It is morning on the day after Moses' return from Martha's Vineyard, and he is writing letters. He begins by addressing Monsignor Hilton, who converted Madeleine to the Church. He writes to Hilton to show him what happens to people who want convert in order to "save themselves from nihilism." Moses remembers being separated from Daisy, his first wife, and living in Philadelphia. He worked and commuted to New York to visit his son, Marco, three or four times a week. Moses was in a bad state, taking sleeping pills and drinking to soothe his upset stomach. He was also sleeping with a Japanese woman named Sono Oguki.
Moses remembers wanting to marry Madeleine and visiting her parents, Pontritter (who insisted on being called Fritz) and Tennie. Madeleine hated her parents, but both of them thought that Moses would be good for their daughter. Tennie told Moses he would save Madeleine and said that his stability would be good for her. Madeleine had a turbulent childhood. She resented her mother's undying support and servitude to Fritz, who had treated them badly. Madeleine also talked about sexual abuse, although Moses could never draw her out completely on the topic.
Moses thinks of his life with Mady in the country. He was separated from Daisy when he moved with Mady to the Berkshires, living in the house Moses bought with his inheritance from his father. Madeleine had converted to Christianity and was fervent about her religion, and began trying to make herself look older and more serious for work. Her religiosity disturbed Moses, who thought the whole thing theatrical. Moses thinks about their fights over money and about Madeleine's desire for him to divorce Daisy so that Madeleine and Moses could marry in a church ceremony. Eventually, Madeleine dropped religion and Daisy and Moses were divorced, allowing Madeleine and Moses to get married. It was during this time that Moses devoted himself to fixing the house in the country. Madeleine, now pregnant, was miserable because she could not stand the servitude of the housework.
Moses remembers how different Daisy was from Mady. Daisy was a cool, conservative Jewish woman, an organized person from the country. Moses' disorganization ended the marriage. Moses jumps from thought to thought, landing on the memory of a friend named Nachman who grew up with him on Napoleon Street. Moses recently saw Nachman him on 8th street, and Nachman ignored him. Moses loaned Nachman money years ago when they were together in Paris, because Nachman needed money to go to America and find his love, Laura. Laura and Nachman had spent time together in Paris, but her parents had taken her away. Laura was a neurotic woman who ended up in an insane asylum, which distressed Nachman terribly.
Moses thinks of Napoleon Street, where he and Nachman grew up. Moses recounts stories of his family, his father's many failings in the import business and in other businesses, and his militant Aunt Zipporah, a realist who had more money than Moses' father. He remembers the people on the block, like Ravitch, a melancholic alcoholic. Moses' father and mother would bring in Ravitch from the stairwells when he was drunk and singing late at night. Moses thinks of Napoleon Street and his family at length, and with great nostalgia. The chapter ends with the thought that Laura must have committed suicide.
This section deals primarily with Madeleine's character development and Moses' childhood memories of Napoleon street. Bellow begins to flesh out Madeleine's character, describing how she seems through Moses' eyes. Madeleine is theatrical, jumping from one role to the next. She is described here as a fervent convert, but there is a suggestion that her motivation might be theatricality, not religious passion. Throughout the novel, Bellow criticizes appearances and their importance, and Madeleine may be guilty of focusing too much on appearance. Bellow also depicts Madeleine as a modern woman who feels constricted by her house and home. She cannot live a life of servitude, as her mother did.
In a particularly lively, beautiful section of the novel, Moses recalls his childhood home on Napoleon Street, illuminating his beginnings as the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants living in the slums of Montreal. We see the difficulties of the family of new immigrants, from money to a new language and lifestyle. Moses loves his family greatly. He says he has been accused of childish familial love, but does not apologize for it.
The section ends with the thought that Nachman's love, Laura, must have committed suicide. Death ends a section of the novel that was full of love. Death is a focus throughout the novel, sometimes looming over happy moments.
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.