Nikolai Gogol Nos Essay - Critical Essays

Nos, Nikolai Gogol


“Nos” Nikolai Gogol

(Full name Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol; born Gogol-Yanovsky; transliterated as Nikolay Vasilevich, Vasilgyevich, Vasilievich, Vasilyevitch, and Gogol'; also wrote under the pseudonym Rudy Panko) Russian novelist, poet, short story writer, playwright, critic, and essayist.

The following entry presents criticism on Gogol's short story “Nos” (1836; “The Nose”; later published in 1842 in The Works of Nikolay Gogol.). See also, "The Overcoat" 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.

Plot and Major Characters

“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.

Major Themes

Scholars observe that Gogol's idea of writing a story in which a nose is a central figure was not entirely original. The term “nosology” is often used by critics of “The Nose” to refer to the vogue in Russian literature of the 1820s and 1830s for writing about noses. The source of this preoccupation is thought to have been inspired by translations into Russian of Laurence Sterne's novel Tristram Shandy, in which a nose is featured as a central concern. “The Nose” addresses various themes such as dream-logic, supernaturalism, the baseness of daily life, social status and rank, and the very function of narration. “The Nose” follows and imitates the world of dreams, depicting signs and symbols within an often unresolved narrative framework. Gogol also employs themes of folk belief to further the mood of the unexplained in “The Nose,” using supernatural elements along with dream motifs to remark upon everyday existence. Throughout the plot of “The Nose,” Gogol maintains a fascination with the more squalid details of daily life in his descriptions, while maintaining a balance between the fantastical and realist leitmotivs of the tale. Gogol also addresses issues of social class and social climbing in the story. He represents Kovaliov's rank through depictions of his facial hair and clothing. As a collegiate assessor, Kovaliov is himself a minor official intent on advancing his career and takes great pride in his status as a bureaucrat (which was probably attained by bribery), insisting on being called Major. Soon after his nose is restored, Kovaliov applies for promotion to a higher level position. His anxiety about his social standing is further demonstrated through his interaction with the nose at the cathedral; because the nose is dressed in the garb of a higher-level government administrator, Kovaliov feels he must speak to it in a deferential manner. Interestingly, censors objected to this scene, thinking it sacrilegious, and Gogol changed the location to a marketplace. However, subsequent editions of the story generally restore the original setting of the cathedral. “The Nose” also examines the act of storytelling itself. The tale is recounted in the matter-of-fact voice of a newspaper story, while incorporating information based on rumor and gossip. Through his use of narrative voice, Gogol questions the boundaries of the fictive act and explores the issue of meaning in fiction. The story ends with an observation concerning the bizarreness of the tale, stating that “there really is something to all this.”

Critical Reception

Reviewers generally agree that “The Nose” is a cryptic and bewildering work of short fiction that resists any set interpretation. Upon the initial publication of the story, Pushkin called “The Nose” a “fantastic jest,” and scholars generally avoided serious interpretation of the story. In the 1920s, however, I. D. Yermakov offered a Freudian analysis of “The Nose” as a psychosexual tale of desire and repression. Yermakov explicated the loss of the nose as a symbol of castration, emasculation, and impotence. Marxist critics have construed the story as a critique of socioeconomic class divisions within nineteenth-century Russian culture. Other commentators have rendered the story as a social satire of Russian bureaucracy, exposing the incompetence of gordian government institutions. Critics of the later twentieth century have offered a variety of explanations, probing the story's sexual symbolism, religious symbolism, and its meta-narrative commentary on the creative deed of writing fiction.

Principal Works

Vechera na khutore bliz Dikanki [Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka] 1831

Arabeski [Arabesques] 1835

Mirgorod 1835

Revizor [The Inspector General;also translated as The Government Inspector] (drama) 1836

Mertvye dushi [Dead Souls] (novel) 1842

Sochinenya 2 vols. [The Works of Nikolay Gogol 6 vols.] 1842

Zhenit'ba: Sovershenno neveroyatnoye sobitye [The Marriage: An Utterly Incredible Occurrence] (drama) 1842

Igroki [The Gamblers] (drama) 1843

Vybrannye mesta iz perepiski s druzyami [Selected Passages from Correspondence with My Friends] (essays and letters) 1847

Letters of Nikolai Gogol (letters) 1967


A. L. Bem (essay date 1928)

SOURCE: Bem, A. L. “‘The Nose’ and The Double.” In Dostoevsky and Gogol: Texts and Criticism, edited by Priscilla Meyer and Stephen Rudy, pp. 229–48. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1979.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1928, Bem evaluates the influence of Gogol's “The Nose” on Fyodor Dostoevsky's novella The Double.]

I could tell you much about how … he, with his own typical atomistic analysis, perceived the character of Gogol's works.

From a letter of Dr. Yanovsky to A.G. Dostoevsky

“My God! My God! Why such misfortune?”


(The entire section is 10161 words.)

Herbert E. Bowman (essay date 1953)

SOURCE: Bowman, Herbert E. “‘The Nose.’” Slavonic and East European Review 31, no. 76 (December 1953): 204–11.

