Moses Herzog is temporarily living in his country house, in the town of Ludeyville in the Massachusetts Berkshires. He admits, in the novel's first line, that he may have lost his mind, but "it's all right" with him. He appears to be undergoing a necessary catharsis, feeling "confident, cheerful, clairvoyant, and strong...writing letters to everyone under the sun." These letters are addressed both to intimates and strangers, living and dead, public figures, scientists, philosophers, governments, and newspapers. Herzog grants himself minimal luxuries in the country house, eating food straight from the package and sleeping either on a mattress without sheets ("...it was his abandoned marriage bed") or in a hammock blanketed by his overcoat. Devoid of pride, he has no qualms about eating food that rats and mice have chewed through, claiming that he can "share with the rats, too." He delights in his natural surroundings, relishing the "harsh call" of the crows and the "birds gorging in the mulberry tree." His sanity is the main thing thrown into question during the first few paragraphs of the chapter, though the cause of his crack-up remains a mystery.
The narrative that follows consists of an amalgam of Moses's letters, memories and reflections. We learn that he has been traumatized by his recent divorce from his second wife, Madeleine, and by her long-term involvement with his best friend, Valentine Gersbach. He has started writing letters. We learn that Herzog had used the money he inherited from his father to pay for the house in the Berkshires, hoping it might please Madeleine and allow him peace to write the second volume of his book. However, Madeleine felt suffocated as an isolated country housewife, and began a secret affair with Gersbach. Moses, oblivious, secured Gersbach a radio job in Chicago, at which point Madeleine pressed for a move.
Shortly after their relocation Madeleine ended the marriage. "'It's painful to have to say I never loved you," Madeleine told Herzog. "I never will love you, either." In this flashback scene, Madeleine shows herself to be much stronger than Moses; even Herzog recognizes that her pride is "so fully satisfied, that there was an overflow of strength into her intelligence" and that he is "witnessing one of the very greatest moments of her life." He is completely crushed, left lying on the sofa "with no more style than a chimpanzee." Madeleine has done him in.
Following the divorce, Herzog begins writing a number of letters to various figures in his life, including his various lovers and his first wife, Daisy. He pays a visit to his and Madeleine's mutual physician, Doctor Emmerich, in New York, craving a medical diagnosis for his addled state. Herzog is "hoping for some definite sickness which would send him to a hospital for a while...(to) not have to look after himself." Dr. Emmerich, however, finds him in good physical health. Herzog tries unsuccessfully to find sympathy in Emmerich for his plight, calling Madeleine "'a violent, hysterical woman.'" Emmerich offers no opinion, but suggests an outing with another woman.
It is at this point that we meet Ramona, a vivacious student with whom Herzog has been having an affair for some time. While very attracted to Ramona, calling her a sexual "priestess," Herzog worries that her intentions are too serious, and he decides to flee New York and stay in Martha's Vineyard with his old friend and love interest, Libbie Vane-Erikson Sissler. In hopes of "shenanigans," Herzog buys a fancy new set of clothes, but his new dapper look reminds him of Gersbach, and so Herzog plunges into despair once more. The chapter ends as he exits his apartment with his bags, reminiscing about Wanda, yet another mistress.
The fact that Herzog is first introduced to us in complete isolation colors him as a withdrawn, intellectual character, connected more closely with the thoughts in his head than with the world around him. Herzog is immediately shown to be an idealist, a Romantic and a dreamer whose dreams have been recently shattered. His unsent letters are a means of communication not with others but with himself, lending all the figures in his life the equivalent status of phantoms he may investigate to better understand himself.
His primitive lifestyle in the Ludeyville house suggests low self-esteem and depression, but also new beginnings. Herzog eats foods straight from the can and the package. He eats wild raspberries off the bush. Both of his beds are impermanent, particularly the hammock, the traditional bed of adventurous sailors. In the hammock, Herzog opens his eyes in the nighttime to find the stars "near like spiritual bodies." Large, swelling stars suggest a young earth, the Big Bang. Herzog exists in harmony with his environment, suggesting an end and a new beginning. He lives in peaceful, transitive limbo.
Herzog's multiplicity of names reinforce for the reader the shattered nature of his identity. It should be noted that in the opening paragraphs describing his solitude, he is referred to by his last name. It is not until Dr. Edvig utters his first name do we learn it is Moses, and only during the break-up scene do we learn his full name: Moses Elkanah Herzog. Moses is referred to interchangeably thereafter as Herzog, Moses, Moses E. Herzog, and on some occasions by his full name.
Herzog's name, taken from a minor character in James Joyce's Ulysses, is significant in itself. "Moses" was the Biblical figure who led the Jews into Egypt. Before this, however, baby Moses was sent adrift on a river by his mother to escape the slaughter of infant male Jews. This drifting, this helplessly transient state, characterizes Moses at the opening of the novel. "Elkanah," his middle name, refers to a wealthy citizen of Bethlehem with two wives and two children. It also means "blessed by god." This middle name signifies a more secure entity than either the first or the last, and the rarity of its appearance throughout the book represents Moses' instability and uncertainty. The last name, Herzog, means "duke" in German. This contributes to Moses' image of himself as a crumbling monarch.
The voice flows in both first and third person, connoting not only Moses's addled brain but also an autobiographical thread. Herzog and Bellow do have similar pasts, given their Jewish heritage, intellectualism, and bootlegger fathers. Furthermore, the prose of Moses' cathartic letters resembles that of the exposition. Regardless of typeface, the novel's voice remains consistent throughout, suggesting a parallel between author and protagonist. The frank emotionalism of the prose weds the reader to Herzog's perspective. We are not told at the very beginning the cause of his breakdown; this is because Herzog himself denies it.
Women and sex also emerge as major themes in this chapter - the elements which cause him the most pain and the aspects of life in which he seeks salvation. Madeleine's rejection devastates Herzog, yet he consistently describes her as a radiant being rising in "distinction, in brilliance, in insight." He praises Ramona as a "sexual goddess," and admits to the power her sexuality holds over him. He admits: "In the depths of a man's being there was something that responded with a quack to such perfume. Quack! A sexual reflex that had nothing to do with age or subtlety, wisdom, experience, history, Wissenschaft, Bildung, Wahrheit. In sickness or health there came the old quack-quack at the fragrance of perfumed, feminine skin." He worries about becoming her "captive professor," and it is precisely for this reason that, despite his lust, he flees from her.