Woody Allen

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2022

The overall emphasis of Woody Allen’s short fiction is summarized by the title of his second book-length collection, Without Feathers. The title alludes to an Emily Dickinson line: “Hope is the thing without feathers. ” The particular hopelessness with which Allen deals, in his mirthful way, is that described, defined, and passed down by such philosophers and literary figures as Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard, Albert Camus, and Franz Kafka. It is one in which the death of God, existential meaninglessness, and surreal distortions of time and space are the norm. In this world, anxiety abounds, human reason is essentially flawed, and truth disappears into the twin vacuum of moral relativism and perceptual uncertainty.

While Allen demonstrates an instinctive grasp of the issues raised by such a worldview, his treatment is, as one might expect in a humorist, always tongue in cheek. Allen is no scholar, nor is he trying to be one. He accepts the more or less existentialist premises that inform his work and seems to believe in them. He does not take them seriously enough to ponder systematically. In fact, he makes fun of people who do so, particularly those who do it for a living. Nor does Allen sink into despair. Instead, he uses the philosophical and literary atmosphere of his time as a convenient springboard for laughter. In essence, his work transforms the uncertainty of a Godless universe into fertile ground for his free-flowing style of comedy.

One technique that enables Allen to accomplish this goal is parody, or comic imitation. Most of Allen’s fiction contains parody—ranging from imitation of Plato’s Apologia Skratous (399-390 b.c.e.; Apology, 1675) to variations on Kafka and Count Dracula—and some stories are multiple parodies. Any mode of thought, scholarship, literary expression, or lifestyle that people celebrate or venerate is fair game to Allen. Indeed, the more seriously a philosophy is taken, the more fun he seems to have tipping it over onto its humorous side. This is not to say that Allen’s humor is limited to parody, nor that it is always subtle. Allen is too much the stand-up comedian to let any opportunity for a laugh—no matter how vulgar or easy—pass by unexploited. Nor does he tolerate lulls in his comedic fiction. On the contrary, he shoots for a pace of humor so rapid that the reader will never be left time to wonder when the next joke is coming. Finally, Allen’s work often harks back to his roots. While his stories are less autobiographical than some of his films, they often involve—at least in passing—Jewish characters and issues of importance to Jews.

“Mr. Big”

The characteristics listed above are amply illustrated by Allen’s story “Mr. Big.” In the story, Kaiser Lupowitz, a New York private investigator, is between cases when a beautiful blonde calling herself Heather Butkiss (as suggested above, no joke is too small for Allen) comes to his office and asks him to search for a missing person. The missing person she wants him to find is Mr. Big, that is to say, God. Lupowitz demands to have all the facts before he takes the case. The blonde admits that Butkiss is an alias, claiming that her real name is Claire Rosensweig and that she is a Vassar College student working on an assignment for her philosophy class. Lupowitz takes the case for his usual daily fee of one hundred dollars plus expenses.

The investigation begins with a visit to a local rabbi for whom Lupowitz had worked previously. After some revealing pokes at the notion of what it means to be God’s “chosen people” (Allen likens it to a “protection” racket), Lupowitz visits an informer, Chicago Phil the atheist, in a pool hall to find out more about his client. There, he is told that she is really a Radcliffe student and that she had been dating an empiricist philosopher who dabbled with logical positivism and pragmatism (somehow, Arthur Schopenhauer also is mentioned). That evening, Lupowitz dines with his client. After a bout of lovemaking, the two discuss Kierkegaard. A telephone call from the police interrupts them; it seems someone answering God’s description has just showed up in the morgue, a homicide victim. The police suspect an existentialist, possibly even Lupowitz himself.

Lupowitz’s next stop is an Italian restaurant in Newark, where he questions His Holiness the Pope, who claims to have an exclusive pipeline to God. Lupowitz learns that his lovely client is actually in the science department at Bryn Mawr College. He makes further inquiries and returns to confront her with what he has learned. Her real name, he tells her, is Dr. Ellen Shepherd, and she teaches physics at Bryn Mawr. In traditional private-eye fashion, Lupowitz reveals a highly tangled plot involving Socrates, Immanuel Kant, and Martin Buber, among others. With a melodramatic flair, he names Ellen Shepherd (and therefore, perhaps, science) as God’s killer. The story concludes with an equal mixture of flying bullets and philosophic allusions as the intrepid private eye sees justice through to the end.

Here one can see all Allen’s basic ingredients. Philosophy, religion, and the hard-boiled detective genre are all lampooned, the last through the medium of parody. The question of God’s existence is explored with a completely earnest lack of earnestness. Truth is treated as something elusive and perhaps irredeemably ephemeral. The wisecracks come one on top of the other and at varying levels of intellectual sophistication.

