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Allen's The Kugelmass Episode.
by Laurie Champion, Denton, Texas

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In his short story "The Kugelmass Episode," Woody Allen extends the relationship between reader and text posited by reader-response critics. "The Kugelmass Episode" portrays a distinct relationship between reader and text, a connection that represents a reversal of reader-response criticism: the protagonist literally enters the text Madame Bovary and metaphorically interprets it. When humanities professor Sidney Kugelmass tells the magician The Great Persky, "Make sure and always get me into the book before page 120" (68), he means it literally. Kugelmass adds to the meaning of Madame Bovary, just as we add to the meaning of "The Kugelmass Episode. " We read Allen's story, metaphorically "entering the text"; likewise, readers of Madame Bovary in Allen's "The Kugelmass Episode" metaphorically enter Flaubert's novel.

Kugelmass tells his analyst that he wants to have an affair. When Dr. Mandel, the analyst, cautions him, "You're so unrealistic" (62), Kugelmass decides that he needs a magician rather than an analyst. Persky calls him, and Kugelmass says, "I want romance. I want music. I want love and beauty" (63). Persky explains: "If I throw any novel into this cabinet with you, shut the doors, and tap it three times, you will find yourself projected into that book....You can meet any of the women created by the world' s best writers" (64).

Kugelmass wants a French lover, so he chooses Emma Bovary, who represents the antithesis of his wife. He thinks that Daphe is "an oaf" (61). She is also overweight, and he implies that he only married her for her money. But, he thinks, Emma is "beautiful....What a contrast with the troglodyte who shared his bed" (66). He says, "I've earned this....I've suffered enough. I've paid enough analysts" (69).

Persky throws a "paperback copy of Flaubert's novel" into the cabinet with Kugelmass (65). When he meets Emma, Kugelmass says, "She spoke in the same fine English translation as the paperback" (66). Kugelmass's illusions turn into reality as he has his affair with Emma Bovary. "My God, I'm doing it with Madame Bovary!...Me, who failed freshman English" (68). His escapades with Emma provide him with excitement that his real life lacks.

Professor Kugelmass's "mythical journey" is his trip to a fantasy land, a journey into the illusory force of art. One of the most interesting and marvelous techniques of "The Kugelmass Episode" is that the protagonist literally enters the text. Critics who use reader- response criticism center their interpretations around examinations of the effects of the text on readers. This critical method entails the notion of readers "entering the text" and responding to the text as interpretative techniques. In "Post Reader-Response: The Deconstructive Critique," Pam Gilbert summarizes the fundamental principles of reader- response theories. They focus, she observes, on the reader's contribution to the meaning of a text, and in that way they are seen to represent an assault of a sort on the traditional notion of literature as "expressive realism"-- the notion that literature is a reflection of the "real" world, that literary texts have single determinate meanings, and that the authority for their meanings lies with the author, who "put" the meaning in the text in the first place. (235)

Reader-response criticism assumes that the reader is the text's interpretative authority.

Allen's story also demonstrates reader-response techniques when "enter the text" is interpreted as "read the text." Allen shows the effects that Kugelmass's literal entrance into Madame Bovary has on those who read Madame Bovary while Kugelmass and Emma are in the novel. The narrator says that students all over the country ask, "Who is this character on page 100? A bald Jew is kissing Madame Bovary?" (67). One professor explains his confusion: "I cannot get my mind around this....First a strange character named Kugelmass, and now she's gone from the book. Well, I guess the mark of a classic is that you can reread it a thousand times and always find something new" (72).

Throughout his oeuvre, Woody Allen frequently depicts artists who are involved in the creative process, or spectators who, like Kugelmass, are affected by their exposure to art. He often juxtaposes the notion of an ideal life that art portrays against his protagonists' flawed lives. In "The Kugelmass Episode," he broadens this theme: the protagonist's concept of an ideal life and his subsequent illusory views compel him to seek art as a way of confirming his illusions. Attempting to merge his idealized life with his real life, Kugelmass literally enters an artistically created world, the text.


Works cited
Allen, Woody. "The Kugelmass Episode." Side Effects. New York: Random House, 1980. 59- 78.
Gilbert, Pam. "Post Reader-Response: The Deconstructive Critique. " Readers, Texts, Teachers. Ed. Bill Corcoran and Emrys Evans. Upper Montclair, New Jersey: Boynton/Cook, 1987. 234-50.