Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Nose, by Nikolai Gogol

Major Kovalev, a Caucus-made collegiate assessor (in other words, a minor official who has been elevated by his connections rather than his intelligence), awakens on March 25th to discover that his nose is missing. To his dismay, he later sees his nose masquarading around town in the guise of a state councilor (equivalent rank of general). Kovalev absurdly tries to put his nose in its place.

Nikolai Gogol's "The Nose" is a satirical short story written around 1835. It is one of Gogol's well-known Petersburg tales. Gogol is the father of Russian modernism and strongly influenced writers like Dostoevsky. Most literary critics consider Gogol to be a social satirist and protector of the little man; though Richard Pevear, in his introduction to The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol claimed: "Whatever semblance of social criticism or satire there may be in the Petersburg Tales is secondary and incidental." (1) He feels that  Gogol included elements of social satire in his stories, but the satire so quickly dissolves into the absurd that this fantastic element should be considered the primary point of Gogol's stories. While reading "The Nose" I was struck by the social satire, but I DO agree that, as quickly as it came, the satire faded and absurdity reigned.

My thoughts/summary (may contain middle-of-story spoilers)

Major Kovalev was a stupid, self-important, vain, name-dropping minor official, but as he desperately tried to regain his lost nose I couldn't help feeling sorry for him. Imagine the horror he felt when he awoke to find his nose missing. What would all his important friends think? Would he ever be able to flirt again? This blow was clearly below the belt. He rushed out into the world, impotently searching for his nose when lo! He saw the nose! It was so finely dressed that even Kovalev had trouble recognizing it. At first, he felt chagrin - he wasn't even sure how to address the clearly-high-ranking nose. But it was his nose, after all, and he mustered up the courage to politely suggest that the nose re-join his face. But the nose politely refused to understand Kovalev. Finally, he blurted out: "It seems you ought to know where you belong, and where do I find you?" The nose blithely answered: "Judging by your dress, there can't possibly have been close relations between us." (2)

I had to laugh at that quote. The nose, which had formerly been very intimate with Kovalev, but which is now an elevated rank, pretended that it couldn't possibly have ever known him. :) Remind you of anyone?

Kovalev then tried to put out a notification in the newspaper saying that his nose was masquerading as a high official, don't let it fool you...and don't let it leave town! But the newspaper office was much more interested in lost dogs and bicycles for sale than the heinous nose-theft. They didn't want the responsibility of such an advert, and so they simply denied that they could do anything about it and suggested another office Kovalev should try. (That reminds me of a time when I called up the customer service of [un-named corporation] and spent a couple hours transferring back and forth from office to office - often the the same office multiple times - to fix a problem that (as it turns out) was an easy fix on the internet.)

The police commissioner was also dramatically unhelpful. The indolent police commissioner had been about to take a nice long post-lunch nap when Kovalev came with his complaint. He should not be expected to start an investigation on a full stomach, the commissioner claimed. "Moreover, they don't tear noses off decent citizens' faces." (2) The police commissioner excused his laziness by blaming the victim for the crime, which, as far as I'm concerned, is crime in itself. A crime that still happens to this day. Whenever we hear "she was asking to be raped - the way she was dressed," the speaker is excusing his inability to do anything useful about a problem by blaming the victim. 

I adored this story. I got a good laugh while nodding in emphatic agreement with Gogol's still-relevant criticisms of society. But there are so many other ways of interpreting this work. In his introduction to The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, Richard Pevear says "Gogol was made uneasy by his works. They detached themselves from him and lived on their own, producing effects he had not forseen and that sometimes dismayed him." Although this statement was not in reference specifically to "The Nose," it is clear that Pevear (perhaps unconsciously) views the story as an allegory for Gogol's dismay at the unintentional social impact of his stories. 

(1) Gogol, Nikolai. The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Knopf  Doubleday Publishing Group. 2001. ISBN-13: 9780307803368.
(2) Dialog is taken (sometimes paraphrased) from Gogol, Nikolai. The Diary of a Madman and Other Stories, translated by Andrew MacAndrew. Penguin Group. 1960. ISBN 0451524039.


  1. My favourite story by Gogol! Besides, we have a monument of the nose in St.Petersburg.
    You can see it here: http://www.etovidel.net/appended_files/big/4a714e1eaa263.jpg
    and here:
    I like it very much!

  2. :) I didn't know there was a monument to it. I read this story when I was a teenager and loved it, though this time around I found it funny for a completely different set of reasons.

    I'm currently trying to get through Gogol's major works right now - rereading some of the ones I've already read. But I'm not sure if I should reread Dead Souls or not. I'm not a huge fan of unfinished novels. :p

  3. Oooops, what happened to my links? O_o I'm sorry =)

    Well, first volume is finished, so you can just leave the second out, as there are only pieces there. Let scholars deal with this =) I even think it's disrespectful to read anything that author himself has decided to burn.

    Good luck with reading them all, anyway! I really enjoy reading a foreigner's perspective of our school program!

  4. :) The links worked fine when I copy-pasted them. I think the crying child on the floor is cute. :D

  5. Wow am I ever more excited to read this now, being a fan of the absurd! Was thinking of getting the P&V collected stories too. I think you should definitely reread Dead Souls.

  6. Hi Claire! The P&V collection is pretty good. It has all the important short stories in it, and gives some context. :)

  7. Well hello there! In this blog post did you use the information from some studies or here are solely your personal thought? Thanks a lot in advance for your answer.

    1. These are mostly my personal thoughts or general knowledge. When I have quoted an opinion of someone else, it's indicated with a citation.


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