The Kugelmass Episode

by Woody Allen

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Critical Essay on The Kugelmass Episode

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In his 1985 film The Purple Rose of Cairo, Allen tells the story of Cecelia, a lonely woman trapped in a bad marriage and dead-end job who escapes the misery of her existence by going to the movies. During one of Cecelia’s daily visits to the (fictional) film The Purple Rose of Cairo to see her screen idol Gil Shepherd, the character Tom Baxter, played by Shepherd, turns to Cecelia and begins a conversation with her. He confesses he’s been watching Cecelia while she has been watching him, and is falling in love with her. Much to the horror of the audience and other characters in the film, he decides to climb out of the movie and run off with her. He flees to the real world, where all he wants to do, he says, is lead a ‘‘normal’’ life, to ‘‘be real.’’ Cecelia later enters Baxter’s movie world with him, where she experiences for a time glamour, adventure, love, and hope. But both Baxter and Cecelia soon find that the fantasy worlds they have entered have their pitfalls. More importantly, reality begins to set in, and in the end both are forced to return to their old lives, the only places where, they realize, they can really belong.

Allen’s romantic comedy has obvious parallels to his humorous short story ‘‘The Kugelmass Episode’’ in the way it explores the viewer/reader’s relationship to art and art’s relationship to reality. Indeed, the 1977 story can be viewed as a prototype for the film that appeared eight years later. Both of these works use similar methods to examine the line between fantasy and reality and to show how seductive fantasy can be. The treatment of the theme of art versus reality in ‘‘The Kugelmass Episode’’ is not as developed as it is in Allen’s film, and the moral lessons it teaches are far less obvious. But it nevertheless delves into serious problems, forcing readers to think intelligently about the role of art in people’s lives as well as their responsibility toward it. By comparing Allen’s story with The Purple Rose of Cairo, the complexity of these themes becomes more obvious and the existential concerns and moral lessons, veiled in the story in screwball satire, become a little more clear.

In both ‘‘The Kugelmass Episode’’ and The Purple Rose of Cairo, Allen presents the allure of art and its power to offer solace and hope. In ‘‘The Kugelmass Episode,’’ Allen pokes fun of people’s impulse to find refuge in art and also in art’s capacity to provide relief from the dreariness of existence. Kugelmass seeks an escape from reality in art for the basest of reasons: he is having a midlife crisis, feels that he is running out of ‘‘options,’’ and thinks he’d better have an affair while he still can. He doesn’t really turn to art for solace; rather, art happens to present itself as a means for him to satisfy his lust. Kugelmass is a literature professor, but art so far has done little to offer meaning to his weary soul. Only when The Great Persky suggests that he use his transporting cabinet to ‘‘meet any of the women created by the world’s best writers’’ does he decide that this is the type of fantasy world he will escape to. He decides to go to the France of Madame Bovary, where he begins an affair with the title character. Once there, he is happy because he is ‘‘doing it with Madame Bovary ’’ and thinks he has the ‘‘situation knocked.’’ Being in the French countryside is a nice...

(This entire section contains 1648 words.)

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touch, but the most important thing for Kugelmass is that he has fulfilled his very particular fantasy—of having an affair with a beautiful, sexy woman. Kugelmass is completely seduced by the world of art, but all that world is for him is a place where he can get what he wants without having to pay very much for it.

‘‘The Kugelmass Episode’’ satirizes the entire notion of the seductiveness of art as it shows Kugelmass’s desire for escape in crass terms. The Purple Rose of Cairo develops the idea of art’s allure more fully and delicately, showing why humans choose to escape to it. For Cecelia, the world of the movies is a complete world, and she loves everything about it: the glamorous people, the adventure, the romance. She falls in love with Baxter because he is perfect; even after he has a fistfight with her husband, not a single hair is out of place and there is no blood no his face. Art for Cecelia offers an escape because it depicts a perfect world, one where there is no joblessness, no despair, no cruelty, and where there is the possibility of romance, love, and hope. It also offers a perfect morality, where good always triumphs and evil fails. Her real world, in comparison, is disappointing, deceitful, and the good guys never win. Cecelia turns to art to satisfy her desires, and the escape offered by art is magical and wonderful. The world of art is far superior to her real world, and it is no wonder that day after day Cecelia sits in front of the screen losing herself in its illusions of beauty and its perfect morality.

