Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Some of the funniest moments in the story are about snuff. Okay, hands up: who doesn't actually know what on earth snuff is?
No worries. Snuff was yet another way to get a hit of nicotine back in the day. Also called snuff tobacco, it was a powder that dudes would snort. And we say dudes, we mean dudes—it was basically social suicide for a lady to do it.
Thing is, the whole culture of how you snorted the snuff, and how ornate your snuff box was, and how much you paid for the type you snorted, and how well you handled people asking you for some, became a huge marker of your social class. (This is back when nicotine was still cool. But, duh, Shmoopers: it's not.)
So of course Kovalev uses snuff—because, duh, he's all about image. And of course as soon as he is nose-less, he's out of luck in the snuff department. Check out this hilarious exchange in the newspaper ad clerk's office:
Even the clerk seemed touched with the awkwardness of Kovalev's plight, and wishful to lighten with a few sympathetic words the Collegiate Assessor's depression.
"I am sorry indeed that this has befallen," he said. "Should you care for a pinch of this? Snuff can dissipate both headache and low spirits. Nay, it is good for hemorrhoids as well."
And he proffered his box-deftly, as he did so, folding back underneath it the lid depicting a lady in a hat.
Kovalev lost his last shred of patience at the thoughtless act, and said heatedly:
"How you can think fit thus to jest I cannot imagine. For surely you perceive me no longer to be in possession of a means of sniffing? Oh, you and your snuff can go to hell! Even the sight of it is more than I can bear. I should say the same even if you were offering me, not wretched birch bark, but real rapée." (2.81-85)
In the space of a few sentences, we learn everything we need to know about the subculture of snuff users:
(1) Before the b.s. was finally debunked and revealed, tobacco has always been sold as some kind of medicinal thing, which Gogol clearly thinks is ridiculous. The clerk says it works for headaches and hemorrhoids, which… well, can you think of a medicine that would treat internal head issues and external butt ones as well? Yeah. We can't, either.
(2) The clerk fancies himself a bit of a dandy. He's got a snuff box with a picture of "a lady in a hat" on the lid and he opens it "deftly" with some kind of cool move. All meant to show that he's a man of the world, nudge nudge wink wink.
(3) Kovalev will use anything as an excuse for one-upsmanship. Sure, he's got a genuine beef here. After all he really can't possibly use the snuff, however nice the clerk is being. Because—no nose. But still, his impulse is to show himself to be an even greater connoisseur of snuff: he complains that the clerk is offering him some crappy "birch bark" type of snuff and not black rapée, an expensive aged and brined version from Paris.
Civil Service Uniforms
This is one Shmoop can't entirely puzzle out, so we'll throw it out to you. Why does Kovalev buy himself a "ribbon of an order" (3.22) for no apparent reason at the end of the story? Order ribbons were those wide grosgrain ribbons officers would wear draped around their uniforms to show off some title or award they got from the tsar.
But usually you'd only buy one if you, you know, actually got some kind of award or title to display. You couldn't just parade around in a ribbon of an order for no reason. People would know, and it was probably even against the law. This is basically like making yourself a fake university diploma in Microsoft Word and hanging on your bedroom wall. Weird, and not likely to hold up on a resume.
So what gives? Why does he buy the thing? Is he expecting to be promoted? Does he feel like the return of the nose is an award in and of itself? Is he trying to make the nose stay by upping the ambition ante?