Greetings! After a delay of half a year, I’m back for 2019 with a review of the classic short story by Nikolai Gogol – The Nose.
It’s a famous short story that was likely a major inspiration for Franz Kafka. I’ll follow it up with a review of his famous novella The Metamorphosis sometime soon.
Gogol (1809-1852) was a Russian literary master of high wit and subversion. Satire, the grotesque, and surrealism form much of his work. And The Nose is a particularly weird little tale that went on to influence many writers beyond just Kafka.
Written circa 1836, it’s usually found in Gogol’s Petersburg Tales selection of short stories. And it’s a fun one, detailing the events of a government official whose nose leaves his face and proceeds to take on a life in the wider world.
Before we delve in, a quick note on the text translations for the short story. Referring to several versions, if you know anything about this work you may think I’m screwing up the prose.
But from what’s available, the editions available vary in terms of their translations. So, if you buy Petersburg Tales, you’ll find some of the extracts don’t match below. It’s a mishmash of various translators, you see. Who knows how difficult it is translating from Russian?
An extraordinarily strange thing happened in St. Petersburg on 25 March. Ivan Yakovlevich, a barber who lived on Voznesensky Avenue (his surname has got lost and all that his shop-front signboard shows is a gentleman with a lathered cheep and the inscription “We do bloodletting too”), woke up rather early one morning and smelt hot bread.
Now, such an opening is analogous to Kafka’s legendary short story decades later. Check out the comparison to The Metamorphosis:
One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin. He lay on his armour-like back, and if he lifted his head a little he could see his brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections. The bedding was hardly able to cover it and seemed ready to slide off any moment. His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, waved about helplessly as he looked.
Kafka’s influences were clear – two extraordinary situations kicking off two standout works. And, like The Nose, Kafka’s text examines socio-economic situations.
But for Gogol, there’s a very clear sense of ridiculousness afoot. The character Ivan Yakovlevich opens the tale and he’s in for a bit of a shock.
Ivan pulled his frock-coat over his nightshirt for decency’s sake, sat down at the table, poured out some salt, peeled two onions, took a knife and with a determined expression
on his face started cutting one of the rolls.
When he had sliced the roll in two, he peered into the middle and was amazed to see something white there. Ivan carefully picked at it with his knife, and felt it with his finger. “Quite thick,” he said to himself. “What on earth can it be?”
He poked two fingers in and pulled out – a nose!
Naturally, in this situation, he’s left in a bit of a panic. Even his wife gets in on the action, belabouring him for behaviour he isn’t responsible for.
He flopped back in his chair, and began rubbing his eyes and feeling around in the roll again. Yes, it was a nose all right, no mistake about that. And, what’s more, it seemed a very familiar nose. His face filled with horror. But this horror was nothing compared with his wife’s indignation.
“You beast, whose nose is that you’ve cut off?” she cried furiously. “You scoundrel! You drunkard! I’ll report it to the police myself, I will. You thief! Come to think of it, I’ve heard three customers say that when they come in for a shave you start pulling their noses about so much it’s a wonder they stay on at all!”
That’s a lot of nostril information to get things moving. But it’s not a one-off situation. Noses, in fact, do have something of a literary reputation to uphold.
With Gogol’s interest in the surreal and grotesque, the story bears some similarities to another great short story writer – Japan’s Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. I’ll likely cover that soon as well. But the strange thing is it’s also called The Nose (1916). There are satirical aspects at play in Akutagawa’s work, too, with narcissism overwhelming a Buddhist priest as he desires to shrink his overly enormous hooter.
I should also mention The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883). That’s the work of Italian writer Carlo Collodi, although most people will know of the Disney film.
But Gogol was keen to explore an increasingly absurd situation. In Russia, Peter the Great brought about the Table of Ranks in 1722. This triggered off a national obsession with social rank, with many ordinary citizens striving to achieve greatness.
And in this story, one Major Kovalyov (who appears in Part II of the tale) is set to suffer the ignominy of his body part achieving greater social status than him. But that’s a bit further down this page – for now, our hapless barber Ivan Yakovlevich is in a panic about what’s in his bread.
But Ivan felt more dead than alive. He knew that the nose belonged to none other than Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov, whom he shaved on Wednesdays and Sundays.
