Nikolai Gogol: The Nose - Criticism

“Nos” (1836; “The Nose”) is one of Gogol's best known as well as most perplexing and enigmatic stories. The story recounts an incident in which a petty Russian official wakes one morning to find that his nose is missing from his face; he later encounters the nose riding around Petersburg in a carriage, dressed as a government official. While “The Nose” was regarded as a humorous but trivial anecdote for almost a century, critics in the twentieth century variously interpreted the tale as a social satire on Russian culture, a Marxist critique of socioeconomic class, a psychosexual fantasy, and a meta-narrative about the process of storytelling. “The Nose” was first published in 1836, in the journal Sovremennik (The Contemporary), edited by the Russian writer Alexandr Pushkin; the first publication to which Gogol submitted “The Nose” rejected it on the grounds that it was vulgar. In its early drafts, the story was entitled “The Dream,” and the entire plot was written as a chimera; the title in Russian, “Nos,” spelled backwards is son, the Russian word for dream. “The Nose” was adapted as an opera of the same title by the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich and first performed in Leningrad in 1930.

“The Nose” opens with the statement, “An extraordinarily strange incident took place in Petersburg on the 25th of March.” On this morning, Ivan Yakovlevich, a barber, discovers a nose in the center of a loaf of bread his wife has baked. Yakovlevich believes the nose to be that of Major Kovaliov, a collegiate assessor whom he shaves twice a week. Yakovlevich surmises that he must have accidentally cut off Kovaliov's nose while shaving him. Afraid of his wife's reaction and fearful of the police, Yakovlevich attempts to rid himself of the nose by dropping it in the street. Unfortunately, Yakovlevich is constantly accosted by people he knows, and when he finally drops the nose, a policeman forces him to retrieve it; Yakovlevich does, however, manage to pitch the nose into the Neva River. About to celebrate his disavowal of the nose, Yakovlevich is questioned by a policeman and “the incident becomes totally shrouded in mist.” On this same morning, Major Kovaliov awakens to discover that his nose is missing, leaving a smooth, flat patch of skin in its place. Kovaliov is a vain, minor bureaucrat who enjoys the common pleasures afforded his class. Covering his face with a handkerchief, Kovaliov leaves to register a complaint with the police concerning his missing nose. After gazing upon himself in the mirror of a pastry shop, Kovaliov sees his nose, dressed as a gentleman in the uniform of a civil counselor (a higher rank than that of Kovaliov), exit an elaborate carriage onto the street. Next, the nose enters Kazansky Cathedral and Kovaliov follows it. Kovaliov is intimidated by the new-found status of the nose and attempts to convince it to return to his face. The nose, however, fails to understand Kovaliov's pleas and abandons him. Kovaliov flees first to the chief of police who is not at home, and then to a newspaper office in order to place an ad asking for information on the whereabouts of his nose. The clerk at the newspaper office refuses to print such an ad, claiming that it is too absurd and would be inappropriate, worried that it may contain some encrypted message. Kovaliov goes on to the police commissioner seeking help finding his nose, but the commissioner, arising from a nap, simply tells him that “a respectable man does not have his nose pulled off.” In despair, Kovaliov returns home. A police officer soon arrives and explains to Kovaliov that his nose had been caught attempting to leave town in a stagecoach, holding a passport in the name of a government clerk, and he returns the nose to Kovaliov. Kovaliov soon discovers that he is unable to reattach the nose, so he contacts a doctor, who advises him that he is better off without it and offers to buy the nose. The next day, Kovaliov writes a letter to Madam Grigorievna, a woman who wants him to marry her daughter, and accuses her of stealing his nose, believing that she has placed a curse on him for his fickleness toward her daughter. She interprets the letter as vagary and innuendo and her response convinces Kovaliov that she has nothing to do with the nose. Meanwhile, rumors about the missing nose are beginning to spread throughout the city. As the gossip grows, crowds gather at various locations where the nose is said to have been seen. On the morning of April 7th, Kovaliov wakes to find the nose back in its proper place. The barber, Yakovlevich, shaves Kovaliov, who requests that his nose not be touched. With the nose firmly back on his face, Kovaliov happily returns to his usual social routines: gazing at himself in mirrors, flirting with ladies, and enjoying snuff. ...

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