Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Herzog is going through a difficult time. While living in New York City, in June, he spends most of his time writing letters. Sometimes he writes them on paper, sometimes only in his mind. He writes to people he knows, people he has never met, and people who died long before he was born. He writes to Dwight David Eisenhower, thirty-fourth president of the United States; Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, who died in 1900; his dead mother; some of his intellectual rivals; even God. In the letters, he argues about intellectual things the people said or wrote; sometimes he argues about things he himself said or wrote, or failed to say or to write.
When his girlfriend, Ramona, tells him he should rest at her place on the shore, he instead leaves New York by train to visit a friend on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. While traveling, he continues writing letters. At Martha’s Vineyard, he goes to the room his hosts had prepared for him. Then, leaving a letter explaining his actions, he immediately sneaks out of the house and returns by air to New York. Back in his apartment, he starts writing letters again.
During most of the next day, he writes letters. He goes to dinner at Ramona’s apartment, where he spends the night. The next morning, he calls his lawyer, Harvey Simkin, to discuss the possibility of getting custody of his daughter, June; he hears that Madeleine, his former wife, and Valentine Gersbach, her lover, locked June in a car when...
(The entire section is 973 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Considered by many to be Bellow’s masterwork, Herzog may well be his prototypical novel, and Herzog the prototypical Bellovian hero. Like Emily Dickinson, who wrote poems as a means of opening a communion with the world, Moses Herzog, sensitive student of Romanticism, writes letters to the world-at-large in an attempt to keep his sanity and to measure his need for compassion and empathy in a world devoid of both. Like Gimpel the Fool, Herzog is a true schlemiel, a loser by the standards of the world but a noble spirit.
Though capable of anger and self-pity at the breakup of his marriage, and of lust in his relationship with his mistress, Ramona, Herzog can still yearn for a deeper, richer life. Like the great thinkers to whom he writes his imaginary letters, he seeks meaning and peace. Even amid the bustle of the urban life of New York and Chicago, Herzog is withdrawn into the private bustle of his mind, remembering events from his broken marriage and formulating rebuttals to the negative, spirit-killing philosophies of men such as Sandor Himmelstein, whose surname means “stoney heaven,” and even seventeenth century philosopher Baruch Spinoza. His letters come to him like bursts of inspiration and serve as antidotes to his own fears that he is out of his mind.
The novel thus represents a form of psychoanalysis: Herzog’s remembrances are transferred into the actual world of his letters. The direction of the plot is thus not...
(The entire section is 504 words.)
Part 1 Summary
Herzog opens with Moses Herzog at his country house in Ludeyville, Massachusetts, in the Berkshires, in midsummer. He is described by the narrator as having "fallen under a spell," and as a result has been writing letters to "everyone under the sun," including family—dead and alive—friends, ex-friends, and historical figures. While there, he thinks back over his life, focusing especially on the past few months. His memories of this short period make up the narrative of the rest of the novel until the story returns, at the end, to the present time, with Herzog in Ludeyville. He has recently learned that his exwife, Madeleine, is living with his friend Valentine Gersbach and that the two had been lovers while she and Herzog were still married. Herzog writes the letters because of his overwhelming need "to explain, to have it out, to justify, to put in perspective, to clarify, to make amends."
The first line of the novel is given to Herzog, as he admits, "If I am out of my mind, it's all right with me." The narrator notes that some people thought he was "cracked" and "though he still behaved oddly, he felt confident, cheerful, clairvoyant, and strong." He soon goes back in time to the beginning of his "trouble" a few months ago, when he had been teaching classes in New York City. Gradually he noticed his mind starting to wander during class. He then shifts back further into his past, reviewing his life and the choices he has made. In the past, he...
(The entire section is 451 words.)
Part 2 Summary
Herzog decides to take a break from Ramona and his thoughts about Madeleine and spend some time with friends in Martha's Vineyard. However, his depression throws him into an agitated state, and he immediately returns to New York. There, he receives a letter from a former student who is now working as a babysitter for Madeleine. The student writes that one night she found Junie, his daughter, locked in a car outside Madeleine's house while she and Valentine were arguing inside. Crying and shaking, Junie explained that Valentine had put her there.
Deeply concerned for his daughter's welfare, Herzog asks Simkin, his lawyer, to help him gain custody of her. Simkin, however, warns him that he would most likely fail in his attempts to get his daughter away from her mother. Herzog's frustration turns into a rage against Madeleine and Valentine "so great and deep, so murderous, bloody, positively rapturous, that his arms and fingers ache to strangle them."
When Herzog appears at the city courthouse where he is scheduled to meet Simkin, he sits in on a few court cases that are being tried that day. As he watches testimony about a mother who beat her son to death, he becomes incensed and runs out of the courtroom. He determines that "New York could not hold him now," and so flies to Chicago to see his daughter and to confront Madeleine and Gersbach.
As soon as he arrives in Chicago, he goes to his father's house, where he reminisces with his...
(The entire section is 493 words.)
Part 3 Summary
After the police determine that Herzog poses no threat to Madeleine, they put him in a cell until his brother, Will, comes to bail him out. He then decides to leave Chicago and go to his house in the Berkshires, which he considers fixing up and selling. There, he begins to experience a measure of contentment as he determines that he has freed himself of his "servitude to Madeleine." Beginning his final week of letter writing, Herzog writes to his son, Marco, asking him to come for a visit. When Will arrives, he tries to convince Herzog to spend some time in a mental hospital, but Herzog assures him that he is finally finding some peace.
Ramona soon arrives in a neighboring town looking for Herzog. When she calls, he invites her for dinner, even though it "troubled him slightly." As he waits for her, he determines, "I am pretty well satisfied to be... just as it is willed," for "whatever had come over him during these last months, the spell, really seemed to be passing, really going." The novel concludes on the note that "at this time he had no messages for anyone. Nothing. Not a single word."
(The entire section is 199 words.)