Critical Evaluation

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 696

Critics generally recognize Herzog as a masterpiece and call it one of the most significant works by Saul Bellow, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976. The novel’s narrative, which switches from limited third person to first person, affords insights into the intellectual mind of Moses Herzog as he works his way through a very disturbed period. Toward the end of the novel, at his home in the country, Herzog starts to regain his composure. He experiences joy for the first time when he communes with nature and finally prepares to stop writing letters. A summary of the plot cannot, however, give a comprehensive impression of the novel’s shifts from past to present, which depict Herzog’s tortured attempts to explain the world and control his life rationally. In the process, he ends up seeing a world in fragments and feeling that his life is disintegrating. Nor can a summary do justice to Bellow’s depiction of Herzog’s capacity for love, his naïve innocence, and the pain he suffers.

The novel captures the texture of the places where Herzog lives. Bellow uses concrete details to create the hectic, indeed frantic life that Herzog lives in New York City and Chicago, as well as the peace he finds in Ludeyville. Like Herzog, the reader becomes immersed in the different sights, sounds, and smells.

Bellow allows the reader inside Herzog’s mind, a mind in chaos and near collapse. The first words of the novel, “If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog,” are echoed again toward the novel’s end. Herzog first thinks these words after most of the adventures in the book are past, that is, after he has returned to Ludeyville and has begun to achieve peace. Throughout most of the narrative, however, Herzog does not recognize how disturbed he is. There is no indication that he sees anything absurd in his letter writing, and he fully intends to kill Madeleine and Gersbach. Ultimately, he does recognize how close to total insanity he had come.

When his brother, William, suggests that he enter a hospital for a while, Herzog finds the idea of rest tempting, but he refuses. However, toward the end of the novel he begins to regain his psychological balance. Some critics claim that Bellow is implying that the self-analysis Herzog undergoes in the telling of his story is what makes hospitalization unnecessary. At any rate, Herzog accepts the possibility that he and the rest of the world will never be completely sane, and this acceptance seems a necessary part of his return to a kind of sanity. He recognizes that he cannot control all things intellectually and that he must even let his daughter June go, trusting her to the care of Madeleine and Gersbach. Although both have betrayed Herzog and Madeleine hates him, he recognizes that they treat June with love.

The most obvious symptom of Herzog’s insanity is his letter writing. Toward the end of the book, he recognizes that words alone are often inadequate for understanding and explaining many problems and that he must accept that inadequacy. He learns to accept his imperfections, and those of others, and to recognize the absurdity of writing letters that he never mails. He learns that he need not justify all his actions and right every wrong and that an imperfect Herzog in an imperfect world can experience a kind of joy that has nothing to do with words and very little to do with the intellect.

Toward the end of the novel, Herzog finds joy and peace communing with nature and God. He also awaits the coming of Ramona, indicating that he will begin communing directly with his fellow human beings instead of writing them letters. The narrative becomes much less digressive and much easier to follow toward the end, reflecting Herzog’s return to sanity. Bellow thus structures the novel to show a mind coming to grips with reality and moving toward peace and stability. With the message that life despite its pain and absurdities is worth living, Herzog is ultimately a profoundly optimistic, life-affirming novel.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Critical Overview