Herzog is in a cab en route to Grand Central Station. He begins a letter-writing frenzy which persists throughout the chapter, punctuated by Moses' recollections. The first of these letters is to Tennie, Madeleine's mother, in which Herzog apologizes for not visiting her since the divorce. He reflects on Tennie and pities her for her divorce from Madeleine's brutal actor-father. Though no longer bound to a marital role, she clings to the duties of a housewife; Herzog recounts how she "prepares the old man's tax returns for him. Keeps all his records, washes his socks. Last time, I saw his socks drying on the radiator in her bathroom." He compares himself to Tennie and concludes: "her condition is worse than mine. Divorced at fifty-five, still showing off her legs, unaware they are now gaunt." These thoughts are promptly interrupted by the cab's arrival.
The train recalls for Moses the holidays of his youth, and we get a glimpse of his idyllic childhood in Montreal. He reflects that "a holiday should begin with a train ride." On the platform he writes a letter to Aunt Zelda, flashing back to a conversation in which she accused Herzog of selfishness, of isolating Madeleine in the country and ignoring her and subsequently driving her into Gersbach's arms. According to her, Herzog prizes his work above all things. This accusation does indeed ring true, and Herzog does not deny it, yet he is too weak to articulate what is going through his brain: "But then didn't we buy the house because she wanted to, and move out when she wanted to?" He thinks of himself as "a broken-down monarch," comparing himself to his "ineffectual bootlegger" father. It is also revealed that Madeleine rejected him sexually, an insult that perhaps injures Moses more than any other.
Following his letter to Zelda, Herzog writes to Lucas Asphalter, who informed Herzog of Madeleine's affair. There is mention of a letter from Geraldine, babysitter to June, the daughter of Moses and Madeleine. During the train ride to the Vineyard, Moses writes a letters to Dr. Bhave (the leader of the Indian utopian movement), considering joining his movement; to the President about taxes; to the New York Times about radiation; to Dr. Emmett Strawforth about Hiroshima; to Dr. Edvig complaining about his destructive influence on Moses' marriage and likely crush on Mady. Moses' letter-writing streak is interrupted by the thought of June.
In Section 3, as Moses ferries out to Martha's vineyard, he writes more letters, some of which he leaves unfinished. He begins by writing to the governor, then spins off into a letter to Ramona pleading that she not take offense at his departure, assuring her that he cares for her. He considers marrying her, then considers his excess of unfinished business with so many women. His letters turn political; he writes to Martin Luther King and to Nehru. He writes to scholar and writer Shapiro, whose work he reviewed and who presented another threat to his marriage to Madeleine during one visit in the Berkshires. Moses recalls the way in which Madeleine seemed dazzled by Shapiro and eagerly conversed with him, while Moses sat quietly by. He compares Shapiro to Gersbach, as both of them are loud, attractive, and skilled conversationalists. He then resentfully recalls Madeleine's fanatical nature, the way in which academics replaced religion as a subject for her obsession after Moses abandoned his own perfectly good academic life to move her out to the Berkshires. Reference is made to the "harsh" nature surrounding the scene for which Moses seems to pine, as can be seen in the following passage:
"If they were not all so particular, detailed, and very rich I might have more rest from them. But I am a prisoner of perception, a compulsory witness. They are too exciting. Meantime I dwell in yon house of dull boards. Herzog was worried about that elm. Must he cut it down? He hated to do it. Meanwhile the cicadas all vibrated a coil in their bellies, a horny posterior band in a special chamber. Those billions of red eyes from the enclosing woods looked out, stared down, and the steep waves of sound drowned the summer afternoon. Herzog had seldom heard anything so beautiful as this massed continual harshness."
In his letter, Moses again proves himself a Romantic in criticizing Shapiro's cold, analytical views on history: "But we mustn't forget how quickly the visions of genius become the canned goods of intellectuals..." He then writes a very brief letter to his brother, Shura, who is said to be the opposite of Moses. Shura is cold, calculating, and businesslike, very successful, someone who never thinks twice about offering his family financial help. Moses thinks of what a dismal failure he must appear in the eyes of his brother: "His handsome, stout, white-haired brother in his priceless suit, vicuña coat, Italian hat, his million-dollar shave and rosy manicured fingers with big rings, looking out of his limousine with princely hauteur. Shura knew everyone, paid off everyone, and despised everyone. Toward Moses his contempt was softened by family feeling. Shura was your true disciple of Thomas Hobbes. Universal concerns were idiocy."
