Moses Herzog is a middle-aged, twice-divorced, professor and father of two. He is going through a crisis—a near breakdown. He is temporarily living in his country house in the Berkshires, a small village in Massachusetts. Moses says he is strangely content in the country, writing letters that will never be sent to the famous, the dead, his friends, and his family. The story of Moses' life begins to seep into the narrative through Moses' thoughts and reminiscences. We soon realize that Moses has only recently divorced his second wife, Madeleine, who has taken up with Moses' best friend, Gersbach. We also learn that Moses' area of study is Romanticism and that he has written articles and published one book called Romanticism and Christianity.
Moses had bought the house in the Berkshires, using a twenty thousand dollar inheritance from his father, in order to please Madeleine. He had also left an academic position at her request. He had intended to finish the second volume of his book in the country house, but Madeleine had been unhappy in the country. She could not be happy simply cooking and cleaning. Toward the end of their marriage, Madeleine decided that they should move to Chicago. Moses had already helped Gersbach find a radio job in Chicago, not knowing that Gersbach was already Madeleine's lover. Moses explains that Madeleine asked him for a divorce. They were both seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Edvig; Moses says that Edvig helped Madeleine decide on divorce. Moses also talks also about their lawyer, Sandor Himmelstein, who offered Moses a place to stay after Moses' split with Madeleine.
We learn that Moses has two brothers, Will and Shura, and one sister, Helen. Moses touches briefly upon his Jewish childhood and his father, who was a bootlegger. He says that immediately after his divorce from Madeleine, he borrowed money from Shura and went to Europe to escape the pain of the divorce. He returned from his trip in terrible condition. He taught classes in New York, and at the end of the spring semester, decided to escape his lover, Ramona, by fleeing to Martha's Vineyard to see his friend Libbie Vane and her husband. He begins his preparations for his trip, buying himself a fashionable outfit and swimming wear.
Moses' confidence does not seem odd at first, but then he begins to revisit painful memories, and the contentment he claims to feel seems strange.
"Moses" is a significant name, for in the Bible, Moses is the Old Testament figure who leads the Jews to the promised land. Before Moses led others, however, he was lost to himself. The Pharaoh of Egypt had decreed that all Hebrew boy babies were to be killed, so Moses' mother placed Moses in a basket and set him adrift in the river, hoping that someone would find him. In the first chapter of Herzog, Moses Herzog resembles the biblical Moses, drifting across the United States as Moses drifted in the river.
The first chapter also introduces the role of women and sex in Moses' life. Moses attempts to find salvation in women and sex, but women continuously cause him pain. Moses marries, thinking that marriage will solve his problems. When his marriages fail, he is left half-destroyed because his romanticism and sentiment have been disappointed. Incredibly emotional, Moses has had many relationships and always reverts to sex in times of need. He intends to have some sort of affair while in Martha's Vineyard.
Moses' current lover, Ramona, is beautiful, successful, well-educated, and sensual. However, she lectures Moses, which he cannot stand. Although he speaks of Romana kindly and often lovingly, he goes to the Vineyard in order to escape her. Moses speaks of Ramona as a sexual priestess, suggesting that he regards women and sex as a kind of religion, a physical substitute for spiritual faith.
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.