“Wait a minute, Praskovya! I’ll wrap it up in a piece of cloth and dump it in the corner. Let’s leave it there for a bit, then I’ll try and get rid of it.”
It’s a comical situation. And Gogol lampoon’s Russia’s drinking habits with a casual aside from the barber.
“I’m damned if I know what’s happened!” he said at last, scratching the back of his ear. “I can’t say for certain if I came home drunk or not last night. All I know is, it’s crazy. After all, bread is baked in an oven, and you don’t get noses in bakeries. Can’t make head or tail of it!”
Continuing to freak out, Yakovlevich dreams only of ridding himself of the body part.
All he wanted was to stuff it away somewhere, either hiding it between two curb-stones by someone’s front door or else “accidentally” dropping it and slinking off down a side street. But as luck would have it, he kept bumbing into friends, who would insist on asking: “Where are you off to?” or “It’s a bit early for shaving customers, isn’t it?” with the result that he didn’t have a chance to get rid of it. Once he did manage to drop it, but a policeman pointed with his hadberd and said: “Pick that up! Can’t you see you dropped something!” And Ivan Yakovlevich had to pick it up and hide it in his pocket. Despair gripped him, especially as the streets were getting more and more crowded now as the shops and stalls began to open.
Deciding to ditch it in a river, he heads to St Isaac’s Bridge (remember, the story is set in Saint Petersburg). But Gogol then addresses you, the reader, in a fourth wall breaking moment. At the time, this was a unique way to approach literature and again highlights the writer’s sense of satirical derring-do.
But here I am rather at fault for not telling you before something about Ivan Yakovlevich, who in many ways was a man you could respect.
What exactly is he on about, then? Well, it turns out Gogol is also keen to lampoon Russia’s drinking problems.
Ivan Yakovlevich, like any honest Russian working man, was a terrible drunkard. And although he spent all day shaving other people’s beards, he never touched his own. His frock-coat (Ivan Yakovlevich never wore a dress-coat) could best be described as piebald: that is to say, it was black, but with brownish-yellow and grey spots all over it. His collar was very shiny, and three loosely hanging threads showed that some buttons had once been there. Ivan Yakovlevich was a very phlegmatic character, and whenever Kovalyov the Collegiate Assessor said, “Your hands always stink!” while he was being shaved, Ivan Yakovlevich would say: “But why should they stink?” The Collegiate Assessor used to reply: “Don’t ask me, my dear chap. All I know is, they stink.”
Russia wasn’t the only country to labour under a massive drinking problem around that time.
In England, London had its Gin Craze in the first half of the 18th century. Public drunkenness reached stunning proportions, but the Gin Act would go on to curb much of the excesses.
In this situation the rich elite viewed the “inferior” people as ruffians, believing them to simply be not worthwhile contemplating. It didn’t cross their mind that the working-class’ dismal living conditions were contributing to the drinking for escapist purposes.
Back in Russia, more recent writers such as Venedikt Yerofeev in Moscow Stations (1973) highlight Russia’s infatuation with hard liquor.
But for Yakovlevich, his part in the story is about to come to an end. Getting rid of a nose isn’t a task most of us will ever have to do, but here’s a tip for you should this burden ever find its way to you.
By now this respectable citizen of ours had already reached St Isaac’s Bridge. First of all he had a good look around. Then he leant over the rails, trying to pretend he was looking under the bridge to see if there were many fish there, and furtively threw the packet into the water. He felt as if a couple of hundredweight had been lifted from his shoulders and he even managed to produce a smile.
Unfortunately for him, a copper notices his antics. Calling him over, he questions the barber’s behaviour. There’s a tense conversation, with Yakovlevich trying to bribe his way out of it. He offers the police officer the chance for free shaves. Quite the opportunity! But our resident policeman isn’t having any of it.
“No, no, my friend, that won’t do. Three barbers look after me already, and it’s an honour for them to shave me. Will you please tell me what you were up to?”
Ivan Yakovlevich turned pale… but at this point everything became so completely enveloped in mist it is really impossible to say what happened afterwards.
Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov woke up rather early and made a “B-r-r-h” noise with his lips. He always did this when he woke up, though, if you asked him why, he could not give any good reason. Kovalyov stretched himself and asked for the small mirror that stood on the table to be brought over to him. He wanted to have a look at a pimple that had made its appearance on his nose the previous evening, but to his extreme astonishment found that instead of a nose there was nothing but an absolutely flat surface!
In our introduction to one of the story’s lead characters (the Nose is, surely, the protagonist?), we find our man in a bit of a panic. As with Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphoses, he discovers a dramatic change in his appearance. And he reacts in a way many people would.
In a terrible panic Kovalyov asked for some water and rubbed his eyes with a towel. No mistake about it: his nose had gone. He began pinching himself to make sure he was not sleeping, but to all intents and purposes he was wide awake. Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov sprang out of bed and shook himself: still no nose! He asked for his clothes and off he dashed straight to the Head of Police.
Full of pomp and ceremony, this isn’t a likable character. He’s not loathable either, but his personality is enormously self-centered. Again, this is Gogol mocking the obsession with rank during his day.
Nor was Major Kovalyov altogether set against marriage. Merely he required that his bride should possess not less than two hundred thousand rubles in capital. The reader, therefore, can now judge how the Major was situated when he perceived that instead of a not unpresentable nose there was figuring on his face an extremely uncouth, and perfectly smooth and uniform patch.
But his mission is to get out there and find out what’s going on. So, hiding his face from view as best he can, the man stumbles out into the street on his mission for nostrils.
Ill luck prescribed, that morning, that not a cab was visible throughout the street’s whole length; so, huddling himself up in his cloak, and covering his face with a handkerchief (to make things look as though his nose were bleeding), he had to start upon his way on foot only.
And he’s still not taken the development as a reality yet. “Perhaps this is only imagination?” he wonders. He reflects:
“The nose can’t have removed itself out of sheer idiocy.”
On closer inspection, it all seems far too real for him.
He approached a mirror in some trepidation, and peeped therein. Then he spat.
“The devil only knows what this vileness means!” he muttered. “If even there had been something to take the nose’s place! But, as it is, there’s nothing there at all.”
For our intrepid official, events are about to take an even more bizarre turn. Apparently, your body parts have the capacity for social mobility.
He bit his lips with vexation, and hurried out of the restaurant. No; as he went along he must look at no one, and smile at no one. Then he halted as though riveted to earth. For in front of the doors of a mansion he saw occur a phenomenon of which, simply, no explanation was possible. Before that mansion there stopped a carriage. And then a door of the carriage opened, and there leapt thence, huddling himself up, a uniformed gentleman, and that uniformed gentleman ran headlong up the mansion’s entrance-steps, and disappeared within. And oh, Kovalyov’s horror and astonishment to perceive that the gentleman was none other than — his own nose!
Taken aback, our official feels somewhat queasy.
Scarcely, for a moment, could he even stand. Then, deciding that at all costs he must await the gentleman’s return to the carriage, he remained where he was, shaking as though with fever. Sure enough, the Nose did return, two minutes later. It was clad in a gold-braided, high-collared uniform, buckskin breeches, and cockaded hat. And slung beside it there was a sword, and from the cockade on the hat it could be inferred that the Nose was purporting to pass for a State Councillor. It seemed now to be going to pay another visit somewhere. At all events it glanced about it, and then, shouting to the coachman, “Drive up here,” re-entered the vehicle, and set forth.
“Poor Kovalyov felt almost demented” is an adequate summary of his mental state. And it’s this persistent sense of anxiety and unease that grows with each passing page.
As the reader, you’re not so much rooting for the man to solve his dilemma. It’s more of a voyeuristic sense of schadenfreude delight in waiting to see how his woes develop.
The astounding event left him utterly at a loss. For how could the nose which had been on his face but yesterday, and able then neither to drive nor to walk independently, now be going about in uniform?
He sets off in pursuit of the carriage as his erstwhile hooter makes a break for its latest endeavour. And that’s a somewhat decent moment to take a scientific interlude.
Whilst many literary critics allude to themes of satire in The Nose (and are correct in doing so), I can’t help but read the short story and think of neurology.