He writes to his ex-lawyer, Sandor Himmelstein. Sandor and his wife put up Moses for a brief time immediately after the divorce. He recalls a conversation in which Sandor criticized him for his weak demeanor, claiming that such instability will never win Moses custody of his daughter, June. He talks Moses into an insurance policy engineered to support June in the event of Moses's death or insanity, upsetting Moses by implying that he is, in fact, insane. When Moses objects, Sandor raises his voice and a passionate argument ensues. Sandor challenges Moses to shed his mopey state. He appeals to Moses as one of his own: a Jewish "sufferer." He ends the fight with a numb embrace that Moses resignedly names "potato love."
Boarding the ferry, Moses tastes again the glory of the open water and the cleanliness of the light: "His heart was greatly stirred by the open horizon; the deep colors; the faint iodine pungency of the Atlantic rising from weeds and mollusks; the white, fine, heavy sand; but principally by the green transparency as he looked down to the stony bottom webbed with golden lines. Never still. If his soul could cast a reflection so brilliant, and so intensely sweet, he might beg God to make such use of him. But that would be too simple. But that would be too childish. The actual sphere is not clear like this, but turbulent, angry. A vast human action is going on. Death watches. So if you have some happiness, conceal it. And when your heart is full, keep your mouth shut also."
He considers, as the boat docks in the Vineyard, that he is mistreating Libbie by exploiting her sympathy. He realizes that he does not need comforting, that in fact the journey was all he needed. Guilty, he sneaks away after a brief visit, leaving a note: "Have to go back. Not able to stand kindness at this time. Feelings, heart, everything in strange condition. Unfinished business. Bless you both. And much happiness. Toward end of summer, perhaps, if you will give me a rain check. Gratefully, Moses."
He returns home by eleven that night. The letter from the babysitter Geraldine Portnoy, referenced in the previous chapter, reveals to Moses that Valentine, during a fight with Madeleine, locked June in the car and left her there sobbing. Geraldine also mentions Madeleine's manipulative temperament. Moses is appalled by the tale.
The third chapter documents a milestone in Moses' journey to mental health, as he leaves Martha's Vineyard full of confidence in his own independence. For the first time, we can see him considering the needs of another and fulfilling them without resentment, as well as admitting his own mistake. Facing his faults without being crushed by them is a difficult process for Moses in his fragile state. His actions in Martha's Vineyard not only reveal his sense of integrity but also foreshadow a successful recovery.
We also get a glimpse of Moses' first encounter with "potato love," or humanistic affection. The description of Himmelstein's outburst is dramatic, perhaps a little exaggerated by Moses' memory. The dogged documentation of the confrontation signifies the considerable impact it made on Moses, and the honor that Moses exhibits towards Libbie (see above) subsequent to his recollection shows him taking this into account.
We the readers are likewise privy to Moses' contempt for cold intellectualism and his sense of inferiority, both convictions which seem to validate his views. To Herzog, Madeleine not only robbed him of his life, but adopted it herself. He resentfully associates Madeleine, Gersbach, and Shapiro with one another and insecurely distances himself from them. But, with the disgust at the more calculating members of his society, Moses' streak of idealism does emerge: for one, we get a clear taste in this chapter of Moses' attraction to nature and the truth and clarity it embodies. At the same time, death looms continually in his mind; he punctuates his appraisal of the sky and sea with "Death watches." Moses' paranoia and sense of entrapment are unavoidable, as is his self-doubt; in the end, he can't help but deny himself the freedom he feels.
We meet Moses' brother, Shura, and get a sense of Moses' emotional alienation from his family members and his disdain for the love he feels toward them. Moses' Jewish identity is also brought to the forefront. The label Sandor applies to him feels insufficient, signifying the complexity of his identity crisis, a crisis which no single appellation can describe, let alone solve.