The Kugelmass Episode

by Woody Allen

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Understanding "The Kugelmass Episode" by Woody Allen


"The Kugelmass Episode" by Woody Allen is a humorous short story about a dissatisfied humanities professor named Kugelmass who seeks escape from his mundane life. He discovers a magician who can transport him into the world of any book. Kugelmass chooses Madame Bovary, leading to a series of comedic and chaotic events as he disrupts the literary world and his own reality.

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What are the symbols in "The Kugelmass Episode" and does the title have special meaning?

In “The Kugelmass Episode,” Woody Allen incorporates several elements of symbolism. One significant symbol is the magical box itself. At first the box appears to represent the fulfillment of Kugelmass’s desires. When he enters the box for the first time, however, he notices “a couple of ugly rhinestones glued onto the raw plywood.” The box appears at first glance to be this magical cure, but upon closer inspection may just be a façade, paralleling the façade of Kugelmass finding happiness during his adventures within the box. 

When Emma first arrives in New York, Kugelmass takes her to The Plaza Hotel and showers her with gifts from Halston and Saint Laurent. These actions symbolize a sense of extravagance. Kugelmass is genuinely smitten with Emma during these first encounters.   

Of course, the most humorous element of symbolism used by Allen is the story ending with Kugelmass stuck in a Spanish textbook being chased by the verb meaning “to have.” This conclusion to the story implies that Kugelmass’s need “to have” will actually be the end of him. 

“The Kugelmass Episode” is written as a cautionary tale. The word “episode” in the title suggests a short period within a longer sequence of events. Allen writes of a small portion of Kugelmass’s life that has a moral to teach us all. The title has a dual meaning, however, in the fact that it also represents a time when Kugelmass is not thinking clearly—he is having an “episode.”  This episode symbolizes the dangers of chasing after your desires without considering all the consequences.

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What is the meaning of "The Kugelmass Episode"?

One of the fundamental meanings of the work is the idea that individuals who find dissatisfaction in their "real" lives and tend to romanticize the love of literature are bound for even more disenchantment.  Kugelmass is dissatisfied with his present day life, which is why he is enamored with Emma in the world of literature.  His overindulgence of her is where things get even worse for him, recognizing that he has both a real world and a literary one that has appropriated all of the negative consequences of the real one.  Yet, rather than seek to understand the condition in which he has put himself, Kugelmass "doubles down" and thus winds up in a Spanish grammar text.  In the end, the meaning of Allen's work is that individuals have to be willing to stop striving for an artificially perfect life and settle in for a good one.  When individuals stop striving for that which is seen as "perfect" or "ideal," there is a greater chance for happiness that emerges.  It is here where I think that there is meaning in the workd, as it speaks to how happiness can be accomplished if the desire for perfection is put aside in favor of something workable.

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Can you explain "The Kugelmass Episode" in simple words?

In a nutshell, Kugelmass (a stereotypical Jewish name), is an unsatisfied Humanities professor.  He decides to have an affair since his second marriage is not a happy one.  A magician has a Magic Box that Kugelmass can crawl into with a favorite book, and he'll end up in the setting of that book.  He chooses Madame Bovary. He and Madame Bovary get along well and start an affair--he even brings her back to his time.  Ironically, everything they do ends up within the text of Madame Bovary.  Kugelmass' fellow professors recognize him in the descriptions and pages of the book.  Curiouser and curiouser.

Emma Bovary proves to be too much to handle--in short, he can't keep her happy either, so he sends her back into the book.  He decides to try traveling by box to another setting, but the box has a technical difficulty and Kugelmass ends up in a Spanish textbook being chased by the verb "tener"--"to have".  Basically, the verb (large and hairy...UGH) wants to acquire him as he wanted to acquire Madame Bovary thinking that an affair would change his mood.  No more free will for Kugelmass--he is at the mercy of "tener".

I have included some links for you which may make some of the irony and comparisons easier to understand.  It wouldn't hurt to look up the Jewish terminology that you don't understand in order to see the point in the story more clearly, either.  Good Luck! 

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