A neurologist such as Oliver Sacks, in his world-famous The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, set for posterity various curious tales from a selection of individuals. And it’s a haunting tale of inescapable madness – unheard of neurological disasters that are one in a billion, it would seem.
None of his patients thought their nose had done a runner, but there are far more peculiar ailments – “deficits”, as Dr. Sacks points out in his intro.
But into a mysterious world patients plunged and there was no way out. In many ways, these neurological deficits are farcical – often in an unpleasant way, unfortunately, for the sufferer.
Had Gogol written The Nose in the modern era, you could read into his work as a tale of mental health struggles. Or a neurological disaster story.
But the chances are, if someone rings you up in the morning and says their nose has disappeared, then you’ll think they’re either joking or they’ve lost their mind.
Meanwhile, Gogol’s great work Dead Souls (1842) is thought of as a masterpiece of psychological fiction.
The novel set out to highlight the many flaws in Russian ideologies – the character and mentality of the nation. Which, of course, The Nose also manages in a more offbeat way. But such stories seem to exist to highlight just how peculiar the human brain really is.
Confronting a Nose
Okay, so back on with The Nose. The olfactory body part is on the move and appears to have set up quite the life for itself. Rushing along in its carriage, the nostril bearing thing stops next to a Gostiny Dvor (an indoor market).
Kovalyov too hastened to the building, pushed through the line of old beggar-women with bandaged faces and apertures for eyes whom he had so often scorned, and entered. Only a few customers were present, but Kovalyov felt so upset that for a while he could decide upon no course of action save to scan every corner in the gentleman’s pursuit. At last he sighted him again, standing before a counter, and, with face hidden altogether behind the uniform’s stand-up collar, inspecting with absorbed attention some wares.
“How, even so, am I to approach it?” Kovalyov reflected. “Everything about it, uniform, hat, and all, seems to show that it is a State Councillor now. Only the devil knows what is to be done!”
How would you go about approaching your nose ambling through the street as if a real person? Well, our intrepid nose-less man has a bloody good go at it.
“My good sir,” at length Kovalyov said, compelling himself to boldness, “my good sir, I…”
“What do you want?” And the Nose did then turn round.
“My good sir, I am in a difficulty. Yet somehow, I think, I think, that – well, I think that you ought to know your proper place better. All at once, you see, I find you – where? Do you not feel as I do about it?”
“Pardon me, but I cannot apprehend your meaning. Pray explain further.”
“Yes, but how, I should like to know?” Kovalyov thought to himself.
Plucking up more courage, he confronts his nose about its real belonging.
“I am, you see – well, in point of fact, you see, I am a Major. Hence you will realise how unbecoming it is for me to have to walk about without a nose. Of course, a peddler of oranges on the Vozkresensky Bridge could sit there noseless well enough, but I myself am hoping soon to receive a… hmm, yes. Also, I have amongst my acquaintances several ladies of good houses (Madame Chektareva, wife of the State Councillor, for example), and you may judge for yourself what that alone signifies. Good sir,” Major Kovalyov gave his shoulders a shrug, “I do not know whether you yourself (pardon me) consider conduct of this sort to be altogether in accordance with the rules of duty and honour, but at least you can understand that…”
“I understand nothing at all,” the Nose broke in. “Explain yourself more satisfactorily.”
“Good sir,” Kovalyov went on with a heightened sense of dignity, “the one who is at a loss to understand the other is I. But at least the immediate point should be plain, unless you are determined to have it otherwise. Merely – you are my own nose.”
The Nose is having none of it. The obstinate fiend.
The Nose regarded the Major, and contracted its brows a little.
“My dear sir, you speak in error,” was its reply. “I am just myself – myself separately. And in any case there cannot ever have existed a close relation between us, for, judging from the buttons of your undress uniform, your service is being performed in another department than my own.”
And the Nose definitely turned away.
As you would: “Kovalyov stood dumbfounded.” Seeing the Nose disappear off into the streets via carriage, Kovalyov steels himself and, in his last pitch of desperations, starts a plan of action – all the while holding a handkerchief to his face.
