The Nose by Nikolai Gogol
Author: Nikolai Gogol
Genre: Short Story
“The Nose” (Нос translit. Nos) is a short story by Nikolai Gogol. It was first published in 1836 in The Contemporary, a literary journal owned by Alexander Pushkin. The story revolves around Kovalyov, a Collegiate Assessor who wakes up one morning to find that his nose has vanished. His nose takes on a life of its own and surpasses him by attaining the rank of State Councillor.
The motif of a nose was inspired by Gogol’s own oddly shaped nose, which he made self-deprecating jokes about in his letters. “The Nose” satirizes the obsession with rank, which was pervasive in Imperial Russia. Commoners could move up in society because of the Table of Ranks, a system that awarded titles based on government or military service. However, this system also led to bloated and inefficient bureaucracies in which many of Gogol’s characters work.
Kovalyov is a Collegiate Assessor who dreams of being promoted and enjoys flirting with respectable ladies. One morning, he wakes up, looks in the mirror, and finds his nose missing. The loss greatly disturbs him, for how could a gentleman go about in society without a nose? In the frantic search for his nose, Kovalyov discovers it has taken on a life of its own and even surpassed him in rank. As he confronts his terrible fate, Kovalyov struggles with self-esteem in his status-obsessed society.
2. Story Summary
On 25 March, the barber Ivan Yakovlevich cuts a loaf while having breakfast and finds a nose. He is horrified and recognizes the nose as belonging to one of his customers, Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov. His wife demands that he get rid of the nose, so he wraps it in a cloth packet and throws it into the River Neva. Unfortunately, Ivan is caught by a police officer who refuses to take a bribe.
Kovalyov wakes and discovers his nose is missing; only a smooth, flat skin patch remains. Frantic, he dashes off to report the incident to the chief of police. On the way to see the police chief, he encounters a nose wearing a gold-braided uniform. From the plumes on its hat, Kovalyov could tell it had attained the rank of State Councillor, three ranks higher than himself. The nose gets into a carriage and drives off. Kovalyov chases the nose to the Kazan Cathedral, where he becomes tongue-tied when approaching it, unsure how to speak to a higher-ranking official.
Kovalyov is distracted by a pretty woman, allowing the nose to escape. When Kovalyov arrives at the house of the police chief, he finds that the police chief is not at home. He then goes to the newspaper office to place an ad in the paper, urging readers to help him find his missing nose. However, the newspaper clerk refuses Kovalyov’s request, saying that such a ridiculous ad would tarnish the paper’s reputation.
Kovalyov speaks to a police inspector, who also refuses to help. Finally, he returns home, and the nose is returned to him by the police officer who caught Ivan, the barber. But Kovalyov’s joy is short-lived. He realizes he cannot reattach the nose even when he goes to a doctor.
Distraught, Kovalyov writes a letter to Madame Podtochin, accusing her of casting a spell on him to rob him of his nose. He believes she did this for revenge as he failed to propose to her daughter. Madame Podtochin is confused by Kovalyov’s letter and again expresses her desire for him to marry her daughter. Kovalyov is convinced of Madame Podtochin’s innocence after reading her reply.
Meanwhile, rumors about the human-like nose spread throughout the capital. Crowds flock to various locations to catch a glimpse of the nose.
On 7 April, Kovalyov wakes to find his nose reattached to his face. He is overjoyed and soon returns to his former life of social climbing and chasing pretty women.
Kovalyov – Kovalyov is a Collegiate Assessor who calls himself a Major to emphasize his importance. He enjoys chasing pretty women and climbing the social ladder, but he can do neither without his nose.
Ivan Yakovlevich – Kovalyov’s barber. He discovers Kovalyov’s nose in a loaf one morning and throws it into the River Neva.
Praskovya Osipovna – Ivan’s wife. She accuses her husband of being a thief and demands that he immediately get rid of the nose.
The Police Officer – He catches Ivan trying to dispose of a packet in the river and confronts him.
The Nose – Kovalyov’s nose. It leaves its owner and takes on a life of its own. It attains the rank of State Councillor.
