madeleine, and she makes it clear she wants to pretend it isn't happening. Moses calls up his childhood friend Lucas Asphalter. He asks Lucas to mediate between him and Madeleine. Herzog wants to see his young daughter June and spend the day with her.

The next day goes well at first. Moses takes June to a museum and an aquarium, but he has a car accident on the way to lunch with June. Moses passes out at the wheel. When he wakes up, cops are staring down at him, and they've discovered his father's unregistered pistol. Moses regrets carrying it in his pocket instead of leaving it at Asphalter's apartment, but it's too late. The police take Moses to the station. Madeleine meets him there and retrieves her daughter. She also uses the opportunity to make Moses look like a lunatic in front of the police.


Before leaving Chicago, Moses meets with his brother Willie, who offers to meet him in the Berkshires and help him prepare to sell the country house. Buoyed by his brother's loving support, Moses returns to the Berkshires, advises Ramona that he will be back in New York soon, and begins to clean and fix up the house. His brother visits. Ramona shows up, and Moses is glad to see her. His brother is impressed. Moses seems to have a new lease on life. Charged up with what he calls "potato love"—simple, sentimental, nonjudgmental love—he imagines a new life and no more letters or messages for anyone. As the novel ends, "Nothing. Not a single word."

Herzog Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Moses Herzog reflects on the downfall of his marriage.

Rising Action

2 Herzog escapes New York and heads to Martha's Vineyard.

3 Returning to New York, he rereads the babysitter's letter.

4 Herzog accepts Ramona Donsell's dinner invitation.

5 Herzog envisions a life with Ramona and possible marriage.

6 Worried for June, Herzog decides to sue for custody.

7 Shaken up at the courthouse, Herzog leaves for Chicago.

8 Herzog retrieves his father's pistol from Taube's house.


9 After spying, Herzog decides not to kill Valentine Gersbach.

Falling Action

10 A car accident leads to Herzog's arrest for carrying a gun.

11 At the station Herzog remains calm in front of Madeleine.


12 Herzog and Ramona begin their relationship in earnest.

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