Nikolai Gogol Nos Critical Essays


(Short Story Criticism)

“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.