The Newspaper Clerk – He refuses to let Kovalyov run an ad in the paper concerning his missing nose.
The Police Inspector – He refuses to help Kovalyov find his nose.
The Doctor – He fails to help Kovalyov reattach his nose to his face.
Madame Podtochin – Madame Podtochin is acquainted with Kovalyov. He accuses her of robbing him of his nose with witchcraft.
“The Nose” is an absurd and dreamlike tale; some have observed that the story’s Russian name (Нос, “Nos“) spelled backward is the word for dream (Сон, “Son“). Even the narrator acknowledges the absurdity of the events described, saying that the story “contains much that is highly implausible.”
Gogol’s original plan for the story was to have it take place within a dream. In its final version, the story starts on 25 March and ends on 7 April. The former is the day of Annunciation according to the Julian calendar, and the latter is the day of Annunciation in the Gregorian calendar. As Spycher (1963) pointed out, this gives the impression that time has not passed.
Although “The Nose” predates the term ‘magical realism,’ it exhibits the genre’s defining characteristic of showcasing a fantastical element within an otherwise realistic setting. No explanation is given for the story’s improbable events, making it even more jarring and absurd. At the story’s end, the narrator directly addresses the reader, admitting that much of the story is far-fetched. The narrator then says he does not know what to make of the story and implies that many things in life are similarly absurd and defy logical explanations.
5.1. Rank and Appearance
The story depicts a society obsessed with outward indicators of worth, such as rank and appearance. Kovalyov spends his time seeking a promotion and flirting with ladies, maintaining an immaculate appearance as a habit. He calls himself a ‘Major’ to make himself sound more important and gets offended when others insult his social class.
When he sees his nose praying in the cathedral, he is afraid to approach it due to its higher rank. He speaks politely towards his nose but cannot get straight to the point and often trails off nervously, causing the nose to get annoyed and treat him coldly.
Kovalyov’s fixation on rank and appearance makes the loss of his nose incredibly distressing, as he cannot present himself in polite society without one. He is very concerned with how he is perceived and presses a handkerchief to his face to hide his missing nose.
5.2. Masculinity and Insecurity
Kovalyov bases his masculinity on his ability to climb the social ladder and dominate women. He is constantly seeking a promotion, arriving in St. Petersburg with dreams of obtaining a vice governorship or a position in an important government office. He also flirts with women, views them as objects, and talks to them condescendingly.
When he loses his nose, he is suddenly emasculated, unable to hold power over men or women. This weakness is clearly shown in the scene where he sees a pretty young lady in the cathedral and admires her beauty. However, when he recalls that he has no nose, he “jumped back as if burnt. He remembered that instead of a nose, he had nothing, and tears streamed from his eyes.”
The nose is a symbol of masculinity; without it, Kovalyov lacks the confidence to approach women. Kovalyov is also hyper-sensitive to the police inspector’s remarks about his class, showing that in the absence of his nose, the insecure Kovalyov feels even more keenly the need to assert his status.
6. Influence and Legacy
“The Nose” has inspired many adaptations in film, radio, opera, and more.
Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s first opera, The Nose (1930), is based on this story. Shostakovich also wrote the libretto together with Yevgeny Zamyatin, Georgy Ionin, and Alexander Preis. The opera borrows elements from Gogol’s other works, such as Dead Souls, “The Overcoat,” “Diary of a Madman,” and The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky.
A 1966 animated short film directed by Mordicai Gerstein and narrated by Brother Theodore retold the story in Pittsburgh and changed the names. The barber is named “Theodore Schneider,” and the nose-loser is named “Nathan Nasspigel.”
BBC Radio 4 comedy series Three Ivans, Two Aunts and an Overcoat broadcast an adaptation of “The Nose” in April 2002 starring Stephen Moore.
On Andriyivsky Uzviz, Kyiv’s historic tourist street, a sculpture of Gogol’s nose, complete with a curled mustache, hangs from a building wall. The sculpture is a tribute to the iconic Ukrainian-born writer and his satirical short story “The Nose.” According to legend, Gogol was walking along the Andriyivsky Uzviz when he caught a cold, which inspired him to write the story.