In his situation he ought to make his next step an application to the Board of Discipline – not because the Board was directly connected with the police, but because its dispositions would be executed more speedily than in other departments. To seek satisfaction of the the actual department in which the Nose had declared itself to be serving would be sheerly unwise, since from the Nose’s very replies it was clear that it was the sort of individual who held nothing sacred, and, in that event, might lie as unconscionably as it had lied in asserting itself never to have figured in its proprietor’s company.
Deciding to go for this option, he then has a panic attack fearing the thing might flee the city and be lost to him. As such, he decides the best course of action is to stick an advert in the city’s main newspaper to make others aware of its antics.
Heading into an office to pitch an ad, he addresses the clerk with some consternation. The latter asks of him:
“Has a household serf of yours absconded, then?”
“A household serf of mine? As though even a household serf would perpetrate such a crime as the present one! No, indeed! It is my nose that has absconded from me.”
The clerk is, naturally, somewhat bewildered.
“But how could it so disappear? The matter has something about it which I do not fully understand.”
“I cannot tell you the exact how. The point is that now the nose is driving about the city, and giving itself out for a State Councillor – wherefore I beg you to announce that anyone apprehending any such nose ought at once, in the shortest possible space of time, to return it to myself. Surely you can judge what it is for me meanwhile to be lacking such a conspicuous portion of my frame? For a nose is not like a toe which one can keep inside a boot, and hide the absence of if it is not there. Besides, every Thurdsay I am due to call upon Madame Chektareva (wife of the State Councillor): whilst Pelagea Grigorievna Podtochina (wife of the Staff–Officer, mother of a pretty daughter) also is one of my closest acquaintances. So, again, judge for yourself how I am situated at present. In such a condition as this I could not possibly present myself before the ladies named.”
Upon that the clerk became thoughtful: the fact was clear from his tightly compressed lips alone.
“No,” he said at length. “Insert such an announcement I cannot.”
The clerk states such a message could injure the newspapers public image.
“Imagine if everyone were to start proclaiming a disappearance of his nose! People would begin to say that, that — well, that we printed absurdities and false tales.”
This is where Gogol’s great sense of farce enters the fray, as our noseless hero enters a wild debate with the clerk about getting the ad published.
“But how is this matter a false tale? Nothing of the sort has it got about it.”
“You think not; but only last week a similar case occurred. One day a chinovnik brought us an advertisement as you have done. The cost would have been only two rubles, seventy-three kopeks, for all that it seemed to signify was the running away of a poodle. Yet what was it, do you think, in reality? Why, the thing turned out to be a libel, and the ‘poodle’ in question a cashier – of what department precisely I do not know.”
“Yes, but here am I advertising not about a poodle, but about my own nose, which, surely, is, for all intents and purposes, myself?”
“All the same, I cannot insert the advertisement.”
“Even when actually I have lost my own nose!”
“The fact that your nose is gone is a matter for a doctor. There are doctors, I have heard, who can fit one out with any sort of nose one likes. I take it that by nature you are a wag, and like playing jokes in public.”
“That is not so. I swear it as God is holy. In fact, as things have gone so far, I will let you see for yourself.”
“Why trouble?” Here the clerk took some snuff before adding with, nevertheless, a certain movement of curiosity: “However, if it really won’t trouble you at all, a sight of the spot would gratify me.”
To try and hammer home his point, our troubled hero decides to try out his persuasive skills. But, again, the peculiar thing about this work is at this point I certainly wasn’t feeling any sympathy for him. Perhaps it’s his portrayal as a selfish character that means you’re, ultimately, not overly worried about his fate.
The Collegiate Assessor removed the handkerchief.
“Strange indeed! Very strange indeed!” the clerk exclaimed. “And the patch is as uniform as a newly fried pancake, almost unbelievably uniform.”
“So you will dispute what I say no longer? Then surely you cannot but put the announcement into print. I shall be extremely grateful to you, and glad that the present occasion has given me such a pleasure as the making of your acquaintance” – whence it will be seen that for once the Major had decided to climb down.
“To print what you want is nothing much,” the clerk replied. “Yet frankly I cannot see how you are going to benefit from the step. I would suggest, rather, that you commission a skilled writer to compose an article describing this as a rare product of nature, and have the article published in The Northern Bee” (here the clerk took more snuff), “either for the instruction of our young” (the clerk wiped his nose for a finish) “or as a matter of general interest.”
