The Nose (Nos) by Nikolai Gogol, 1836
THE NOSE (Nos)
by Nikolai Gogol, 1836
"The Nose" ("Nos") is the second of Nikolai Gogol's six Saint Petersburg stories. (The others are "The Nevsky Prospect," "The Portrait," "The Overcoat," "The Carriage," and "Diary of a Madman.") They make up a cycle in which Gogol took as his model the French newspaper feuilletons that described the streets and thoroughfares of the great city and showed how the urban environment influenced the people who lived in it. Gogol's concern in these tales, however, is much less sociological than ethical. "The Nose" is primarily a study in vanity and ambition. It concerns Platon Kuzmich Kovalyov, a run-of-the-mill civil servant, newly risen to the rank of collegiate assessor, who wakes up one morning to find that his nose has disappeared. The story is about his attempts to find and retrieve his nose, which has acquired an independent and quasi-human life of its own.
The story gains its uniquely dreamlike quality from the unusual way in which the action is presented. We do not immediately encounter Kovalyov. Instead, using the style of a newspaper column ("On 25 March there occurred in Saint Petersburg an unusually strange event"), the opening scene presents the shock of Kovalyov's barber, Ivan Yakovlevich—his surname has been "lost"—on discovering a nose in the fresh roll his wife has baked for him. Seized by the fear that the police may arrest him for having cut off the nose of one of his customers while he was drunk, Ivan Yakovlevich goes out into the streets in order to find a suitable place in which he can get rid of the nose. But whenever he tries to drop it or throw it away, he is spotted by someone he knows, who invariably tells him that he has dropped something. In the end he decides to go to Isakievsky Bridge and throw the nose, wrapped in a rag, into the Neva. After he has done this, he is accosted by a surly policeman who refuses to believe his protestations of innocence. At this point the narrative becomes shrouded in mystery: "Of what happened after that, decidedly nothing is known."
The scene now shifts to the quarters of Major Kovalyov. Kovalyov's rank of collegiate assessor has been gained not in Russia but in the Caucasus, where such distinctions are more easily acquired, and throughout the story we are made aware of his feelings of unease and inferiority that stem from this fact. The loss of his nose, which he discovers in taking up a mirror to examine a pimple, devastates him, for it attacks him where he is most vulnerable—in his personal vanity. Instead of a nose he has nothing, "a completely smooth place." Gogol places great emphasis on the "nothingness" experienced by Kovalyov. Covering his face with a handkerchief, he sets off immediately to report the loss to the chief of police. On his way he goes into a pastry cook's shop to examine the smooth place again, and, coming out of the shop, he sees his nose getting out of a carriage. The nose is dressed in the uniform of a senior civil servant, a councillor of state, and Kovalyov does not at first even dare to approach the august personage. When, in the interior of Kazan Cathedral during a religious service, he does accost the nose, it treats him with cold disdain, drawing attention to the great discrepancy in their ranks. After this it disappears again, and Kovalyov continues on his way to see the chief of police. But the chief is not in his office, and so he goes to the offices of a newspaper in order to place an advertisement requesting the return of his nose.
The story describes Major Kovalyov's fruitless attempts to make the newspaper's editor accept such a suspicious advertisement, his visit to the local police station to report the loss, his crisis of despair, and the mysterious return of his nose by the police, who have arrested it as it was about to leave the city. Gogol leads the reader constantly between reality and fantasy, material and spirit, until by the last short chapter a sense of total absurdity has been created. "Complete nonsense happens in the world," Gogol writes, underlining the apparently meaningless and trivial nature of his plot: after the panic occasioned in the major by the disappearance of his nose, it suddenly turns up again in its proper place. Kovalyov can hardly believe it, and he has to have several people confirm that the nose is on his face before he will concede that he is not dreaming. Then, his spirits thoroughly restored, he goes to the Gostiny Dvor and buys a medal ribbon, even though he has never been awarded a medal. In conclusion Gogol reflects on the absurd tale, declaring that "what is most incomprehensible of all is how authors can choose such plots. I confess that this is completely unfathomable, this is almost… No, no, I do not understand at all. In the first place, it brings decidedly no advantage to the Fatherland; in the second … but in the second there is also no advantage. I simply do not know what it is." And yet, he reflects, "If you think about it, in all this, truly, there is something. Whatever you may say, similar events take place in the world—rarely, but they do take place."
Like the other Saint Petersburg stories, "The Nose" is a semicomic, semitragic meditation on the nature of reality and its inseparable relation to morality. It is Kovalyov's vanity that temporarily deprives him of his nose, for to him orders, decorations, ranks, and medals are of more account than his own humanity. His moral blindness acquires a life of its own and torments him by fusing with the inhuman, dreamlike environment of the city itself. At one level Gogol appears to be saying that this is a world in which reality is determined by what is in humans or by what is missing from them.