Allen is not saying that all art depicts a perfect world, but shows how audiences are seduced by it because of the alternative it offers to the complexity of the real world. Art may not portray life as being perfect, but it has a certain integrity and meaning that are missing from real life—or at least people think it has these qualities. The literary critics in ‘‘The Kugelmass Episode’’ don’t know what to make of it when the text of Madame Bovary changes; the novel has an expected progression, unlike life, and the Stanford professor ‘‘cannot get his mind around’’ the fact that suddenly it does not. A member of the movie audience in the film says she wants ‘‘what happened in the movie last week to happen this week. Otherwise what’s life all about anyway?’’ In both the story and the film, Allen shows how audiences’ expectations of art are misguided in serious ways. They expect art to deliver certain truths when in fact it cannot. One of the things Allen does in both these works is use the genre of comedy, which is supposed to provide happy endings, and infuse it with the unexpected, with sadness and absurd tragedy. Cecelia is betrayed by the movies and doomed to return to her horrible life, and Kugelmass, not learning his lesson about the dangers of living an illusion, is projected finally into an absurdist oblivion. Allen departs from the traditions of comedy to bring into focus the shifting boundaries of art and reality and to show how people’s expectations of art influence their thinking not only about art but their lives as well.

Both Kugelmass and Cecelia are seduced by what art can offer them, but their mistake is in believing that art can offer a permanent escape. For Kugelmass, things start to go horribly wrong when Persky’s transporter malfunctions and Emma Bovary is unable to return to her novel. Kugelmass finds very quickly that his fantasy-turned-reality is a liability, and he chooses to end it as soon as he can. But the allure of it is too strong, and three weeks later he is in Persky’s apartment asking to be projected into Portnoy’s Complaint. There he meets with his hilariously bizarre ending—thrust by mistake into a remedial Spanish textbook and running for his life as he is chased by a large and hairy irregular verb. The ending to Cecelia’s story is more tragic and more poignant. She believes at first that she can have a life with Baxter, leaving her husband for him. The movie studio then sends the actor Shepherd to convince his character to get back into the film, and Shepherd asks Cecelia to choose him over his screen persona, promising them a life together. Baxter goes back to his film, but then Cecelia is betrayed by Shepherd; after he gets Baxter back into the movie, he returns to Hollywood, and Cecelia is back to her dreary existence, her only respite once again the magic of the movies.

Even to the end, Kugelmass believes that art can offer something more than a passing diversion to his life, that it can transform it in some way that will have permanent rewards. This leads to his downfall. Cecelia finally recognizes that perfection isn’t a substitute for reality, and she chooses reality instead. But reality is as harsh as it had always been, with its imperfect morality, and she is once again alone and in a state of hopelessness and despair. The lesson that both characters learn, and which we can learn from their stories, is that painful though it is, humans must return to and live with reality, and reality has no happy ending. Art can offer some refuge from the harshness of reality, but we cannot stay there permanently. We might find, as Cecelia does, that the world of reality is amoral and unwelcoming, but it is the only place we have the freedom to choose our own way. The problem with both Kugelmass and Cecelia is that they are too weak to face up to this freedom and to accept responsibility for their own lives. They both look for an easy solution, thinking they can escape the responsibility of making their own lives meaningful. But to escape that responsibility, Allen shows, is to escape to an illusion, and that illusion, no matter how seductive, can never last very long.

