Study Guide

Madeleine Pontritter in Herzog

By Saul Bellow

Madeleine Pontritter

Cruel

Since this whole book comes from Moses Herzog's perspective, it's tough to get a clear read on what kind of person Madeleine really is. But if we look at her actions and take Herzog's word for it, she seems like a really cruel person.

For example, there's a lot of evidence to suggest that Madeleine manipulated Herzog into making her as financially comfortable as possible while knowing that she was going to dump him for his best friend. Her decision to ask for a divorce was methodical. As the novel tells us:

Only a week before she demanded a divorce, she had his things cleaned and pressed, but on the day he left the house, she flung them all into a carton which she then dumped down the cellar stairs. (1.38)

Madeleine also persuaded Herzog to get a job for his friend Val (Madeleine's secret lover) in Chicago because Madeleine planned on being with Val all along. Dang, Madeline. Well played. You're like a top-secret divorce agent.

On top of her cruel actions, Madeleine also says a lot of mean stuff to Herzog. When he tries to tell her about his feelings, she scoffs at him and says:

"Don't give me that line of platitudes about feelings. I don't believe in it. I believe in God—sin—death—so don't pull any sentimental crap on me." (4.88)

It definitely seems as though Madeleine straight up hates Herzog, although it's not clear what he did to deserve such hatred. Sure, he can be annoying. But Madeleine's anger seems unjustified based on the facts we have in front of us.

The Proud

When Herzog thinks about his marriage to Madeleine, he often remembers how vain she was about her intelligence and appearance. She was especially proud of her appearance, which she always put a lot of time and effort into. In one passage, Herzog remembers going clothes shopping with Madeleine:

He remembered how much pleasure it gave Madeleine to try on clothes in shops and how much heart and pride there was in her when she looked at herself, touching, adjusting, her face glowing but severe, too, with the great blue eyes, the vivid bangs, the medallion profile. (1.134)

What's so fascinating about Madeleine's personality is that it's almost the exact opposite of Herzog's, at least in several key ways. For example, Herzog is obsessed with what he thinks about the world, while Madeleine is obsessed about what others think—which is why she puts so much stake in her appearance. And even while Madeleine and Herzog are both self-obsessed, Herzog's self-obsession expresses itself in self-pity while Madeleine's expresses itself through vanity or pride.

Yuck. Neither of these people sounds like they'll be winning Husband/Wife of The Year awards any time soon.

The Flipside

As we mentioned, though, it's easy to form a bad opinion of Madeleine because Herzog's perspective is the only one we get in this book. But if we read between the lines, we find out a few things that might make us more sympathetic to Madeleine. For example, she suffers from anxiety and stutters whenever she gets upset or talks about traumatic things from her past. As she says to Herzog:

"My childhood was a grotesque nightmare […] I was bullied, assaulted, ab-ab-ab…" (4.83)

If anything, this detail should make Herzog feel sorry for her, since he was also molested as a child. But instead, Herzog tends to look down on Madeleine when she stutters or talks about her past. In this case, we might want to look a little more kindly on Madeleine. We also get the feeling that Madeline was treated shabbily by ol' Herz: it's quite likely (though never proven) that he slept around during their marriage, and it's a matter of fact that he was a bit of a workaholic.

On top of her difficult past—both as a child and as Herzog's wife—Madeleine's love for her daughter June should help us see a better side of her. As her aunt Zelda assures Herzog (and the reader), "Madeleine is a good mother. And you don't have to worry." (2.89).

Madeleine's devotion to her child is clear throughout the book. Just because she dislikes Herzog doesn't mean she's a bad person. That being said, she has definitely done some bad things in her time… like manipulating Herzog while sleeping with his best friend.

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