[In the following essay, Bowman surveys the critical reaction to “The Nose” and offers his own interpretation of Gogol's story.]

‘… Nevertheless, if you think over all this, there really is something in it.’

—N. Gogol', ‘The Nose’


In September 1836 Aleksandr Pushkin published in his literary journal The Contemporary a story entitled ‘The Nose’, written by Nikolay Gogol'. Pushkin prefaced the story with a note, which...

(The entire section is 3668 words.)

Peter C. Spycher (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: Spycher, Peter C. “N. V. Gogol's ‘The Nose’: A Satirical Comic Fantasy Born of an Impotence Complex.” Slavic and East European Journal 7, no. 4 (winter 1963): 361–74.

[In the following essay, Spycher discusses sexual symbolism in “The Nose,” asserting that the loss of the nose symbolizes a loss of sexual power.]

The story “The Nose”1 has everywhere and always met with a great deal of mirth and with an equal amount of puzzlement once the question of its meaning has been raised.2

One of the more recent Gogol' biographers, V. Setchkarev, has advanced the following, at first rather alluring and certainly very...

(The entire section is 6992 words.)

Ivan Yermakov (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Yermakov, Ivan. “‘The Nose.’” In Gogol from the Twentieth Century: Eleven Essays, edited by Robert A. Maguire, pp. 156–98. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974.

[In the following essay, Yermakov offers a psychoanalytic interpretation of “The Nose,” asserting that Gogol's tale is an exploration of sexual desire and repression.]


“What are you laughing at?—You're laughing at yourselves.”

—Gogol, The Inspector General

Before undertaking an analysis of Gogol's story “The Nose,” I ought to offer some justification for my...

(The entire section is 18252 words.)

Thaïs S. Lindstrom (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Lindstrom, Thaïs S. “The Petersburg Cycle.” In Nikolay Gogol, pp. 83–88. New York: Twayne, 1974.

[In the following excerpt, Lindstrom discusses the elements of comic-grotesque and social satire in “The Nose.”]

“The Nose” is a gem apart. Pushkin acclaimed it as a merry, fantastic jest, and at first blush it does seem to be a hilarious tour de force, something made out of nothing, with the exact proportion of ingredients needed to produce a completely successful “tall” story: a preposterous event in a realistic framework reinforced with comic but credible incidents, a total lack of compassion for all concerned, and an atmosphere of suspense...

(The entire section is 2255 words.)

Simon Karlinsky (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Karlinsky, Simon. “Surrealism: ‘The Nose.’” In The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol, pp. 123–30. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976.

[In the following excerpt, Karlinsky views “The Nose” as a work of surrealist fiction.]

The world inhabited by the protagonists of the St. Petersburg stories is a threatening world of sudden reversals, deceptive appearances, and unimagined danger emerging from unsuspected quarters. In “The Portrait” this state of affairs is attributed to the mystically corrupting power of money and to the machinations of the Antichrist; in “Nevsky Prospect” to the demon of deception who lights the lanterns so that...

(The entire section is 2587 words.)

William Woodin Rowe (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Rowe, William Woodin. “Tales.” In Through Gogol's Looking Glass: Reverse Vision, False Focus, and Precarious Logic, pp. 100–06. New York: New York University Press, 1976.

[In the following excerpt, Rowe asserts that “The Nose” represents a reversal of the realms of waking and sleeping, reality and dream.]

Viktor Vinogradov has extensively related this strange story to what he terms the “nosology” that pervaded the literary and non-literary atmosphere of the 1820s and 1830s.1 He has also related “The Nose” to mentions of noses in many of Gogol's other writings, including a letter in which Gogol confused “a furious desire” to be...

(The entire section is 2111 words.)

Donald Fanger (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Fanger, Donald. “Beginnings: Fiction.” In The Creation of Nikolai Gogol, pp. 85–124. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979.

[In the following excerpt, Fanger asserts that “The Nose” is a meta-narrative that explores the creative act of fiction writing.]

[Gogol's “The Nose” begins]: “On March 25 an unusually strange occurrence took place in Petersburg.” The occurrence in question is the unaccountable disappearance of the nose of another ambitious civil servant, its metamorphic adventures while independent, and his frantic pursuit of it until it reappears mysteriously in place—a happy ending for a character who doesn't deserve one. The...

(The entire section is 1797 words.)

Richard Peace (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Peace, Richard. “‘The Nose.’” In The Enigma of Gogol: An Examination of the Writings of N. V. Gogol and Their Place in the Russian Literary Tradition, pp. 130–41. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

[In the following excerpt, Peace discusses the element of absurdity in “The Nose.”]

Major Kovalev had the habit of strolling every day along the Nevsky Prospekt. The collar of his shirt front was always extremely clean and starched. His side whiskers were of the sort that one can see even now on provincial and Ukrainian regional land surveyors, architects and regimental doctors, as well as those performing various police...

(The entire section is 5874 words.)