Source: Uma Kukathas, Critical Essay on ‘‘The Kugelmass Episode,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Allen’s The Kugelmass Episode

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In his short story ‘‘The Kugelmass Episode,’’ Woody Allen extends the relationship between reader and text posited by reader-response critics. ‘‘The Kugelmass Episode’’ portrays a distinct relationship between reader and text, a connection that represents a reversal of reader-response criticism: the protagonist literally enters the text Madame Bovary and metaphorically interprets it. When humanities professor Sidney Kugelmass tells the magician The Great Persky, ‘‘Make sure and always get me into the book before page 120,’’ he means it literally. Kugelmass adds to the meaning of Madame Bovary, just as we add to the meaning of ‘‘The Kugelmass Episode.’’ We read Allen’s story, metaphorically ‘‘entering the text’’; likewise, readers of Madame Bovary in Allen’s ‘‘The Kugelmass Episode’’ metaphorically enter Flaubert’s novel.

Kugelmass tells his analyst that he wants to have an affair. When Dr. Mandel, the analyst, cautions him, ‘‘You’re so unrealistic,’’ Kugelmass decides that he needs a magician rather than an analyst. Persky calls him, and Kugelmass says, ‘‘I want romance. I want music. I want love and beauty.’’ Persky explains: ‘‘If I throw any novel into this cabinet with you, shut the doors, and tap it three times, you will find yourself projected into that book. . . . You can meet any of the women created by the world’s best writers.’’

Kugelmass wants a French lover, so he chooses Emma Bovary, who represents the antithesis of his wife. He thinks that Daphne is ‘‘an oaf.’’ She is also overweight, and he implies that he only married her for her money. But, he thinks, Emma is ‘‘beautiful. . . . What a contrast with the troglodyte who shared his bed.’’ He says, ‘‘I’ve earned this. . . . I’ve suffered enough. I’ve paid enough analysts.’’

Persky throws a ‘‘paperback copy of Flaubert’s novel’’ into the cabinet with Kugelmass. When he meets Emma, Kugelmass says, ‘‘She spoke in the same free English translation as the paperback.’’ Kugelmass’s illusions turn into reality as he has his affair with Emma Bovary. ‘‘My God, I’m doing it with Madame Bovary! . . . Me, who failed freshman English.’’ His escapades with Emma provide him with excitement that his real life lacks.

Professor Kugelmass’s ‘‘mythical journey’’ is his trip to a fantasy land, a journey into the illusory force of art. One of the most interesting and marvelous techniques of ‘‘The Kugelmass Episode’’ is that the protagonist literally enters the text. Critics who use reader-response criticism center their interpretations around examinations of the effects of the text on readers. This critical method entails the notion of readers ‘‘entering the text’’ and responding to the text as interpretative techniques. In ‘‘Post Reader- Response: The Deconstructive Critique,’’ Pam Gilbert summarizes the fundamental principles of readerresponse theories, They focus, she observes,

on the reader’s contribution to the meaning of a text, and in that way they are seen to represent an assault of a sort on the traditional notion of literature as ‘‘expressive realism’’—the notion that literature is a reflection of the ‘‘real’’ world, that literary texts have single determinate meanings, and that the authority for their meanings lies with the author, who ‘‘put’’ the meaning in the text in the first place. (235)

Reader-response criticism assumes that the reader is the text’s interpretative authority.

Allen’s story also demonstrates reader-response techniques when ‘‘enter the text’’ is interpreted as ‘‘read the text.’’ Allen shows the effects that Kugelmass’s literal entrance into Madame Bovary has on those who read Madame Bovary while Kugelmass and Emma are in the novel. The narrator says that students all over the country ask, ‘‘Who is this character on page 100? A bald Jew is kissing Madame Bovary?’’ One professor explains his confusion: ‘‘I cannot get my mind around this. . . . First a strange character named Kugelmass, and now she’s gone from the book. Well, I guess the mark of a classic is that you can reread it a thousand times and always find something new.’’

Throughout his oeuvre, Woody Allen frequently depicts artists who are involved in the creative process, or spectators who, like Kugelmass, are affected by their exposure to art. He often juxtaposes the notion of an ideal life that art portrays against his protagonists’ flawed lives. In ‘‘The Kugelmass Episode,’’ he broadens this theme: the protagonist’s concept of an ideal life and his subsequent illusory views compel him to seek art as a way of confirming his illusions. Attempting to merge his idealized life with his real life, Kugelmass literally enters an artistically created world, the text.

