Herzog Summary and Analysis of Section 6


Moses feels genuinely happy the next morning as he escorts Ramona to work after breakfast. He wonders if his suffering has earned him "the right to ignore what anyone might think" of such a contrast in ages. His newfound confidence dissolves, however, as he enters a cab and is left alone with himself, "the inescapable Moses Elkanah Herzog." Riddled with his usual self-doubt, he decides to take charge of his responsibilities as a father and visit his son at camp. He also decides to discuss Valentine's abusive behavior with the lawyer, Simkin.

After a long, snide conversation, Simkin agrees to meet Moses later that day at the courthouse. Moses writes more letters, and stumbles upon a memory of Valentine lighting Hanukkah candles for his son, Ephraim, and dancing about. He recalls the expression on Madeleine's face, "a look like a steel binder bent open." He realizes it was a look of true love. Realizing also that the two must therefore have a right to one another, he grows all the more furious.

He visits Marco, making sure to accommodate Daisy, whose life has been difficult in the face of her mother's senility: "She had got it into her head that Moses had divorced Daisy because she was a streetwalker...Daisy never overcame her heavy-heartedness." He reflects on the deterioration of Daisy's mother, Polina, from "every inch the suffragist and 'modern woman' with her pince-nez and abundant gray hair" into a deluded geriatric.

On the way to meet Simkin at the courthouse, Moses's taxi driver compliments his taste in women, having seen him earlier with Ramona. Waiting for Simkin in the courthouse, Moses witnesses cases dealing with assault and robbery, a male prostitute, a store hold-up and sexual harassment. Following these, Herzog undergoes a spell in which he feels "as though something terrible, inflammatory, bitter, had been grated into his bloodstream and stung and burned his veins, his face, his heart." This drives him momentarily from the courtroom. He experiences a flashback of his mother's death and remembers the way that she tried to comfort him until the end. Pulling himself together, he tries to locate Simkin, then returns and watches the trial of a mother accused of the murder of her child. This sends him back into a spasm. He speeds from the courtroom, vomit rising in his throat.


Moses describes Polina as having once been "a modern woman," meaning that she was once independent and strong. Her descent into dementia may mirror what is in store for Madeleine, another "modern woman". Is this what Moses, on some level, wants? Bellow leaves the question open, while his protagonist stumbles onward toward some kind of recovery.

In that vein, Moses is indeed finally trying to take charge of his life in a practical way, asserting himself in the fatherly role away from which he heretofore shied. The bliss he experiences with Ramona might signify the thawing of his heart and his embracing of the finer side of "potato love."

Once "thawed", however, Moses faces a few harsh realities. His memory of Madeleine's look of love and the realization of his foolishness angers him greatly, as it is thereafter impossible to lie to himself any longer. He then can only observe powerlessly the trials, his agitation and excitement growing after the first few, which spark the memory of his mother's death. It is a memory that has been silently haunting him, and the final trial does nothing to improve his state. In a way, Moses is finally experiencing that "harshness" for which he has pined - the ineluctable realities of human life. Emotional attachment carries with it uncomfortable baggage.

It is perhaps ironic that this reversal arrives via a spectacle of sorts - the trial. Moses repeatedly asserts himself as an author throughout the novel; each letter he writes may be interpreted as another attempt to control his own life. Writing is, after all, the ultimate control, abstract and removed on some absolute level from the strangeness, the cacophony, the "harshness" of life. Here, however, Moses is relegated to the status of spectator; the passiveness we have witnessed in his relations with people is here codified into a kind of metaphor of the proscenium. The fallen monarch, the tragic hero, is stripped of will; he is helpless, and can do nothing but watch a story not his own unfold inside the courtroom.

What is telling about this moment in the novel is its immediacy, and the way in which Bellow abstracts an instance of narrative. Herzog is stripped of his own authorial voice and forced to contemplate a world over which he has little control. Is this a set-back in his road to recovery? It is perhaps instead a moment of enlightenment, in which the complexities of humanity assert themselves as, on some fundamental level, unfathomable, indescribable; they cannot be reduced to pithy letters of the kind in which Moses traffics.