This is the type of ridiculous absurdity I like to cover in my writing. People arguing about ridiculous things just for the sake of pomp, ceremony, and entitlement. Or just out of general vacuity and a need to fulfill their duties in their role, which can trigger off self-aggrandisation and other personality flaws.
But there’s something I find intrinsically funny about people bickering about the most pointless things. The social structure we have set up – the best we can manage after thousands of years of civilized society – often revolves around mindless conflict, casual provocations, and endless difficulties.
Sometimes it can feel like accomplishing the most simple of tasks is like a mission to the Moon. And that’s an easy simile to write, in contrast to one noseless individual’s situation.
The discussion between the two reaches a head when the clerk attempts some compassion.
“I am sorry indeed that this has befallen,” he said. “Should you care for a pinch of this? Snuff can dissipate both headache and low spirits. Nay, it is good for haemorrhoids as well.”
And he proffered his box-deftly, as he did so, folding back underneath it the lid depicting a lady in a hat.
Kovalyov lost his last shred of patience at the thoughtless act, and said heatedly:
“How you can think fit thus to jest I cannot imagine. For surely you perceive me no longer to be in possession of a means of sniffing? Oh, you and your snuff can go to hell! Even the sight of it is more than I can bear. I should say the same even if you were offering me, not wretched birch bark, but real rappee.”
This infuriates Major Kovalyov and he heads directly to the police station to bring matters to a head. To his ongoing frustration, the inspector on charge isn’t in the best of moods. As this leads nowhere, he dejectedly returns to his home.
He sought to ascertain whether he might not be drunk by pinching himself till he fairly yelled. Then, certain, because of the pain, that he was acting and living in waking life, he approached the mirror with diffidence, and once more scanned himself with a sort of inward hope that the nose might by this time be showing as restored. But the result was merely that he recoiled and muttered:
“What an absurd spectacle still!”
Becoming irrational, he tries to find meaning in his situation.
Ah, it all passed his understanding! If only a button, or a silver spoon, or a watch, or some such article were gone, rather than that anything had disappeared like this – for no reason, and in his very flat! Eventually, having once more reviewed the circumstances, he reached the final conclusion that he should most nearly hit the truth in supposing Madame Podtochina (wife of the Staff-Officer, of course – the lady who wanted him to become her daughter’s husband) to have been the prime agent in the affair.
The irrationality continues.
Yes, the truth must be that out of revenge the Staff–Officer’s wife had resolved to ruin him, and hired a band of witches for the purpose, seeing that the nose could not conceivably have been cut off.
Plus a few musings on the loss of his nose.
If the nose had been cut off, pain would have resulted, and also a wound, and the place could not have healed so quickly, and become of the uniformity of a pancake.
He plans to either sue Madame Podtochina, or visit her to demand some sort of recourse. Bringing the handkerchief back to his face in embarrassment, a voice of a visitor turns up behind him.
Upon which there entered a police-officer of smart exterior, with whiskers neither light nor dark, and cheeks nicely plump. As a matter of fact, he was the police-officer whom Ivan Yakovlevitch had met at the end of the Isaakievsky Bridge.
“I beg your pardon, sir,” he said, “but have you lost your nose?”
“I have – just so.”
“Then the nose is found.”
Returning the end of Part I, we have some closure on the hapless nose finder’s whereabouts. The police officer informs him:
“Well, by the merest chance the nose was found beside a roadway. Already it had entered a stage-coach, and was about to leave for Riga with a passport made out in the name of a certain chinovnik. And, curiously enough, I myself, at first, took it to be a gentleman. Luckily, though, I had my eyeglasses on me. Soon, therefore, I perceived the ‘gentleman’ to be no more than a nose. Such is my shortness of sight, you know, that even now, though I see you standing there before me, and see that you have a face, I cannot distinguish on that face the nose, the chin, or anything else. My mother-in-law (my wife’s mother) too cannot easily distinguish details.”
Naturally, old noseless is over the Moon with this update.
“Where is the nose now?” cried he. “Where, I ask? Let me go to it at once.”
Rather fantastically, the officer has the nose on his person.
