The Kugelmass Episode

by Woody Allen

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Themes and Meanings

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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 extravagant love stories ultimately leads to her depression and suicide, Kugelmass is more stimulated by literary images than by the people and situations he encounters outside books. The simple diagnosis of his skeptical psychotherapist, Dr. Mandel, is that he is “so unrealistic.” Kugelmass is unable to reconcile the realities of his ordinary existence with the enchanting plots and persons he has encountered in his reading. Neither Flo, his first wife, nor Daphne, his second, could possibly be more exciting than Sister Carrie, Hester Prynne, Ophelia, or Temple Drake. Literature has spoiled him for life.

Allen assumes that his readers will catch these and other literary allusions, that his readers, like Kugelmass, are intimately acquainted with the most prominent works of Western literature and will pride themselves on their ability to follow the learned references, but, even more so, on their privileged detachment from the pathetic professor in the story. They may share his enthusiasm for books, but they have a redeeming awareness that undercuts the kind of uncritical absorption that undoes both Emma and Kugelmass—at least, such an awareness is assumed by Allen’s mocking text.

Even after discarding Emma, Kugelmass has not learned his lesson. He is soon lusting after another literary figure and deprecating his life outside of books. It is a futile, destructive cycle of desire and deceit, one that the story’s conclusion suggests must be broken: The eternal quest for happiness yields only eternal dissatisfaction. Persky’s extraordinary machine is destroyed, and the wizard himself dies. As the story approaches its final words, abjuring its own rough magic, it seems to be endorsing Dr. Mandel’s insistence on confronting the ordinary and coming to terms with it. The story does so, ironically, through Allen’s farfetched fictional contrivance.


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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...

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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 these things at all.

Allen throws in a number of references in his story to classics of literature that reinforce the absurdity of Kugelmass’s quest and resound with his general predicament. The Great Persky asks Kugelmass what his pleasure is in terms of female heroines to have an affair with. He suggests the social-climbing title character of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and the mad Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for example. At the end of the novel, Kugelmass asks to be projected into Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, a book about a Jewish man who talks to his analyst about his sexual troubles. Throughout the story, Allen uses lowbrow humor to poke fun at serious, high art by combining it with absurd and farcical situations. The fact that a person can be projected at all into a work of fiction is ridiculously comic, and that it is Flaubert’s serious naturalistic novel is even more incongruous.

Literary study is also satirized in the story as students and professors all over the country begin to wonder about what is happening as a ‘‘bald Jew’’ enters Flaubert’s novel. Rather than thinking that something crazy is happening, the teachers think that their students are on pot or acid. A Stanford professor, unable to simply see the text for what it is, remarks that it shows that the mark of a classic is that ‘‘you can reread it a thousand times and always find something new.’’

Pursuit and Possession Perhaps Allen’s most serious target of satire in ‘‘The Kugelmass Episode’’ is modern humans’ pursuit of satisfaction. Kugelmass is dissatisfied and undergoing a midlife crisis, but rather than seek meaning, he looks for romance and glamour to relieve the boredom in his life. When things go wrong and Emma can’t get back to the Flaubert novel, he tells Persky that all he is prepared for at this point in his life is ‘‘a cautious affair.’’ He is prepared to lie and cheat on his wife but he doesn’t want to work too hard or to give up the other things in his life—his job, his comfortable existence—to get what he wants. The irony at the end of the story is that Kugelmass, who has been in the pursuit of things that he thinks he must have, is himself pursued by ‘‘having,’’ as the ‘‘large, hairy’’ irregular verb ‘‘tener’’ chases him over a rocky landscape. Emma is also in pursuit of shallow and meaningless things—idealized romance and fame—that she thinks can make her happy.

Art and Life/Fantasy and Reality A recurring theme in Allen’s fiction and films is the line between art and life, between fantasy and reality. Fantasy in the story is seen on two levels. On the one hand, there are straightforward fantasies, for example Kugelmass’s wish have a beautiful woman by his side and Emma Bovary’s desire for an acting career and fame. But Allen plays on that idea and Kugelmass’s fantasy becomes, literally, a fantastic journey into another dimension.

In the story, Kugelmass is bored and seeks a release from his dull, humdrum existence. He wants to escape from the reality of his oaf-like wife Daphne and have an affair. He doesn’t want an ordinary dalliance, a ‘‘chippie’’ on the side as his wife says, but excitement, softness, glamour; he wants to ‘‘exchange coy glances over red wine and candlelight.’’ He turns to Persky to help him, and even though it should be apparent that things will probably not work out (the unsuccessful magician lives in a run-down apartment building and uses a cheap-looking Chinese cabinet as his transporter), he willingly suspends his disbelief and hopes for the best. As a sign of his desperation to escape his reality, Kugelmass the distrusting city man accepts that Persky knows what he is doing. His fantasy comes to life when he is thrust into the world of Flaubert’s novel and begins his affair with Emma Bovary, but Kugelmass soon finds that living with one’s fantasy poses many hazards. Once again, Kugelmass wants to escape—this time his fantasyturned- reality—either by committing suicide or running away to Europe. He is relieved when Emma is finally transported back to Yonville. Art in the story is an escape from real life, with its fat and dull people and mundane situations. But even though it is a tempting escape, it is still an illusion, and illusions by definition are not all they seem to be.

New York Jewish Culture ‘‘The Kugelmass Episode’’ is very much a story about a New York Jew, and Allen presents a number of details to emphasize the Jewishness of his principal characters. Kugelmass teaches at City College of New York The word ‘‘Kugel’’ in the title character’s name refers to a sweet noodle dish that is served at Passover. In fact all the ‘‘real’’ characters in the story are Jewish—Kugelmass, Daphne, Dr. Mandel, Persky, and even Kugelmass’s jealous colleague, Fivish Kopkind. Allen’s characters have stereotypical Jewish traits, from Kugelmass’s anxiety and concern about money to Persky’s pessimism. The story uses elements of Jewish humor, with the main character cast as a schlemiel, or bungler, the use of exaggeration for comic effect (Kugelmass notes, for example, that Emma’s hotel tab reads ‘‘like the defense budget’’) and its concerns with the anxieties of urban life. But while Allen satirizes Jewish culture, speech, and manners, he never does so harshly, and his characters are crazy but ultimately likeable, and the colloquial speech they use in the face of such serious situations is perhaps the most humorous element in the story.

The Entertainment Industry ‘‘The Kugelmass Episode’’ pokes fun at the entertainment industry, especially in its satirical portraits of Persky the Great and Emma Bovary. Persky is an unsuccessful entertainer who nonetheless continues at his trade and hustles to earn a living. He built his cabinet for a booking for the Knights of Pythias that ‘‘fell through,’’ he tells Kugelmass, and he aims to make money from Kugelmass from his contraption. Emma, when she comes to New York, becomes a parody of an actress with aspirations to fame. She wants to dine at Elaine’s, a landmark restaurant in New York that serves Italian-Jewish comfort food and which is the haunt of many celebrities (she wants to see and be seen). She thinks anyone can act and wants to be coached by the great Strasberg so she can win an Oscar. Both these characters show the most shallow side of the entertainment industry, that focuses not on art but on money and fame.