Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Like the Flaubert novel whose main character it appropriates, “The Kugelmass Episode” examines the futility of the quest for personal happiness. Although it is cast in a comic key, Woody Allen’s story, like Madame Bovary, is organized around a logic of disillusionment. Each stage of transcendence is a disappointment, and the more that Kugelmass, who has already been through two marriages at the outset of the story, reaches for something exotic that is beyond his grasp, the more miserable he becomes. It is appropriate that he is last seen hounded by the verb tener, a graphic reminder of the elusiveness of the heart’s desire: People cannot have what they want and do not want what they have.
Allen is best known for his achievements in film—as a prolific director, writer, and performer. Many of his cinematic works explore the complex relationship between art and life by being playfully metafictional; when characters mug to the camera or are themselves artists, the medium becomes aware of itself. “The Kugelmass Episode” is a similar fiction about fiction. Its interaction between “real” and invented characters anticipates the premise of Allen’s film The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), in which a film character walks off the screen and into a romance with a woman in the audience.
As a professor of humanities, Kugelmass is a professional reader of literature. Like Flaubert’s Emma, whose addiction to...
(The entire section is 528 words.)
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Literature and Literary Study
One of the principal targets of Allen’s satire in ‘‘The Kugelmass Episode’’ is literature and its study. Kugelmass is a humanities professor at the City College of New York in Brooklyn, but, it turns out, he ‘‘failed Freshman English.’’ (Allen himself attended CCNY and failed English at New York University.) He doesn’t speak like an educated man at all, but uses colloquialisms and a very New York Jewish speech pattern; the only time he deviates from this is to call his wife a ‘‘troglodyte’’ (a cave dweller) and to whisper sweet nothings into Emma Bovary’s ear. Kugelmass is dissatisfied with his life, and he yearns not for love but for a cheap idealization or glamorization of it that is the stuff of romance novels. He decides he wants to have an affair with Emma Bovary because she is French— ‘‘that sounds to me perfect,’’ he says. But what he doesn’t even consider is that Flaubert’s novel is not about perfect love at all but the ridiculous idealization of it by the title character—which leads to her utter ruin. In fact Kugelmass is very much like Flaubert’s Emma: dissatisfied and disillusioned by marriage, searching not for love but for shallow fulfillment that is mistaken for something much grander. But Kugelmass is also like Emma’s husband, Charles, who is a bumbling, aging man who is really no good at his job. However, Kugelmass the literature professor does not realize...
(The entire section is 1362 words.)