Places Discussed

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*Chicago. Gritty midwestern city in which the Canadian-born Saul Bellow grew up. Chicago figures prominently in his writings; indeed, Bellow’s great strength is his portrayal of the density and fabric of modern urban life in America. The city is associated with the Jewish American social and cultural experience to which Bellow is drawn. Such major urban centers as Chicago, with its grinding poverty, street crime, youth gangs, and widespread racism—all the ills of modern society—are also focal points of cultural and intellectual life and thus are treated somewhat ambivalently in Bellow’s fiction.

American intellectuals come to love and despise the modern urban civilization upon which their existences are ultimately based. Cities are places to which intellectuals are invariably drawn but from which they must also inevitably escape. Ever since the rise of modern urban centers, there has been a labeling of cities as sources of social alienation in which people no longer know their neighbors, a contrast to the idealized romantic notion of rural communities.

Chicago is, in part, representative of the domain of actuality or “real life” in the modern world with which the vain and emotionally confused professor of literature, Moses E. Herzog, is continually confronted and with which he must come to terms. As an intellectual and idealist who has written on the social and political aspects of European Romanticism, he prefers to view what is often a rather harsh and brutal reality in terms of abstracted notions and philosophical ideas. In the cities he meets the urban people—like the crude and mocking lawyer Sandor Himmelstein or the pompous professor Valentine Gersbach, the supposed friend who steals away Herzog’s wife, Madeleine Pontritter—who take it upon themselves to be his “teachers” and to introduce him to a nihilistic vision of reality that he instinctively abhors.

Herzog’s reaction to this spiritual malaise and philosophical nihilism, especially the loss of humanistic moral values in favor of mute and indifferent facts, is an expression of Bellow’s own response to the alienation of human beings and the negativity of the fashionable existentialism taught in American universities during the 1950’s and 1960’s. In a time of great pessimism—in a post-Holocaust and Cold War Western world—Bellow’s work stands as an existential affirmation of humanity.

*New York City

*New York City. Second great American urban center in Herzog. The urban centers of America are the places where one finds the modern self-obsessed neurotic individual who seems unable to maintain healthy emotional relationships with others. Like the neurotic New York character types found in the cinematic texts of filmmaker Woody Allen, Bellow’s cities harbor rather dysfunctional people who seem to dwell in a delusional state. The long-suffering and egocentric Moses E. Herzog (whose initials spell “me”), divorced three times, is one such plagued and pitiful person. Bellow intends for him to be, in this regard, an ironic representative of the modern city dweller, a poor self-involved soul who nonetheless possesses a great sense of human compassion and moral commitment. The character’s name “Herzog” implies (from the German) that he is both a prince (Herzog) of a man and a man with great heart (Herz ). Bellow’s Herzog character suggests the author’s firm conviction that despite the distortions of the personality that occur from the stresses of modern urban life and the excesses of human self-consciousness, there is a deeper and more “natural” self that remains healthy and that fundamentally affirms human existence. Herzog’s decision at the novel’s conclusion not to murder Madeleine and Gersbach indicate Bellow’s belief that the natural and healthy instincts of the self—despite the negative influences of modern society...

(This entire section contains 901 words.)

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and urban life—can assert themselves and can prevail. That Herzog makes his decision as he draws a deep breath would seem to suggest that his choice is a natural one (as opposed to a rationally moral one) and is an affirmation of intrinsic human nature.


*Berkshires. Mountainous region in western Massachusetts that is the location of Ludleyville, where Herzog owns a large and dilapidated summer country home. A romantic at heart, the urban intellectual Herzog is drawn to what he perceives to be nature and its supposed “healing” effects. When he first purchases his Berkshire home, he envisages it as becoming a kind of idyllic and princely country estate where he can devote himself to his academic work. However, its poor condition seems constantly to mock his grand vision of himself, and the isolated location becomes a major point of marital contention between him and Madeleine, who yearns for the intellectual and cultural stimulation of the city. The run-down condition of the vacation home where Moses Herzog is found at the novel’s beginning serves as a symbolic commentary on the state of his life, a catalog of both his academic and personal failures. The fact that even in the country Herzog cannot succeed seems to suggest Bellow’s belief that location, be it city or country, is ultimately not the source of a character’s failures; the foibles and frailties of the human heart are the source. An escape to some idealized vision of a romantic idyll in the countryside is only a delusion. Herzog’s retreat to the ramshackle home in Ludleyville suggests, however, his final acceptance of all that he is and has become, both the good and the bad.

