The protagonist of Herzog is a man going through his second divorce and an internal crisis. Moses Herzog is reevaluating his life, recalling the events in his past that shaped him, and trying to come to some kind of conclusion about his own life and the world around him. He was raised in the slums of Montreal. He has strong feelings for his Jewish background family, loving his parents and siblings despite his differences with them. Moses also loves his daughter and son. Moses writes an unusual number of letters, not only to friends, but to acquaintances, strangers, the famous, and the dead. These letters reveal Moses as a man of sentiment and intellect. He struggles because of the conflict between his intellect and his emotion.
Moses has suffered a great deal. He has been diagnosed as a "depressive," but he is often optimistic, and by the end of the novel seems to find happiness by accepting the contradictions and ambiguities that exist in himself and in the outside world. In part, Moses finds happiness by allowing himself to accept limitations. For example, he realizes that he must repress certain of his emotions, or risk being judged insane. Although Moses ends the novel happily, we are left wondering whether his happiness is permanent, or simply a finite upswing in a cycle of happiness and suffering.
Madeleine, Moses' ex-wife, is the archetypal antagonistic ex. Moses describes her as exceptionally beautiful, occasionally neurotic, and role-playing. Madeleine's father was an actor, and Madeleine inherited his theatrical tendencies. Over the course of the novel, she first embraces the role of fervent convert to Catholicism, later trading in her newfound religion for a role as a scholar and academic.
Our view as Madeleine as a terrible person is not an entirely objective one. We see her mostly through Herzog's biased eyes. Reading between the lines, we can see that Madeleine may have genuine grievances of her own. Moses mentions that Madeleine had difficulty getting used to the housework—an understandable grievance, since Madeleine had to cook and clean a huge house in the solitary Berkshires, with no company besides Valentine and Phoebe Gersbach. Madeleine's resistance to housewifery is even more understandable considering her background. She hated her mother for giving up her life in order to serve her famous actor father. She objects to female servitude, and cannot bring herself to serve Moses. Madeleine's sister also says that Madeleine complained of Herzog's tyrannical and dictatorial tendencies. Bellow depicts Madeleine as a "modern woman," unsuited for the life Moses has to offer..
Madeleine has an affair with Gersbach, Moses' best friend. Although the affair wounds Herzog, Madeleine seems to truly love Gersbach, something that even Moses admits. In contrast to Moses, Gersbach helps Madeleine with the housework and with June.
A crippled dandy, Gersbach is Madeleine's lover and Moses' best friend. Gersbach has only one leg, and he is a large, sexy presence. He can be read as an exaggerated, physicalized version of Moses. Like Moses, Gersbach is handsome and charming; like Moses' interior self, Gersbach is physically crippled. Moses even claims that Gersbach stole his style and his manners. Madeleine chooses Gersbach because he is capable of living in the outside world. Unlike Moses, Gersbach excels at conversation. Gersbach is capable of betrayal—he lies to his best friend and sleeps with his best friend's wife. He is also capable of love. Gersbach loves his son and probably loves Phoebe.
Gersbach is a sentimentalist, like Moses, and an actor, like Madeleine. He writes poems and cries while reciting them; he drives a Lincoln Continental but believes in Marx. Bellow writes about Gersbach with comic satire, making him enjoyable, sympathetic, and often worthy of our pity.
In section one, Moses Herzog is found alone in a big old house in the Berkshires, reflecting on his past, trying to come to terms with his troubled life: middle aged, twiced divorced, impotent.
He is thought to be out of his mind by Madeline, his ex-second wife, who fell in love with Valentine, his best friend.