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Saul Bellow


Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols


The Power of Ambiguity

Most major concepts are ambiguously defined in Herzog: morality, philosophy, psychology, self, religion, faith, death, and marriage, among others. These concepts, like Moses Herzog himself, are all internally torn between contradictory principles and forces. Nothing seems certain; everything has the potential for paradox. For example, Moses discovers the necessity of society, but he only discovers this through solitary meditation. Only after being totally alone can he turn toward the world.

At the end of the novel, Moses claims in a letter to Dr. Edvig that he is more capable of dealing with ambiguities, and that the uncertainty of faith does not prevent it from being a "relief." God, death, and the future will always be unknown, but we can still be optimistic. Death, which pervades the novel, is the ultimate ambiguity, but Moses eventually learns to accept its existence. He thinks about the death of his father and his mother, faces the prospect of his own death, and comes to believe that life is about the beauty that comes in intervals. He chooses to savor such brief moments of happiness, instead of fearing death.

Bellow beautifies death when he likens it to the soil. Moses' mother tries to prove that God created Adam out of the soil by rubbing her finger into her palm until dirt rises up. When his mother begins to die, he says that "she had begun to change into earth." Her story and death echoes the biblical phrase from Genesis, "dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." This phrase can sound depressing, but it can also sound like a reassurance that we are all part of a cycle, and we all, great and small, return to dust eventually.

The Internal Journey of Modern Man

Saul Bellow reacts to the horrors of history in a different way than do some other writers. The Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War caused widespread disillusionment, which was expressed by great artists such as the poet T.S. Eliot, who wrote the masterpiece "The Wasteland." Moses acknowledges the facts of war and death, but he does not become alienated as a result of them. Moses remembers thinking of the Holocaust when he went to Poland and thought of the death that pervaded the place. He makes reference to both T.S. Eliot and the Holocaust, criticizes the leaders of his country for the war in Vietnam, and condemns an "aesthetic" view of history that ignores death and murder.

Even though Bellow fills his novel with references to death, however, he does not ascribe to the view that historical events should make us jaded. As Moses says in a letter, "We musn't forget how quickly the visions of genius become the canned goods of the intellectuals…the commonplaces of the Wasteland outlook, the chap mental stimulants of Alienation…I can't accept this foolish dreariness." Moses does not call Eliot foolish—he considers Eliot a genius. However, he does think that the ideas of a genius can become corrupted and trite in the minds of ordinary people. Bellow believes that modern man can find communion and beauty in midst of the bleakness and isolation of the modern world. Although Moses does feel alienated, and although the bulk of his novel is about his solitary thoughts, in the end, Moses rejects alienation and solitude. He comes to embrace society and to see the importance of sharing his life with others.



The letters that Moses writes to "newspapers, to people in public life, to friends and relatives and at last to the dead" appear in almost every chapter in the novel. These letters illustrate Moses' attempt to put the world around him in some kind of order. He talks and talks and writes and writes, trying to iron out the contradictions that exist in his philosophy, his life, and the life of others. The technique seems to work: by the end of the novel, he can stay peacefully silent. Moses has nothing else to say for the moment, "not a single word." He has not actually created organization or stability through his letter writing, but the process has, more importantly, allowed him to come to an understanding of himself and see that stability is not a goal in the first place.

Philosophy and Psychology

Philosophy and psychology are present throughout the novel. Moses constantly makes references to philosophies of his own, of the ancients and moderns, and of new scholars. Philosophy becomes a kind of religion for Moses, and he tries to tear it apart in order to understand it. In the end, he finds that his personal philosophy is a mixture of philosophies, and he need not decide on any one philosophy in order to be satisfied.

Moses has seen a psychiatrist, and he references ideas of psychology. Psychology serves mostly as an object of satire in the novel; both Bellow and Moses find humor at its expense.

Women and Sex

Women are both the cause of and the antidote to Moses' suffering. His wives pain him, his casual loves give him diseases. Some women represent Moses' tendency to rely on sex for comfort. He also seeks stability in marriage. Over the course of his relationship with Ramona, Moses begins relating to women in a new way. He stops thinking of marriage as an easy solution to his problems, and of sex as the cure for what ails him.



Ramona owns a flower shop, and flowers surround the houses in the novel. Moses' house in the country is flanked by overgrown and disordered flowers. Moses' ability to find beauty in these flowers symbolizes his ability to understand the beauty of a disordered world.


Ramona's aunt owns a beautiful clock that symbolizes, for Moses, the stability and organization Moses would like the have. Like many objects and ideas in the novel, the clock is a contradiction, for it symbolizes both modernity and antiquity.

The House

Moses' house in the country is symbolic of Moses himself and of the themes of the novel. The house is burdensome, isolated, and filled with memories in the form of objects visitors and inhabitants have left behind. It is also surrounded by the beauty of nature. Moses, like the house, is burdensome, isolated, and plagued by memories, but the beauty of the world surrounds him.

More Help

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Herzog: a depressive scholar

by thefirstlady33, September 12, 2013

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.

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