We see Herzog's domineering, beautiful, and intelligent ex-wife more clearly than any other character except Moses himself; she is the major influence upon his actions throughout the novel. She has suffered from her own neurotic fear of existence without justification, has been obsessed with religious rituals, and has desperately sought to assert herself as a superior individual. Madeleine has always been hungry for truth. Although her mother was Jewish, Madeleine wanted to believe in the traditional pieties of Christianity and America. After marriage, when she was pregnant, her husband was too busy with his scholarship to give her enough attention. She turned, in her boredom, to a lover.
Despite her immense charm and intelligence, Madeleine concealed her identity in protective illusions. She is often described going through elaborate rituals of self-deception. Like Herzog, Mady cannot control her own opposing emotions toward love and hate. Their marriage was made up of interludes of combat and suffering. When Madeleine committed adultery, she threatened Herzog's sense of manhood and exposed to him his failures as husband, lover, and scholar. She provides the major motivation for the hero's efforts to prove his virility through a series of mistresses. Most of the story is devoted to his efforts to accept the fact of divorce and failure.