“Do not trouble, sir. Knowing how greatly you stand in need of it, I have it with me. It is a curious fact, too, that the chief agent in the affair has been a rascal of a barber who lives on the Vozkresensky Prospekt, and now is sitting at the police station. For long past I had suspected him of drunkenness and theft, and only three days ago he took away from a shop a button-card. Well, you will find your nose to be as before.”
And the officer delved into a pocket, and drew thence the nose, wrapped in paper.
“Yes, that’s the nose all right!” Kovalyov shouted. “It’s the nose precisely! Will you join me in a cup of tea?”
The officer turns him down and heads off back to work. And this leaves our man alone with his long sought after body part.
And it is also, for pop culture reference fans, a major plot device in the Spanish Fry (Season 4, 2003) episode of sci-fi cartoon Futurama. I can’t go through this review without bringing attention to it.
In the episodes, aliens refer to it as “human horn”, acquiring protagonist Fry’s through abduction.
It turns out Lrrr, ruler of the planet Omicron Persei 8, has acquired the thing as an aphrodisiac.
It’s not the same situation for the Russian, but then Gogol’s era wasn’t quite so heavily embedded in science fiction. Social commentary was one of his key goals, which helps bring his peculiar tale to a close.
When the officer was gone the Collegiate Assessor sat plunged in vagueness, plunged in inability to see or to feel, so greatly was he upset with joy. Only after a while did he with care take the thus recovered nose in cupped hands, and again examine it attentively.
Ultimately, he realises he doesn’t know how to get it back onto his face. How do you reattach a troublesome part of your body back to your face?
Feeling, somehow, very nervous, he drew the mirror closer to him, lest he should fit the nose awry. His hands were trembling as gently, very carefully he lifted the nose in place. But, oh, horrors, it would not remain in place! He held it to his lips, warmed it with his breath, and again lifted it to the patch between his cheeks – only to find, as before, that it would not retain its position.
“Come, come, fool!” said he. “Stop where you are, I tell you.”
But the nose, obstinately wooden, fell upon the table with a strange sound as of a cork, whilst the Major’s face became convulsed.
It’s at this point I found myself feeling a bit sorry for the man and his predicament. In distress, he rings for a doctor, who duly arrives and informs of more bad news.
“The thing is not feasible,” he pronounced. “You had better remain as you are rather than go farther and fare worse. Of course, I could stick it on again – I could do that for you in a moment; but at the same time I would assure you that your plight will only become worse as the result.”
Fearing the disruption of two social events later in the day, he wants the thing back on his face – no matter what. And it’s all getting a bit desperate, with pleas for help.
“I beg of you to do me the favour requested. Surely there are means of doing it permanently? Stick it on in any sort of a fashion – at all events so that it will hold fast, even if not becomingly. And then, when risky moments occur, I might even support it gently with my hand, and likewise dance no more – anything to avoid fresh injury through an unguarded movement. For the rest, you may feel assured that I shall show you my gratitude for this visit so far as ever my means will permit.”
But the doctor wants him to follow the natural flow of the world.
“Believe me,” the doctor replied, neither too loudly nor too softly, but just with incisiveness and magnetic “when I say that I never attend patients for money. To do that would be contrary alike to my rules and to my art. When I accept a fee for a visit I accept it only lest I offend through a refusal. Again I say – this time on my honour, as you will not believe my plain word – that, though I could easily re-affix your nose, the proceeding would make things worse, far worse, for you. It would be better for you to trust merely to the action of nature. Wash often in cold water, and I assure you that you will be as healthy without a nose as with one. This nose here I should advise you to put into a jar of spirit: or, better still, to steep in two tablespoonfuls of stale vodka and strong vinegar. Then you will be able to get a good sum for it. Indeed, I myself will take the thing if you consider it of no value.”
The suggestion causes the Major some consternation and he refuses to sell his nose. After a night’s sleep, he sends a letter to Madame Alexandra Podtochina Grigorievna, demanding she lift the curse he believes she’s landed on him. This is the lady who wants him to marry her daughter – she responds confusedly, still requesting she take her daughter’s hand.
With his relative stature in society, there are also rumours spreading amongst the city dwellers.