James B. Woodward (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Woodward, James B. “‘The Nose.’” In The Symbolic Art of Gogol: Essays on His Short Fiction, pp. 63–87. Colombus, OH: Slavica, 1982.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1981, Woodward contends that “The Nose” describes an allegorical war between the sexes in which the masculine triumphs over the feminine.]

If “Old-World Landowners” is the most deceptive of Gogol's stories, “The Nose” is certainly the most perplexing. Naturally enough, there are still many readers who readily invoke Pushkin's description of the tale as “a joke” and argue fervently that any attempt to interpret its bizarre content as expressive of some...

(The entire section is 13043 words.)

William Edward Brown (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Brown, William Edward. “Nikolai Gogol: St. Petersburg Stories and Comedies.” In A History of Russian Literature of the Romantic Period, Volume Four, pp. 306–11. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1986.

[In the following excerpt, Brown maintains that “The Nose” should not be interpreted as a story containing a moral message, but should be understood as a tale which “exists for itself.”]

“The Nose,”1 … is one of the most complex, and certainly one of the most controversial things that Gogol ever wrote. The most diverse interpretations have been put upon it, from the solemn Marxist orthodoxy, that it was written as an expose of the vulgar,...

(The entire section is 2788 words.)

Ann Shukman (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Shukman, Ann. “Gogol's ‘The Nose’ or the Devil in the Works.” In Nikolay Gogol: Text and Context, edited by Jane Grayson and Faith Wigzell, pp. 64–82. London: Macmillan, 1989.

[In the following essay, Shukman asserts that a valid interpretation of “The Nose” must take into account that which is excluded from the narrative through various omissions, digressions, and ellipses.]

If ‘The Nose’ had been written in French or English, or if, on the other hand, post-structuralism had taken root in Moscow and Leningrad, Gogol's tale might well have become a proof text for deconstructive exegesis. Constructed on a pun, replete with paradoxes,...

(The entire section is 7797 words.)

Reed Merrill (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Merrill, Reed. “The Grotesque in Music: Shostakovich's Nose.Russian Literature Triquarterly, no. 23, (winter 1990): 303–14.

[In the following essay, Merrill discusses elements of the comic-grotesque in both Gogol's original short story “The Nose” and the 1930 operatic adaptation, The Nose.]

The difference between the comic side of things, and their cosmic side, depends upon one sibilant.

If parallel lines do not meet it is not because they cannot, but because they have other things to do.

—Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolai Gogol...

(The entire section is 4422 words.)

Sergei Bocharov (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Bocharov, Sergei. “Around ‘The Nose.’” In Essays on Gogol: Logos and the Russian Word, edited by Susanne Fusso and Priscilla Meyer, pp. 19–39. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Bocharov considers Gogol's concern with noses as a recurring motif in his fiction, particularly in the short story “The Nose.”]

Skryeshi ikh v taine litsa Tvoego ot miatezha chelovecheska.

—Ps. 30:21

In the covert of thy presence [litso, “face”] thou hidest them from the plots of men.


(The entire section is 10309 words.)

Thomas Seifrid (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Seifrid, Thomas. “Suspicion Toward Narrative: The Nose and the Problem of Autonomy in Gogol's ‘Nos.’” Russian Review 52 (July 1993): 382–96.

[In the following essay, Seifrid situates “The Nose” within the context of Russian history.]

In the final version of “Nos” that Gogol prepared for his 1842 Sochineniia, it is 25 March when Kovalev discovers he has no nose and 7 April when the appendage mysteriously reappears.1 In light of Russian cultural history these dates can hardly appear innocent: the twelve-day gap between them is precisely that obtaining in the nineteenth century between Russia's Julian calendar and the Gregorian...

(The entire section is 8591 words.)

Amos Oz (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Oz, Amos. “With an Expression of Very Respectable Importance: On the Beginning of Gogol's ‘The Nose.’” In The Story Begins: Essays on Literature, pp. 28–36. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996.

[In the following essay, Oz contends that the various distortions of logic in the telling of “The Nose” represents the garbled logic of Russian bureaucracy.]

“The Nose” by Nikolai Gogol first appeared in 1836, sixty years before Fontane's Effi Briest and ninety years before Agnon's “In the Prime of Her Life.” “The Nose” is the story of the nose of one Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov, a major by the name of Platon Kuzmich Kovalyov. This nose...

(The entire section is 2580 words.)

Further Reading


Finlay, Carolyn Roberts. “Operatic Translation and Sostakovic: The Nose.Comparative Literature 35, no. 3 (summer 1983): 195–214.

Compares Gogol's story “The Nose” and the English-language translation of Sostakovich's operatic adaptation entitled The Nose.

Holquist, Michael. “From Body-Talk to Biography: The Chronobiological Bases of Narrative.” Yale Journal of Criticism 3, no. 1 (fall 1989): 1–35.

Discussion of metaphor and the mirror motif in Gogol's “The Nose.”

Morgan, James. “Interview with ‘The Nose’: Shostakovich's Adaptation of Gogol.” In...

(The entire section is 289 words.)