Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 621
Moses Elkanah Herzog
Moses Elkanah Herzog, an unemployed American professor and intellectual whose major interest is the history of ideas. He is forty-seven years old, with a lined face and graying hair. Descended from Russian Jewish immigrants who were notably unsuccessful in the United States, he has lost his direction in life and spends his time writing letters—which he does not intend to mail—to friends, acquaintances, celebrities, and leaders, past and present. These letters combine his thoughts on a wide variety of subjects including science, philosophy, psychology, world affairs, and human relationships. An idealist, he feels an intense responsibility for civilization and progress, to the degree that he pays little heed to his surroundings or daily living. He finds himself involved in a custody fight for his daughter June against his former wife Madeleine. Somewhat unstable and afflicted with hypochondria, he is passionate, energetic, impulsive, and highly emotional.
Madeleine (Mady) Pontritter Herzog
Madeleine (Mady) Pontritter Herzog, Herzog’s domineering second wife, from whom he is divorced. Her blue eyes, long straight nose, and slender neck give her a classical appearance. Her dark hair is tied in a bun behind, with bangs in front. She exudes self-assurance and exhibits a sense of style. Her adroit handling of Herzog causes him to accept her decisions as if they were mutual.
Daisy Herzog, Herzog’s first wife and the mother of his son Marco. She is a conventional Jewish woman with green eyes, golden hair, and clear skin. She is at times shy and stubborn. Herzog reflects that he treated her badly.
Ramona Donsell, a divorced businesswoman, owner of a flower shop, and formerly Herzog’s student, who became his mistress. An attractive woman in her late thirties who received her early education in Switzerland, she is an excellent cook and is basically maternal. Although short and full-figured, she has an attractive throat and holds her head high. Brown-eyed with black hair and slightly bowed legs, she is both passionate and energetic.
Valentine (Val) Gersbach
Valentine (Val) Gersbach, a friend of the Herzogs who became Madeleine’s lover and persuaded her to leave Moses. He is a large, middle-aged man with brown eyes, flaming red hair, a thick face, heavy jaws, and one wooden leg. A former radio announcer and disk jockey, he possesses strong masculine tenderness.
Phoebe Gersbach, Valentine’s wife. She is brown-eyed, middle-aged, and attractive. Her personality reflects her domesticity, and her dress and manner suggest that she might have been head nurse.
Sandor Himmelstein, a Chicago attorney who represents Herzog in his custody case. A short man, stooped because of a war wound in his chest, he has a proud, sharp, handsome face; a prominent nose; thin gray hair; and sallow skin. A tough negotiator with a confrontational manner, he gives his client blunt advice.
Willie (Will) Herzog
Willie (Will) Herzog, Herzog’s successful, conventional elder brother. He provides bail when Herzog is arrested on a weapons charge and gives sympathetic but unaccepted advice that Herzog spend a few weeks in a mental hospital for rest.
Sono Oguki, Herzog’s tenderhearted and compliant Japanese mistress after his breakup with his first wife. She has black eyes and a small mouth. She brings him the comforts of excellent cooking, fine music, and luxurious baths. Never having learned English, she converses with him in French.
Lucas (Luke) Asphalter
Lucas (Luke) Asphalter, an old Chicago friend of Herzog. He is a zoologist at the University of Chicago who never completed his doctorate. Nearly bald, he has heavy arched eyebrows and wears crepe-soled shoes. His attempt to revive his pet monkey, Rocco, with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation alarmed Herzog, because the monkey had tuberculosis.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 436
In this most subjective of Bellow's novels, all of the other characters exist in relation to Herzog. They are presented through his vision; they act upon him. Madeleine P. Herzog is the quintessential "American Bitch." Beautiful, dramatic, domineering, she almost destroys Moses. She fascinates him and everyone else she comes near. She dramatizes her life until she creates a genuine passion within herself. She draws others into the excitement. Madeleine is both a creator and a victim of the noise and distractions of the modern world. Ceaselessly turning from religion to marriage to education to music and cards, she cannot find a point of rest. At the end, she provides a striking contrast to the contented Moses.
Valentine Gersbach is her lover and male counterpart. He too deceives and almost destroys Moses, his best friend. But he is also Moses's counterpart, his secret sharer, the dark side of Moses's character. He too loves Madeleine. He too deals in culture and ideas. He too strives to communicate his thoughts. But in his loud exhibitionism, he becomes a parody of the genuine intellectual, a popular peddler of profundities.
Moses refers to Madeleine and Gersbach as "Reality-Instructors," a term he also uses to describe his two lawyer friends, Simkin and Himmelstein. They also plan to teach Herzog, the ivory tower intellectual, what's what — "the Truth." To them, the True is always the hard, the mean, the nasty. What else can be true to these representatives of tough, materialistic, business America? To them, Herzog's beliefs are curiously archaic. As Himmelstein says to the intellectual Herzog, "You don't know anything .... You don't know what goes on." Later, Madeleine says "between her teeth" to Herzog, "I'll teach you, don't worry!"
The nicest reality-instructor is the lovely Ramona, Herzog's current lady love. Genuinely sympathetic and wishing to be helpful, she lectures Herzog on the restorative powers of sexuality. She also provides effective demonstrations. Nevertheless, to Herzog, she too represents a threat: a temptation to fall into the realm of sensuality and to give up the world of intellect and spirit.
Thus, all of the characters circle back to the protagonist. They exist largely to provoke, frustrate, and illuminate him. Herzog himself is a fully rounded character, one of the most intensely and intimately realized in all of contemporary fiction. The reader shares his deepest feelings and thoughts. Although Herzog is a very particularized individual and an outsider in several respects — a Jew, an intellectual — he also becomes a representative figure, a good man searching for meaning in a hostile world. The reader understands Herzog so well that he sympathizes, perhaps identifies, with him.