Summary and Analysis
Despite all of Herzog's noble intentions, he makes a fool of himself. Despite his abstract musings about reason and emotion, and about death and human values, he realizes that he is acting like a lunatic. Because of his morbid obsession for introspection, he almost injures June and subjects her to witness his humiliation. The theme of the ordinary culminates here; the hero is now among such criminals as he once viewed with a detached sense of speculation. The court scene in Part VI anticipates this section.
Herzog realizes that the realists — Sandor Himmelstein, Taube, Simkin, and others — were accurate in their analyses of the corrupt condition of existence. Childish Herzog had denied this truth; now it has become self-evident through his own folly. He must, as Taube and Sandor preached, control himself. He cannot blame God for the evil of man, for it is man's own violent compulsions that have created the forces which destroy his humanity. Herzog, as an individual, must no longer bring his nightmares upon his children or upon other people.
Madeleine's arrival at the police station is an encounter to which the novel has been building. Herzog has matured; he comprehends that he has no more right to judge Mady and Gersbach than they have to judge him. Everyone is basically unfathomable. The protagonist's identity has been forced upon him by others who have attempted to define his character; paradoxically, he has almost gone insane by attempting to define himself and other people. Now that he is inwardly calm and no longer needs to confront and punish Madeleine and Gersbach, Herzog is unaffected by Madeleine's dramatic role as an injured wife. He interprets her expression as an effort to hide her desire that he die, that he cease existing. It is a significant victory for the cuckolded husband that he does not cringe in his ex-wife's presence; it demonstrates that he has finally regained control of his destiny. He can now cease playing the role of the injured husband.
It is evident now that Herzog has learned much, but it is also evident that he will remain an impractical individual, comically out of place in a materialistic society. Unlike his brother Will, Moses is devoted to the spirit, to emotions, and to self-understanding — all of which seem incongruous in a society devoted to profit and status. An intensely subjective individual, the hero still wants to be useful to society and still wants to find some objective reason for existing. It is only through the comic perspective that Herzog will be able to endure the contradictions of his personality and its cravings.
Like Mark Twain, Bellow is saying that despite all of our perversions, our greatest asset is our ability to laugh; like Twain, Bellow balances the power of irony against the power of despair. Bellow is also in the tradition of Yiddish humor, in which the alienated Jew learns to endure his sufferings by smiling at the painful contradictions of human aspirations and reality. His comic sense kept the persecuted Jew from surrendering to nihilism and from denying human values.
As we have seen, Bellow molds his comic structure around the richness of language and juxtaposes the incongruities of his hero's personality. Moses E. Herzog is one of the most complete mock heroes of twentieth-century American fiction. He attempts to be an intellectual hero questing after the dream of a rational synthesis of human knowledge and an explanation of human existence, but he ends up in jail with a broken rib and shattered dreams. He is a prince without a country; he is a Moses without a faith or a people. This cuckolded and over-emotional professor is the antithesis of the virile Hemingway hero. Nor can he be an existential hero facing the meaninglessness of existence and the nothingness of his being with anxiety and nausea, for at the heart of his being, Herzog finds not a void, but "potato love," the need for a woman's love, and the duration of his identity.