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Obsession is both an intriguing and dangerous concept. It has the power to bring about greatness, but can also facilitate the route to destruction. In both Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and Woody Allen’s short story “The Kugelmass Episode”, the concept of obsession and ambition toward supernatural goals is discussed through the experiences of their respective protagonists. It is through the lenses of these works that we can read both antique and modern cautionary tales about the dangers of manipulating the natural world.
Frankenstein, written by Mary Shelley at the astonishing age of nineteen years, is a Gothic horror novel that follows the experiences of a brilliant young scientist named Victor Frankenstein. Intrigued by the crossroads of science and alchemy, Victor strives to create life from the reanimated body parts of corpses. Upon bringing his grotesque creation to life, the scientist is horrified by its devilish demeanor and abandons it. And when the monster itself becomes conscious of its own repulsiveness, it vows to torture its own Creator, Victor, by killing all of his family and friends. Only when realizing the folly in his attempts to corrode the line which divides earthly and divine powers, Frankenstein is pardoned through death, highlighting Shelley’s negative perspective on the tragic obsession for prosperity though manipulating the natural world. We see this theme echoed and modernized in Woody Allen’s 1977 short story “The Kugelmass Episode”, which follows the peculiar tale of a desperate married man who would do anything to find love.
Like Victor Frankenstein, Allen's protagonist Kugelmass, an inquisitive Literature professor from Manhattan, also has an all-consuming desire for something that feels out of reach. Despite being in his second failing marriage, he has no ability to reconcile his differences with his wife and forgoes counseling for a simpler fix. He meets a magician named Persky who has an enchanted cabinet with the ability to project its user into any work of literature that they wish. Skeptical, but willing to try anything to escape the dismal reality of his personal relationships, Kugelmass uses the cabinet to enter the Victorian French setting of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. There, he meets the illustrious Emma Bovary with whom he quickly develops a relationship. The professor frequently returns to Persky’s home in order to visit his fictitious lover, who he eventually brings back with him to the real world. Both simultaneously, and unbeknownst by our protagonist however, his frequent visits into the pages of Madame Bovary have slowly adjusted its text in the real world, perplexing young readers with his sudden presence in the story and the disappearance of the main character.
After the cabinet malfunctions, and he is unable to bring Emma back into her story, Kugelmass quickly loses interest in his relationship with her, and he goes weeks without visiting Persky. However, his drive to find love at any cost brings him back to Persky one last time. Ultimately, Allen ends the story with Kugelmass’ failed attempt to once again enter a work of literature spurred by the cabinet’s mid-projection malfunction. Instead of being placed within the pages of his desired novel, Kugelmass is stranded within the dismal landscape of a remedial Spanish textbook, being chased around by a monstrous oversize irregular verb “tener” meaning “to have”.
The similarities between these two stories lay within the nature of their characters and in their overall thematic concepts. Both Kugelmass and Frankenstein are eloquent academics who have allowed the subject of their expertise, Literature and Science, to drive them to bend the rules of nature to achieve their respective goals. Without consideration for those they may affect, they allow their obsessions to override their judgement. Each had a vision, as a novelist has a concept for a story, or as a divine Creator has a plan for his world. However what differentiates them from such entities is that both were dabbling in the creation of others. They both overstepped the parameters of the natural and spiritual world to affect that which they had no place affecting, and are both symbols for the tragedy found in ambition.
However, the two characters also contrast in a manner which continues to illustrate the authors' commentaries on obsession as it pertains to nature and the divine. In Shelley’s story, Victor Frankenstein is ultimately relieved of his torture through death when he warns an ambitious sailor not to challenge the forces of the natural world. In contrast, Kugelmass never learns to relinquish his desire to meet new women and is, consequentially, punished eternally. Ultimately, both men must pay a price for their decisions, but only Frankenstein is allowed relief because he shows regret for his actions, whereas Kugelmass never learns and must presumably suffer forever.
“You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been.” These words are part of the last statements by Victor Frankenstein before his death. Likewise, Kugelmass has also tasted the bitter flavor of despair at the hands of the source of his obsession yet is not able to vocalize his response. While both of these stories present different means of expressing their thematic points, both share a similar overarching message that in the face of an obsession or ambition, one must never pervert the laws of nature because such actions inevitably end in tragedy.