The Kugelmass Episode

by Woody Allen

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What is the moral lesson in "The Kugelmass Episode"?

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One could conclude that the main morals of Woody Allen’s short story “The Kugelmass Episode” involve greed, moral myopia, and the adage “be careful what you wish for; you might just get it.” Allen’s story begins with an introduction to its main character, Kugelmass, a humanities professor apparently experiencing a midlife crisis. Typical of Allen’s numerous cinematic alter egos, Kugelmass is visiting his therapist and complaining about the lack of romance and lust in his life. The following exchange between patient and psychologist serves as a fine introduction to the protagonist’s mindset:

"I need to meet a new woman," he went on. "I need to have an affair. I may not look the part, but I'm a man who needs romance. I need softness, I need flirtation. I'm not getting younger, so before it's too late I want to make love in Venice, trade quips at '21,' and exchange coy glances over red wine and candlelight. You see what I'm saying?"

Dr. Mandel shifted in his chair and said, "An affair will solve nothing. You're so unrealistic. Your problems run much deeper."

"And also this affair must be discreet," Kugelmass continued. "I can't afford a second divorce. Daphne would really sock it to me."

Note in this exchange Kugelmass’s obvious inability to actually hear what he is being told from the professional to whom he’s almost certainly paying a great deal of money for insights and analysis. He may hear the sounds emanating from Dr. Mandel’s mouth, but he is clearly not listening. He only hears what he wants to hear, and the therapist’s rejection of the patient’s suggestion that an extramarital affair is in order is simply inconvenient—anathema to a path already chosen. This is Kugelmass’s myopia: his inability to view his life in a broader context and to make rational decisions.

In being inserted into Madame Bovary and initiating a passionate affair with Emma Bovary, Kugelmass gets that for which he has wished. He makes love and spends time with a beautiful young exotic woman only to ultimately find the experience physically and mentally exhausting. Does he learn a lesson? No. Right away, Allen’s protagonist dives back into the magical worlds into which Persky has access, this time with far worse results. Again, his myopia dominates, and he loses all sense of perspective, with catastrophic consequences. Kugelmass is a pathetic figure who fails to act like the educated professional that he is, and a history of bad decisions leads to his demise as “a large and hairy irregular verb . . . raced after him on its spindly legs.”

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Like any successful multi-layered satire, "The Kugelmass Episode" takes aim at many targets in a highly amusing way. It may not be a "moral lesson," but Allen points out foibles in human nature and institutions, and the moral value of a satire is generally to encourage people to undertake some self-examination.

The midlife crisis that strikes Professor Kugelmass leads him into an affair; humorously, it is through the efforts of a magician that he is able to become involved with Flaubert's Emma Bovary. This amusing situation satirizes what the "dream girl" of a humanities professor might be.

Kugelmass's pursuit of Emma Bovary observes the gulf between pursuing something or someone and possessing it or her. The affair is only satisfying to Kugelmass when he is pursuing Emma Bovary and making his miraculous returns to New York. When the pursuit ends, even the alluring Emma Bovary becomes a burden.

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In Woody Allen's humorous, schlemiel-like way, he points out the complex moral lesson that seeking to end disquietude with the vagaries and unpleasant disappointments of life in a wrong-headed schlemiel-type way will end in a metaphoric heart attack, house afire and flight for your life from some unpredicted danger. "The Kugelmass Episode" combines marriage, acting, literature, magical escapism, and the intellectualism of reality, symbolized through literary study and analysis (ahem ... ), to show that pursuing false dreams in order to correct unsatisfied and disillusioned feelings of fulfillment and accomplishment with the illusion of false pursuits leads to disaster.

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