It had not been long before news of the strange occurrence had spread through the capital. And, of course, it received additions with the progress of time. Everyone’s mind was, at that period, bent upon the marvellous. Recently experiments with the action of magnetism had occupied public attention, and the history of the dancing chairs of Koniushennaia Street also was fresh. So no one could wonder when it began to be said that the nose of Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov could be seen promenading the Nevski Prospekt at three o’clock, or when a crowd of curious sightseers gathered there.
Wild rumours of the Nose’s whereabouts spread. As Gogol mockingly notes:
Naturally, these events greatly pleased also gentlemen who frequented routs, since those gentlemen wished to entertain the ladies, and their resources had become exhausted. Only a few solid, worthy persons deprecated it all. One such person even said, in his disgust, that comprehend how foolish inventions of the sort could circulate in such an enlightened age he could not – that, in fact, he was surprised that the Government had not turned its attention to the matter. From which utterance it will be seen that the person in question was one of those who would have dragged the Government into anything on earth, including even their daily quarrels with their wives.
FARCE really does occur in this world, and, sometimes, farce altogether without an element of probability.
I’m glad I can agree with Gogol on that. And his story concludes in a cyclical way – equilibrium restored.
Instantly he took hold of it. Yes, the nose, the nose precisely! “Aha!” he shouted, and, in his joy, might have executed a trepak [Editor: That’s one of the dances from Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet The Nutcracker] about the room in bare feet had not Ivan’s entry suddenly checked him. Then he had himself furnished with materials for washing, washed, and glanced at the mirror again. Oh, the nose was there still! So next he rubbed it vigorously with the towel. Ah, still it was there, the same as ever!
Kovalyov immediately returns to his former way of life without a second glance. The nose back on his face, there are zero lessons learned for the man.
Everything thus ready, Kovalev dressed, called a cab, and set out for the restaurant. He had not crossed the threshold before he shouted: “Waiter! A cup of chocolate!” Then he sought a mirror, and looked at himself. The nose was still in place! He turned round in cheerful mood, and, with eves contracted slightly, bestowed a bold, satirical scrutiny upon two military men, one of the noses on whom was no larger than a waistcoat button. Next, he sought the chancery of the department where he was agitating to obtain a Vice–Governorship (or, failing that, an Administratorship), and, whilst passing through the reception vestibule, again surveyed himself in a mirror. As much in place as ever the nose was!
As such, back out into society he goes. Once more the eligible bachelor – although not for long – where he flirts with women, drinks at elite cafes, and marks his territory with pomp and ceremony. This gives way to Gogol concluding the whole affair with this paragraph:
Yet, even considering these things; even conceding this, that, and the other (for where are not incongruities found at times?) there may have, after all, been something in the affair. For no matter what folk say to the contrary, such affairs do happen in this world – rarely of course, yet none the less really.
Short Film Adaptation
Right, so if it’s of interest Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker made a pinscreen animation adaptation in 1963. It’s a bit weird and you’re much better off reading the story, but as an oddity in the history of Gogol you can give it a go – it’s only 11 minutes long.
There are other adaptations, too, but nothing has emerged in the modern era – other than radio play adaptations. It’s a shame, as this would make for a fun, quirky animated film with modern technology.
But as it’s far from Gogol’s most essential work, we can’t see much more coming from this anytime soon.
The themes of the story are generally thought of as olfactory perception, the class hierarchy, individual identity, and surrealism-supernatural. The latter comes about as the olfactory body part wildly changes in size, going from normal to anthropomorphic in an instant. This is left unexplained – as is the whole incident – so it’s really down to the reader to decode what Gogol is getting at.
For us, it represents what would become a Monty Python type farce. Think of the parrot sketch, with two people bickering over whether a Norwegian blue is alive or dead.
There’s no purpose to what takes place – its surrealism – but within the confines of the absurdity you can find meaning. For The Nose, it’s the ridiculousness of human society.
What happens if you get up tomorrow and your ears are missing? You have to go through bureaucratic systems to register the issue, then wait for someone to get round to finding time to deal with you. All the while you can’t hear a bloody thing.
And as such, finding total brilliance in the subversive banality of those moments, I can highly recommend the literary text.
It’s sharp, witty, and has an air of mischievous disgrace about it. And that’s why some many writers hold it in such high regard.