Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1064
Search for Meaning
At the beginning of the novel, Herzog admits he has been engaged in a desperate search for meaning—for insight into his own troubled existence and human existence in general. As he writes his letters, he conducts that search, entering into dialogues with people who have made an impact on his life and othersphilosophers and thinkers who he trusts will give him guidance. Through this process, he hopes to gain knowledge and acceptance of self.
One of the dialogues he engages in concerns religion. As he searches for answers to the questions he raises, he contemplates the Orthodox Jewish religion in which he was instructed as a child. When Madeleine decides to convert to Catholicism, Herzog is again forced to reexamine his beliefs. During this process, he writes letters to philosophers who have written on the subject. In a letter to Nietzsche, for example, he considers the philosophy that God is dead, but ultimately rejects it, insisting that the philosopher’s ideas “are no better than those of the Christianity [he] condemns.” By the end of the novel, he discards traditional theology and embraces humanism. Earl Rovit notes in his article on Bellow for American Writers that Herzog, like Bellow’s other characters, ultimately concerns himself with “defining what is viably human in modern life— what is creatively and morally possible for the displaced person that modern man feels himself to be.” Anxiety
Throughout most of the novel, Herzog makes no progress in his search for meaning. His confusion and acknowledgement of the disorder that defines his life produce a mental and spiritual paralysis that leads him to the brink of collapse. His personal anxiety is compounded by historical reality. His is an "Age of Anxiety," where tensions boiled beneath the prosperous surface of America. Studies like John K. Galbraith's The Affluent Society noted that the rapid changes Americans were experiencing often left them confused and anxious. David Riesman, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, and a colleague, Nathan Glazer, argued in The Lonely Crowd that Americans had been coerced into conforming to social dictates set by politicians, religious leaders, and the media and, as a result, had difficulty maintaining individual values and beliefs. Although this often resulted in surface unity and serenity, it could also produce underlying feelings of alienation and frustration, thus creating the sense of being alone in a crowd. Many of Herzog's letters deal with the frustrations that resulted from living in his cultural moment.
One historical factor that caused Herzog grief was the emergence of the women's movement. Part of the problem in his relationship with Madeleine is that she is a strong woman who wants to be commended for her intelligence rather than her domestic skills. Herzog notes that when they were living in the country, he became angry when she did not clean the house, expecting her to fulfill her "duties" as a wife. He admits that in response, Madeleine accused him of "criticizing her mind and forcing her back into housework," and being "disrespectful of her rights as a person."
A related issue that causes Herzog anxiety is sexuality. He confesses that Madeleine's displays of independence and strength often left him feeling inadequate sexually. Most likely as a result of these emotions, he suggests that while he was married to her, he had sexual relationships with other women. Herzog's anxiety is compounded when he discovers that his best friend, Valentine Gersbach, was having an affair with Madeleine while she was still married to him.
His suffering is increased by the fact that he cannot seem to finish his second volume of a study on romanticism. Once a noted scholar who gained critical acclaim for his early work, Herzog feels he has not lived up to his academic, or personal, promise. These feelings of failure contribute to the paralysis he feels throughout most of the novel. Madeleine's rejection of Herzog is the primary cause of his suffering. He concludes that he is "going to pieces" after she asks him for a divorce. His discovery of Madeleine's affair with Gersbach, carried on while Herzog was still married to her, compounds his despondency. His acknowledgement of her betrayal leads to feelings of rivalry with Gersbach. All of these emotions prompt Herzog to create verbal portraits of Madeleine and Gersbach that justify his hatred of them. As he struggles to "explain, to have it out, to justify, to put in perspective" his feelings about the two, he tries to determine what role he has in this mix.
Madeleine's rejection, coupled with his feelings of failure, causes Herzog to consider himself to be a victim and to engage in self-pity. Rovit argues that Herzog is "a victim of his own moral sense of right and wrong—his own accepted obligation to evaluate himself by standards that will inevitably find him lacking." He notes that Herzog suffers "intensely and rehearse[s] [his] agonies at operatic volume for all to hear."
Toward the end of the novel, Herzog transfers his feelings of victimization into an intense anger directed toward Madeleine and Gersbach. He finds an outlet for this anger after he receives a letter from a former student, informing him that she saw his daughter Junie being mistreated by the two. In response, Herzog departs in a rage for Chicago, and a confrontation with both of them. At this point, he admits that his anger is "so great and deep, so murderous, bloody, positively rapturous, that his arms and fingers ache to strangle them." After obtaining his father's loaded gun, Herzog goes to Madeleine's house, with the intent of shooting one or both of his nemeses. Yet, his anger is partially dissuaded when he faces the reality of the situation as he watches a tender moment between Gersbach and Junie.
Herzog finally finds a measure of peace when he is able to free himself from his obsession with Madeleine. Rovit argues that by the end of the novel, Herzog has climbed out of "the craters of the spirit," ridiculing "[his] defeats with a merciless irony, resolved to be prepared with a stronger defense against the next assault that is sure to come." Daniel B. Marin, in his article on Bellow for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, suggests that Herzog's "final silence expresses his trust in the intuitions that motivate him, even though they lie ultimately beyond his understanding."