Source: Laurie Champion, ‘‘Allen’s ‘The Kugelmass Episode,’’’ in Explicator, Vol. 51, No. 1, Fall 1992, pp. 61–63.

Naming in The Kugelmass Episode

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Woody Allen created two inside jokes when he wrote ‘‘The Kugelmass Episode,’’ originally published in The New Yorker in 1977. The short story contains cryptic joshing in both the protagonist’s name Kugelmass and in that of the magician—The Great Persky. These two names refer to items often made fun of by Allen—the Jewish culture and show business, respectively.

First, a plot review will help in the comprehension of the chosen names. Kugelmass has married an oaf named Daphne. Extreme unhappiness causes Kugelmass to search for a woman to have an affair with, and in distress he decides to seek help from a Dr. Mandel, an analyst who warns Kugelmass that an affair won’t solve his problems and that ‘‘[he’s] an analyst, not a magician.’’

Curiously Kugelmass gets a phone call from a magician, The Great Persky, who will later tell him that ‘‘[he’s] a magician, not an analyst.’’ Persky has a magic cabinet in which Kugelmass gets transported to the novel. Madame Bovary, where Emma is found to be bored with her spouse and in search of romance, stating to Kugelmass, ‘‘I’ve always dreamed that some mysterious stranger would appear and rescue me from the monotony of this crass rural existence.’’ The two become lovers both within the novel (art) and back in New York (reality). Soon Emma gets bored with life in a New York hotel as the novelty wears off. Initially, Persky has difficulties getting the magic cabinet to work, but finally he is able to send her back to her novel, Kugelmass reverts to his old life but eventually returns to Persky again, this time asking for Portnoy’s Complaint. Instead, Persky’s magic cabinet sends Kugelmass to a remedial Spanish book where he is chased by the verb tener while the magician dies of a heart attack and his magic cabinet bursts into flames.

Kugel is a Jewish holiday dish eaten to celebrate Shavuot, a time set aside for the remembrance of the gift of the Ten Commandments, the end of the barley harvest, and the offering of the first fruit at the Temple. During this season dairy dishes (Kugel) are often prepared because of several traditions: (1) during biblical times the Jews did not have time to cook meat after leaving the Sinai; (2) the Torah is often thought of as milk and honey; and (3) during the period from May to early June, the Spring harvest, milk and cheese are plentiful. Kugel is traditionally served on Friday nights or on the Sabbath, and there are several variations of the dish which include cheese, potato, and Lokshen (a sweet noodle pudding).

‘‘Kugel’’ in the name Kugelmass therefore emphasizes that the protagonist goes on a holiday, or what might be termed a lark, from his overweight spouse. The dessert of the story consists of the affair with Madame Bovary, whose name itself in English echoes the cow from whom milk comes and then cheese and so forth to be eaten by Kugelmass. The protagonist, as might the errant husband in any culture on a Friday night or weekend away from his wife, searches for a woman or his ‘‘mass of Kugel,’’ and he wants her to be French and respectable. Emma fits this role, but after the initial attraction between the two, the magic wears off and she means less and less to Kugelmass who is all but desperate to get Persky to send her back to her novel.

Allen’s selection of the name Persky for the magician pays tribute to Lester Persky, a film producer who started out in New York by forming an advertising agency. Persky, the real one, eventually created Persky-Bright Productions, a film company that has been quite successful financing motion pictures that were originally stage productions, possibly an accidental connection with ‘‘Kugelmass.’’ Persky’s work includes Hair, Fortune and Men’s Eye’s, and Equus.

So Woody Allen had a few devices hidden under his narrative sleeve, known only to the select few while the rest of us simply enjoyed his sad story of another schlemiel schlepping along. Kugelmass and ‘‘Kugelmass’’ are archetypally Woody Allen.

Source: John Harty, ‘‘Allen’s ‘The Kugelmass Episode,’’’ in Explicator, Vol. 46, No. 3, Spring 1988, pp. 50–51.


Critical Overview