Sure, he ended his life burning parts of his most famous work and generally acting loony, but hey, for a while there Gogol—or Nikolai Vailievich Gogol, if you're feeling fancy—was on quite the roll. In 1835, he was still a reasonably fresh face in Russia (he was about 27), but dude had already hit it out of the park with The Government Inspector—a hilarious, satirical play making fun of provincial bureaucrats.
Which, honestly, if you're going to make fun of some government thing, then "incompetent bureaucrats" is totally the way to go. DMV jokes never get old, right?
Anyway, Gogol had big aspirations for his literary career, and, for once, life totally delivered. "The Nose," which came out in 1836, established the type of writing he would specialize in for the rest of his working life: funny satire with a surreal or supernatural twist. How surreal? Check this out:
One day, a dude wakes up and finds his nose is no longer on his face. When he looks for it, he finds that the nose is now leading its own life as a civil servant. Not only that, but it's actually managed to get to a higher civil service rank than its original owner.
Reacting against all the froofy, poetic Romantic stuff that was all the rage in his day, Gogol made up a whole new genre—what would later be called magical realism. Basically, it's when an author inserts a totally supernatural element into something that is otherwise completely realistic.
The kicker? No one in the text is particularly surprised or frightened by this bit of magic—it's just part of daily life, so, meh. For some sublime variations on this technique, check out Gogol's short story "The Overcoat" and his major classic, the novel "Dead Souls."
Why Should I Care?
Some days you wake up and something… just feels off, you know? Like you're not quite yourself, or like you're not living the life you're supposed to be living, or like there's another kind of you inside your body that wants to burst through your skin.
Ok, maybe not that last one so much. We're assuming Shmoop's werewolf readership is actually quite low. (But still, stop chasing that sparkly vampire around already.)
Anyway, "The Nose" takes that out-of-body feeling that everyone's been through and just literalizes the business out of out. You've felt like you could be a higher achiever? Well, this dude's nose pops off his face and makes that ambition happen, baby. Wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am: that nose accomplishes more in a day than its owner has in his whole lifetime—and of course makes that owner feel pretty inconsequential and embarrassed in the process.
And even cooler? Gogol's story is pretty much the granddaddy of the many, many stories that play on this idea of a shared identity or a double that comes to take over another character's life, usually in some really creepy way. Think Dostoevsky's "The Double," Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Kafka's Metamorphosis, all the way through Invasion of the Body Snatchers and all the evil-twin subplots that pop up in comic books and sci fi.