Historical Context

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Sexuality in the 1950s and 1960s
Most Americans in the 1950s retained conservative attitudes towards sexuality: they did not openly discuss sexual behavior, and promiscuity— especially for women—was not tolerated. However, traditional attitudes about sex began to change during this era. Dr. Alfred Kinsey's reports on the sexual behavior of men and women (1948, 1953) helped bring discussions of this subject out in the open. Although many Americans clung to puritanical ideas about sexuality, they could not suppress questions that began to be raised about what constituted normal or abnormal sexual behavior. Movie stars like Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot, who openly flaunted their sexuality, intrigued the public, and Playboy magazine, begun in 1953, gained a wide audience. Many regarded the magazine's pictures of naked women to be symbols of the end of Puritanism in America. Playboy itself promoted a new attitude towards sexuality with its "playboy philosophy" articles and its centerfolds of naked "girls next door." In the 1960s, relaxed moral standards would result in an age of sexual freedom. Herzog reflects these new attitudes towards sexuality as he seeks relationships with several different women, often while he is married.

Redefinition of Family
Divorce rates began to rise dramatically in the 1960s, which led to a redefinition of the American family. As the nuclear (sometimes called "traditional") family unit broke down, new family structures emerged and a more flexible definition of family was created. Families now could consist of two parents and their children, a couple who decided to have no children, a single parent and his or her children, a parent and stepparent and their children, or grandparents and their grandchildren. Children and their foster parents were also considered to be a family unit. Herzog's frequent absences from his children and their acclimation to new family units causes him much angst in the novel. He slowly comes to terms with his childrens' new living arrangements by the end of the novel, when he accepts the fact that they are content in their redefined families.

Existentialism was a popular element in literary works in the 1960s. The theories of this movement emerged from the writings of nineteenthcentury Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard and German philosophers Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietzsche. Existentialist themes can be found most prominently in literary works by Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Albert Camus, JeanPaul Sartre, and Samuel Beckett.

The philosophy of existentialism presents a specific vision of the condition and existence of men and women and an examination of their place and function in life. Existentialism after World War II came to be defined by its main argument, that existence precedes essence. According to this philosophy, men and women are responsible for their own existence and how they choose to behave gives essence or meaning to their existence. Existentialists believe we are all born into a meaningless void with no hope of spiritual salvation. Humans have the choice to remain passively in this void, which would cause intense moral anguish, or to exercise their power of choice and become engaged, through some form of action, in social and political life. These types of commitments will, according to this philosophy, provide us with a sense of accomplishment and meaning.

Throughout Herzog, the main character struggles with his "void" and his response to it. For most of the novel, Herzog remains passive in his condition, except for his letter writing, which has brought him to the point of near madness. By the end of the novel, he must make a decision to remain passive or to become more actively engaged with his world.

Literary Style

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StructureHerzog contains a unique narrative structure that helps illuminate its themes. Part of the novel is composed in an epistolary form, the narrative strung together by the series of letters Herzog writes to various people, deceased and living. The remainder consists of brief sections of narrative introduced by an omniscient narrator, who quickly turns things over to Herzog, expressing in the first person his observations and analyses of his world, either through his letters or in recreations of events that have occurred in the last few months. The resulting fragmented form illustrates Herzog's feelings of alienation and disconnection throughout the novel. The structure also reinforces his need to find some kind of order for his life.

Chester E. Eisinger, in his overview of Bellow for the Reference Guide to American Literature, argues that the structure of the novel provides "a vehicle beautifully appropriate for the selfcommuning protagonist in a book which is largely a meditation." He concludes that "the story of an alienated intellectual imprisoned in the self needs a medium that promises privacy and turns in upon itself."

Epstein, in his article on Bellow for The Denver Quarterly, praises Bellow's successful structuring of the novel, noting that "the true fictional function of the firstperson form is to give the creating mind the instantaneous freedom to turn on itself and reveal the mockery in every posture." Bellow creates this string of monologues compiled in Herzog's letters and remembrances to illustrate how his main character has created, in large part, his own world. The structure allows his voice to control the entire narrative. Every now and then, in a self-reflective moment, Herzog recognizes his tendency to focus inward and pokes fun at himself, which provides delightful moments of irony and humor in the book.

Literary Techniques

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Point of view in Herzog is unusual and effective. Technically, it is third-person, yet the reader seems to be sharing Herzog's unmediated thoughts and feelings. It is perhaps best understood as a conflation of narrative and protagonist voices, a "third person-I" point of view. And indeed, the narrator occasionally slips into the "I" voice.

Herzog contains little action in the traditional sense. Its action is largely internal, the dialogue of the mind with itself. Typically, the book will present a lengthy meditation, a series of notes or letters by Herzog, and a brief, vividly recalled scene from the past. The most original element is the series of letters, constructed (but never sent) for friends, brief acquaintances, the famous, and the obscure. They are both a symptom of disease and an attempt to break through Herzog's impotent privacy. They often turn his personal sorrows into intellectual issues. They are often hilarious.

It is also tempting to see a debt to Joyce in Bellow's handling of point-of-view in Herzog. The apparent confluence of narrator and protagonist seems reminiscent of Joyce's technique in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Compare and Contrast

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1963:The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan, is published. The book chronicles the growing sense of dissatisfaction American women feel about the unequal treatment they receive in the home, the workplace, and other institutions.

