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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 973

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.

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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 they wanted to talk. Simkin has to go to court that morning but agrees to leave a message at the courthouse for Herzog. While waiting for Simkin’s message, Herzog attends several trials, including one involving an unmarried couple accused of beating the woman’s son to death. Herzog leaves the courtroom and later that day flies to Chicago. There, he goes to his father’s old house, now inhabited by his aging stepmother, and gets a pistol his father owned. It has two bullets in it. Herzog intends to use one on Madeleine and the other on Gersbach. By now it is dark. He goes to the house where he, Madeleine, and June had lived. Through the kitchen window, he sees Madeleine doing the dishes. Walking around the house, he looks through the bathroom window and sees Gersbach giving June a bath. Gersbach bathes June with obvious love, and June enjoys being bathed. The sight makes Herzog realize that he cannot kill anyone.

Herzog drives to the house of Phoebe and Valentine Gersbach. Phoebe will not admit that Gersbach and Madeleine are having an affair, and Herzog is unsuccessful when he asks her to help him get custody of June. He leaves and spends the night with his old friend Lucas Asphalter, who has recently been in the newspapers for giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to his tubercular pet monkey. The monkey dies anyway. Asphalter arranges for Herzog to see June the next day.

The next afternoon, he is driving with June in his rented car when a truck collides with them. June is not hurt, but Herzog is knocked unconscious. The policemen who investigate recognize that Herzog was not at fault in the accident, but they arrest him for possessing a loaded revolver. He and June are taken to the police station. When Madeleine comes to get June, she makes it clear that she hates Herzog.

Herzog’s brother, William, pays his bail and agreed to visit Herzog’s house in Ludeyville, Massachusetts. Herzog used money he inherited from his father to buy the house as a home for Madeleine, who at that time wanted to live in the country. Herzog spent his entire inheritance buying the house and improving it. He loved living there and working on it, but when Madeleine tired of the country they moved to Chicago. The house has been deserted a long time.

Herzog goes from Chicago to “his country place.” Mice run through the house, and birds roost in the rooms. Lovers use it as a meeting place. Nevertheless, Herzog feels “joy” and peace in Ludeyville for the first time in a long time. There, he begins “his final week of letters.”

When William comes to the house, he sees that it is well built and beautifully situated. He tells his brother that he can probably sell it as a summer place but that Herzog will never get back the money he put into it because it is not close enough to the usual tourist haunts.

William drives Herzog into town, where Herzog arranges to have the electricity turned on and to have a woman come out to clean the house. Herzog learns that Ramona, who is visiting friends in Barrington, Massachusetts, a few minutes’ drive away, has been trying to telephone him. Herzog calls her and has William drive him to Barrington, where he invites Ramona to dinner at his house that evening. She accepts, and William drives Herzog back to Ludeyville. Herzog picks up the cleaning woman, who starts work on the kitchen. He decides to stop writing letters. He also decides to stay in Ludeyville for a while, and to bring Marco, his son by his first wife, there for a visit after Marco’s summer camp ends.

Throughout these experiences, Herzog recalls events from his childhood, including his father’s repeated failures, especially at bootlegging during the time the family lived in Montreal; the family’s suffering in Canada and later in Chicago; his failed first marriage; his terrible marriage to Madeleine and the way in which she and Gersbach, whom Herzog considered his best friend, fooled him entirely; and his love for his children and his two brothers and one sister. He especially thinks about his relationship with Madeleine and wonders why she hates him so much.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 504

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 chronological but psychological: Events have meaning not in relation to time but in their associations with other events or ideas. The main action of Herzog is not physical but mental, and despite brilliant evocations of city life, the real power of the book is the revelation of Moses Herzog’s mind.

The incisive treatment of the effects of the urban experience on a sensitive, troubled spirit, however, is finely contrasted in Herzog with scenes of almost idyllic calm. Scenes of Herzog enjoying the pleasures of his country retreat in the Berkshires serve both to reinforce the traditional aspects of Bellow as a novelist—his use of nature as a corrective to Herzog’s troubled mind, for example—and to strengthen the psychological truthfulness of his hero. Herzog is, after all, a student of Romanticism, and nature for the Romantic was curative, an agency or force by which people, by attuning themselves to its power, could find inspiration, illumination, and genuine spiritual sustenance.

Nowhere is the redeeming force of nature more explicit than in the scene in which Herzog, from his country retreat, recalls the time Valentine Gershbach (his former wife’s lover) was bathing Herzog’s child. The scene is presented with the feeling of a pastoral. The purity, the gentleness implicit in Gershbach’s action, gives pause to Herzog’s anger. Herzog sees his rival as a human being, a fellow creature, as much to be pitied as condemned. He releases his anger and comes to terms with Gershbach; Herzog thus survives not by hating but by forgiving.

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