The Kugelmass Episode

by Woody Allen

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How does the plot of "The Kugelmass Episode" contribute to its overall theme?

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The exposition of Woody Allen's short story establishes the main setting, modern-day Manhattan, and the protagonist, Kugelmass, a humanities professor at City College with a wife, an ex-wife, and two "dull sons" for whom he has to provide financially.

The rising action introduces the conflict: Kugelmass is unhappy in his marriage because, in part, his wife has "let herself go and swell up like a beach ball." He wants romance in his life, but he wants it to be "discreet" because he knows he cannot afford another divorce. When the magician, Persky, is able to transport him to France to meet Emma Bovary, the conflict escalates as he attempts to manage his career, his marriage, his affair, and Emma's increasing demands to escape her rural life for the excitement of Manhattan.

The story's climax occurs when Kugelmass tries to return Emma to Yonville, but the magic cabinet malfunctions. For a week, the situation worsens, and Emma gives Kugelmass an ultimatum: marry her or return her to Yonville. At the same time, a colleague at the college discovers Kugelmass's secret and threatens to expose him.

The falling action occurs when Persky makes the necessary repair and is able to send Emma Bovary back to Yonville. Kugelmass says that he will swear off Persky's cabinet.

The conclusion of the story shows that Kugelmass has not learned his lesson after this near disaster. He returns to Persky to try to enter a Philip Roth novel, but is instead permanently transported into a remedial Spanish textbook.

The overall theme of the story is the tragi-comedy of how middle-aged men often experience midlife crises and pay a steep price for the choices they make during this vulnerable period. Kugelmass becomes a risk-taker even though experience has shown him the danger of giving into discontented feelings. Each segment of the plot shows the escalation of his risky behavior until it reaches an irrevocable tipping point.

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