Today: Women have made major gains in their fight for equality. Discrimination against women is now against the law.

1960s: Divorce rates steadily increase during the decade. The Census Bureau reports that in 1970 there are 4.3 million divorced adults in America. Sociologists link the high divorce rate to what they consider to be the breakdown of the American family.

Today: The growing divorce rate has prompted a redefinition of the American family that includes the nuclear unit—two parents and their children—as well as new family units including those headed by singleparents, foster parents, and step-parents.

1960s: Developments concerning the rights of individuals and of groups generate conversations on the "Death of God," compulsory prayer or Bible reading in the public schools, and birth control.

Today: These conversations continue and have become more prominent as Republicans gain control of the Senate and the presidency. A number of conservative Christian groups, usually referred to as the "religious right," are lobbying for a return of prayer in the classroom and are urging schools to promote sexual abstinence.

Literary Precedents

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The literary work most often mentioned in connection with Herzog is James Joyce's Ulysses (1922). It is tempting to see Leopold Bloom, the intelligent and moral Jew wandering in a hostile environment, as a precursor of Moses Herzog. But Bellow himself has complained that "the Joyce thing is purely a coincidence." On the other hand, Bellow has characterized Ulysses as "the modern masterpiece of confusion .... There the mind is unable to resist experience." Herzog, in contrast, has a stronger, more purposeful mind than Bloom and imposes a certain order on the disintegrating particulars of the modern world.

It is also tempting to see a debt to Joyce in Bellow's handling of point-of-view in Herzog. The apparent confluence of narrator and protagonist seems reminiscent of Joyce's technique in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Corner, Martin, "Moving Outwards: Consciousness, Discourse and Attention in Saul Bellow's Fiction," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 32, No. 3, Fall 2000, p. 369.

Dutton, Robert R., "Saul Bellow," in Twayne's United States Authors Series Online, G. K. Hall & Co., 1999.

Eisinger, Chester E., "Herzog: Overview," in Reference Guide to American Literature, 3d ed., edited by Jim Kamp, St. James Press, 1994.

Epstein, Seymour, "Bellow's Gift," in Denver Quarterly, Winter 1976, pp. 35-50, 423.

Marin, Daniel B., "Saul Bellow," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 2: American Novelists Since World War II, First Series, Gale Research, 1978, pp. 39-50.

Opdahl, Keith M., "Saul Bellow," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 28: Twentieth Century AmericanJewish Fiction Writers, Gale Research, 1984, pp. 8-25.

Rovit, Earl, "Saul Bellow," in American Writers, Vol. 1, Scribner's Sons, 1974, pp. 144-66.

For Further Reading
Dutton, Robert R., Saul Bellow, Twayne Publishers, 1982.
Dutton presents a thoughtful study of the themes in Bellow's novels.

Fuchs, Daniel, Saul Bellow: Vision and Revision, Duke University Press, 1984.
The first two chapters provide informative background information on Bellow's place in the modern tradition and his relationship to Dostoevsky. The remaining chapters offer penetrating analyses of his novels, including studies of his manuscripts.

Kiernan, Robert F., Saul Bellow, Continuum, 1989. The first chapter of this book presents valuable information on Bellow's life and career. The remainder of the work critiques one novel per chapter. Kiernan draws interesting comparisons between Bellow and William Faulkner.

Malin, Irving, ed., Saul Bellow and the Critics, New York University Press, 1967.
This collection of critical essays considers the general trends in critiquing Bellow's fiction, including concentrations on themes, characterizations, imagery, style, and sources. The last chapter, written by Bellow, considers the author's view of the future of the novel.


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Clayton, John Jacob. Saul Bellow: In Defense of Man. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968. One of the pioneering studies on Bellow. Interprets the changes the protagonist in Herzog undergoes in the course of his narrative as symbolizing hope for humanity.

Cohen, Sarah Blacher. Saul Bellow’s Enigmatic Laughter. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974. Includes a discussion of Herzog that contrasts the protagonist’s experience in his house in Ludeyville, where he lives in a kind of “Eden communing only with God and nature,” with the novel’s end, where he awaits the coming of another human being, a sign of his return to sanity.

Dutton, Robert R. Saul Bellow. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Points out that Saul Bellow in Herzog is showing how one man’s earthly salvation lies “in learning to live with himself.”

Pifer, Ellen. Saul Bellow Against the Grain. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990. Discusses Herzog’s growing awareness of his relationship with God.

Wilson, Jonathan. On Bellow’s Planet: Readings from the Dark Side. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1985. Sees Herzog as a novel about the protagonist’s release from his obsession with Madeleine and consequently from his need to write letters that involve intellectual conflicts with others.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide