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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1288

“A most extraordinary thing happened in St. Petersburg on the twenty-fifth of March.” Ivan Yakovlevich, a Russian barber in St. Petersburg, wakes up in his house and prepares to eat the breakfast prepared by his wife. As he cuts into a fresh loaf of bread, he finds a human nose inside. Although confused and distraught by the discovery, the barber recognizes the nose as that of Collegiate Assessor Platon Kuzmich Kovalyov, a government clerk whom he shaves every Wednesday and Sunday. Fearing his wife’s wrath and further complications, Ivan Yakovlevich gets dressed and goes out with the idea of disposing of the nose. The streets are crowded, however, and there is little opportunity to get rid of his grotesque burden, which he has wrapped in a rag. He finally manages to throw the nose into the Neva River, but as luck would have it, he has been observed by a police inspector, who summons him to explain why he was on the bridge. Here, the story continues, “the incident becomes completely shrouded in a fog and it is really impossible to say what happened next.”

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On the same morning in March, Kovalyov, a bachelor, wakes up in his St. Petersburg apartment and immediately goes to the mirror to check a pimple that had appeared on his nose the previous evening. Instead of a nose with a blemish, he sees only “a completely empty, flat spot” on his face where his nose had been.

Kovalyov dresses and goes out with intention of reporting his loss to the police. As he is making his way to the police station, he notices a gentleman in a gold-braided uniform jump out of a carriage and enter a private house. This gentleman is none other than Kovalyov’s nose, dressed as a State Councillor, a rank three degrees higher than Collegiate Assessor. A few minutes later, the Nose/State Councillor comes out from the house and drives to a nearby cathedral, with Kovalyov in pursuit. Inside the cathedral, Kovalyov sees the Nose saying his prayers and decides to confront him (or it), in spite of the protocol involved in addressing a civil servant of a higher rank. When Kovalyov finally musters enough courage and presence of mind to speak to the pious Nose, he can only blurt out the obvious: “You are my nose, sir!” The Nose, in turn, rebuffs any such suggestion by insisting, “My dear fellow, you are mistaken. I am myself.”

Kovalyov does not know what to think or say, but at this moment he is distracted by a slim young girl in a white dress and straw-colored hat who is standing near him in the congregation. Kovalyov smiles at this “spring flower” with “semi-transparent fingers” and “dazzling white chin,” but suddenly realizes that he is exposing his noseless face to the young beauty and retreats.

While Kovalyov is engrossed with the unknown girl, the Nose leaves the church. Kovalyov gives chase but loses the Nose in the crowd on Nevsky Prospect. Afraid that his quarry will slip out of town, Kovalyov goes for help to the Police Commissioner’s house, but finding the official out for the evening, he decides to go the newspaper office to place a “missing nose” advertisement. At first the newspaper clerk does not understand the nature of the advertisement Kovalyov proposes to print. Finally, after realizing that this is not a usual lost-and-found notice, the clerk rejects it because it is, to his mind, absurd and potentially libelous. The clerk feels sorry for Kovalyov and tries to calm him by offering him a pinch of snuff. Kovalyov angrily responds by reminding the clerk that he does not at the moment have the appropriate organ for taking snuff.

Kovalyov returns to the Police Commissioner’s house, this time finding the Commissioner in, but the official is sleepy after a big dinner and in no mood for Kovalyov’s problem, adding that “a respectable man would not have his nose pulled off.” Insulted and upset, Kovalyov returns to his apartment, where he muses on what has happened to him. He dismisses the possible explanations that he is dreaming or drunk; applying some strange logic to the situation, he concludes that a Mrs. Podtochin has engaged a witch to put a curse on him and make his nose disappear. This, he is sure, is the lady’s revenge for his refusal to marry her dowryless daughter, with whom he has been flirting.

As Kovalyov reflects on how to deal with Mrs. Podtochin, a police officer arrives to announce that he has found Kovalyov’s nose. According to the officer, the Nose was trying to escape the country on a stagecoach for Riga, using a bogus passport. The police officer further explains that luckily he was wearing his glasses at the time of the incident and recognized that the Nose was not the gentleman he pretended to be. The police officer also announces that the barber from the first part of the story was somehow mixed up in the affair and is now in jail. Kovalyov picks up the officer’s hint that a gratuity would not be refused and gives him a lavish tip.

Left alone with his nose, Kovalyov is at first ecstatic that it is back, but his joy is moderated by the realization that his nose is still detached and not in its proper place. All of Kovalyov’s attempts to attach the nose to his face fail, and not even the local doctor can succeed in making the nose stick to its place between Kovalyov’s cheeks. Instead the doctor offers to buy the nose as a curiosity if it is first pickled in a vinegar jar and if the price is right.

At this point, Kovalyov still believes that the widow Podtochin had something to do with what has happened, and he decides to write her a letter, accusing her of witchcraft and threatening legal action. Mrs. Podtochin answers with her own letter, the wording of which convinces Kovalyov of her innocence in any plot against him or his nose, and so the affair remains as mysterious as ever.

Meanwhile, all sorts of rumors circulate in St. Petersburg about Kovalyov’s nose. Claims are made that Kovalyov’s nose has been seen taking a stroll on Nevsky Prospect every day at three o’clock in the afternoon. Thousands of curious people come out to see it. Tickets are sold to obtain the best places from which to observe this rare phenomenon. One rich aristocratic lady offers to establish an endowment for her children to be given “instructive and edifying explanations” about the vagrant nose. “After that—but here again a thick fog descends on the whole incident.”

Suddenly, on the morning of the seventh of April, the nose returns to its proper place on the face of Major Kovalyov. Kovalyov is overjoyed, especially when his manservant Ivan confirms that indeed his nose is back where it belongs. Ivan Yakovlevich, the barber from the first part of the story, arrives to shave Kovalyov as usual; except for his special care in handling Kovalyov’s nose while shaving him, the barber does nothing out of the ordinary during the encounter, and neither man mentions the incident with the nose.

Kovalyov dresses and goes out, driving straight to the nearest pastry shop, where he orders a cup of chocolate. On his way home, Kovalyov meets Mrs. Podtochin and her daughter and stops to talk with them at length. Their manner with him more firmly confirms his feeling that they know nothing about what has happened to his nose. Kovalyov increases his social activity out of sheer joy that normalcy has returned to his life.

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