The Kugelmass Episode.
by Laurie Champion, Denton, Texas
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
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.
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.