“The Kugelmass Episode”

Allen builds on this formula in what some critics believe to be one of his best stories, “The Kugelmass Episode.” Here themes are raised that foreshadow his later films. Kugelmass is a professor of humanities at City College of New York. Feeling smothered in his marriage, he seeks approval from his analyst for the adulterous affair he feels to be approaching. When his analyst refuses to condone such behavior, Kugelmass breaks off his therapy. Shortly afterward, he is telephoned by a magician named Persky, who believes he has something that will interest Kugelmass. This turns out to be a cabinet that allows one admittance into the book of one’s choice. Though he is skeptical, Kugelmass decides to enter the contraption with a copy of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857; English translation, 1886). Quite astonishingly, he is transported to just the right part of the novel so that he can be alone with Emma Bovary, returning to the twentieth century in time to keep his wife from becoming suspicious. (However, literature teachers did begin to wonder when a balding, middle-aged Jew first appeared in the original novel.) After another visit, Emma asks to make the return trip to New York City with Kugelmass. This is arranged by Persky, and the two lovers have a delicious weekend in the city. Emma is particularly taken with the great shopping. (Literature professors now have to ponder why Emma does not appear in the novel at all.)

It is at this point that things begin to go wrong. Persky’s cabinet breaks down, and Emma is stuck in New York. Soon she and Kugelmass become permanently soured on each other. Persky finally fixes the cabinet and returns Emma to her fictional time and place. Kugelmass proclaims that he has learned his lesson but three weeks later decides to try Persky’s cabinet again. This time he plans to go for more sex and less romance with the “monkey” in Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). Something goes wrong, and he is stranded, presumably forever, in a book on remedial Spanish.

Here the emptiness of the universe is merely the backdrop for a story that is about infatuation, magic, and the relation between different kinds of reality. Many of Allen’s films involve the finer nuances of infidelity between lovers (or “hanky-panky” as it were), apparently one of the more common ways people deal with the universe’s meaninglessness. Magic—perhaps as an alternative manifestation of the miraculous or supernatural—has played a pivotal role in at least two of Allen’s films, Alice (1990) and Oedipus Wrecks (1989). Interestingly enough, the magic goes wrong, just as God might have done somewhere along the line. Most strikingly, the interaction between “real” and fictional characters serves as the central theme of his film The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). In all these instances, Allen has moved from mirthful commentary on the dead end to which humanity has arrived to a more serious look at how people try to cope. Thus “Mr. Big” and “The Kugelmass Episode” illustrate different transitional points in Allen’s development as an artist. Taken together, they indicate the general philosophy of life underlying Allen’s work and point out the ways in which his stories have provided a foundation for his more elaborate efforts on film.

“The Condemned”

As is evident in “The Kugelmass Episode,” Allen has an abiding interest in the foibles of moral conduct, particularly as it relates to love, sex, infatuation, and fidelity. He also writes quite often about some of the more grave moral-political questions of modern time. In “The Condemned,” Allen parodies works by the French existentialists Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and André Malraux in order to examine the propriety of political violence. The story begins with a ruthless informer named Brisseau, asleep in his bedroom. Cloquet, who has been assigned to assassinate Brisseau, stands over the bed, wrestling with his conscience. Cloquet has never before killed a human being. He did kill a mad dog once, but only after it had been certified insane by a board of qualified psychiatrists. Gathering his resolve, Cloquet puts his gun to Brisseau’s head and is about to pull the trigger. Just then, Madame Brisseau enters the room, failing to notice the gun sticking out of her husband’s ear as Cloquet takes cover behind a dresser. After Madame Brisseau exits the room, Cloquet regains consciousness (he had fainted) and resumes his internal dialogue. He wonders whether he is Cloquet the murderer or Cloquet who teaches the Psychology of Fowl at the Sorbonne. He reminisces about his first meeting with Brisseau and finally comes to the conclusion that he cannot possibly shoot anyone, even this man who clearly deserves it.

Dropping his gun, Cloquet flees, stopping off for a brandy before going to Juliet’s house. Juliet asks Cloquet if he has killed Brisseau. Yes, he says. Juliet applauds. The two make love. The following morning, Cloquet is arrested for Brisseau’s murder. He is subsequently tried and convicted. Awaiting execution, he tries to convert but finds that all the usual faiths are filled. On the eve of his death, Cloquet longs for freedom, relishing the opportunities he has missed to become a ventriloquist or to show up at the Louvre in bikini underwear and a false nose. Just before his execution, as he is about to faint from fear, Cloquet is released. The real murderer has confessed. Overjoyed, Cloquet rushes out to enjoy the life and freedom he had come so close to losing. Three days later he is arrested again, this time for showing up at the Louvre in bikini underwear and a false nose.

Not surprising in the light of what was said above, the issue of whether it is morally acceptable to commit murder for society’s greater good is also central to at least two of Allen’s films, Love and Death (1975) and Crimes and Misdemeanors. While the former is an unmitigated comedy, the latter film treats the issue with almost grim seriousness. This is not to say that Allen offers a sermon. He simply lays the issue out in all its complexity for the audience to ponder. Allen’s comic treatment of moral and epistemological questions is not meant to disparage the importance of distinguishing right from wrong, truth from falsehood. Rather, Allen offers an alternative to simplistic solutions and, at the other extreme, pretentious intellectualizing as antidotes for modern despair. That alternative is laughter at oneself and at one’s predicament. Perhaps, ultimately, this sort of self-recognition will lead to the answers all people seek.

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Allen, Woody