by Nikolai Gogol
Collegiate Assessor Kovalev
Do you like how we gave Kovalev his title? Yeah, he'd like that, too. A civil servant of middling rank, Kovalev is a status-obsessed man who one day wakes up with his nose missing.
The Insecure Snob
For a story as short and crazy as this one, we really do get some pretty specific psychological insight into Kovalev, don't we? Now, Shmoop's not a psychologist and doesn't even play one on YouTube, but haven't we all met someone who wants to lord his status over other people but still feels inferior all the time?
Well, meet Kovalev. How do we know he's insecure? From a nice little summary paragraph that tells us just how the dude feels about his civil service status (which back in the day correlated pretty well with social status also):
Of course, it goes without saying that Collegiate Assessors who acquire the title with the help of academic diplomas cannot be compared with Collegiate Assessors who become Collegiate Assessors through service in the Caucasus, for the two species are wholly distinct, […] Now, Kovalev was a "Caucasian" Collegiate Assessor, and had, as yet, borne the title for two years only. Hence, unable ever to forget it, he sought the more to give himself dignity and weight by calling himself, in addition to "Collegiate Assessor," "Major." (2.2)
What do we learn here? Well, it looks like Kovalev got to where he is not through white-collar academic stuff, but through blue-collar soldiering stuff. This bothers him so much that he beefs up his titles in order to "give himself dignity and weight." And the kind of guy who wants to give himself more weight? Well, that's a guy who's pretty sure people aren't taking him seriously enough.
Well, maybe that's because he takes every opportunity to feel superior to other people. Even after his whole ordeal, all Kovalev learns is that he now has yet another way to compare himself to others:
[Kovalev] turned round in cheerful mood, and, with eves contracted slightly, bestowed a bold, satirical scrutiny upon two military men, one of the noses on whom was no larger than a waistcoat button. (3.14)
Great. So now, not only is he obsessed with status, but he will also start mentally measuring noses—ahem—with every other guy he sees.
What's the point of this? Well, we're not sure—but we think it might have something to do with Gogol wanting to poke a little fun at the style of writing where the protagonist learns a Very Valuable Lesson by the end of the book. Because this guy doesn't learn a thing.
The Divided Man
All of this social climbing stress is part of the whole satire of the story in the first place, which is mostly making fun of the pointless but desperate struggle to climb up the social ladder rung by rung. The joke is funniest when Kovalev comes face to face with his now higher-ranking nose and is totally unable to bring himself to even speak to such an illustrious figure.
"How, even so, am I to approach it [the nose]?" Kovalev reflected. "Everything about it, uniform, hat, and all, seems to show that it is a State Councilor now. Only the devil knows what is to be done!"
He started to cough in the Nose's vicinity, but the Nose did not change its position for a single moment.
"My good sir," at length Kovalev said, compelling himself to boldness, "my good sir, I—— " (2.14-16)
Hilarious, right? He's stressing out about talking to his own nose not because it is really, really weird to be talking to a disembodied nose—but because it's now a State Councilor. And why is this all happening? Because even before Kovalev is a dude who is split in two by a weird twist of sci fi, he's a guy who is split in two by his own preoccupation with his position in the world.
You know how people talk about the difference between the actual President of the U.S.—the actual human being—and the office of the Presidency? Well, Kovalev has that approach to his own life. Check it out: "Kovalev was extremely sensitive where his title or his dignity was concerned though he readily pardoned anything said against himself personally" (2.89).
In other words, Kovalev is already living a life where the rank and title he presents to the world is totally different in his mind from his existence as a person. No wonder that when his nose peels off his face, it takes the ambition and signifiers of status that are Kovalev's defining characteristics. (Isn't that always the way it is? Think about Mr. Hyde, who is a straight up embodiment of every evil thing Dr. Jekyll would like to do, or the Hulk, who is just all of Bruce Banner's rage all bottled up into a big green dude.)Kovalev's Timeline