Don't you feel like the narrator really has it in for pretty much all the characters in this story? Like, everyone single person he ends up describing gets a good punch square in the jaw just for existing? That, friends, is called sarcasm. And this story? It's dripping with it.
A good example of this is the narrator's treatment of the barber Ivan Yakovlevitch. The narrator literally can't help mocking him every time he comes up in the story. First of all, as he sits down to eat, the narrator says that he "donned a jacket over his shirt for politeness's sake" (1.5).
Now, it's true, the 19th century was a time when people were a little more buttoned up. No sagging your jeans down to your ankles in the 1830s. But this guy is so clearly gross and dirty, so clearly totally not a gentleman, that this jacket thing is just making fun. Same when he goes to throw the nose out into the river, and the narrator calls him a "worthy citizen" (1.19). Um, yeah. He's not worthy of anything and he's for sure not such a great citizen—that description is clearly totally tongue in cheek.
And then sometimes, the narrator isn't even subtle about it. Check out lines like "like every decent Russian tradesman, Ivan Yakovlevitch was a terrible drunk" (1.18). Okay, sure, this calls Ivan out. But it also makes fun of every single other small-business guy. And not only that, but by using the word "decent," what he's saying is that they all see being drunks as totally necessary—even good! Now that is a body slam of an insult.
So how exactly do you figure out when you're reading magical realism and not some other genre that's got weird stuff in it, like fairy tales or sci fi? This might come as a bit of shock, but the very first thing to do is to see if there are magical or supernatural elements in the thing. (Hint: a nose walking around living its own life counts as a supernatural element.)
Now, once you've found your magic thing, the next thing to do is to eliminate the markers of other genres. Are there fairy tale creatures there? Dragons, witches, that sort of thing? No? Ok, scratch off fantasy and fairy tale. Next, are there wise, talking animals or some inanimate objects teaching you right from wrong? Not so much? Ok, then you're not dealing with a parable or a fable. Finally, is it set in some distant future where the technology is so advanced it might as well be magic? Yeah, not in this one, so it's not hard or soft science fiction either.
The final test is probably the most subjective. Take a good look at your text and try to eliminate the one magical thing. Is the story as realistic as possible in every other way? Now, put the magic thing back and take one last look. Do the characters in the story react to the magical as some crazy insanity-causing nonsense, like we would in the real world? Or do they just shrug it off as nothing to write home about?
In this story, for example, there is a nose just walking around like a person. And also there is a guy walking around with no nose on his face and no mark that shows that a nose ever existed there. Now, if you saw either of these things on your street, you would… yeah, freak out. But in Gogol's world? Everyone just gives it a "meh." And, bingo—that's magical realism.
Sometimes titles are a little mysterious, trying to push readers into finding that one reference somewhere in the text that explains just what the author meant, or doing some independent research to figure out what ancient bit of wisdom the title is referring to.
Not here. You don't have to read far to figure out that "The Nose" is named after the single most memorable thing in the story. Actually, though, the title is so no-nonsense, and even maybe a little boring, that it's like a deadpan joke for how crazy the story about the nose will actually end up being.
Oh, and for what it's worth? The word "nose" in Russian is "nos" (нос), while the word for "dream" is "son" (сон). So maybe there's a little bit of wordplay going on there as well.
Okey-doke, let's start with a little summary of just what happens at the end of the story, shall we? The nose is back on Kovalev's face, and Kovalev is back to his old life. Nothing much has changed for him besides the fact that he now has yet one more thing to feel all smug and self-satisfied about—the size of his nose. Meanwhile, the narrator grows totally disgusted with the nonsense that is the story and starts to rant about all the ludicrous plot holes.
So what are we to make of this? Well, to be honest, Shmoop's not really sure, and there's no way to know for sure. (We think that's kind of the point.) However, we'll throw out one idea: maybe the thing that really makes the narrator bonkers is the very fact that Kovalev totally doesn't change in any way despite having this big experience.
Think about it: usually stories follow a character from A to B. Someone starts out one way, has some kind of experience, and comes out of it a totally different way. Sometimes the journey is longer—A to B to C, for example. But it's not too common to see a character have a life-changing experience and then go about his business like nothing ever happened.
Not in "The Nose." Here, Kovalev seemingly learns nothing about himself or life or whatever from his two noseless weeks. That certainly seems like enough of a provocation to frustrate a narrator who's really been giving him the business during the whole story.
So, yeah, before we start, let's talk a little bit about St. Petersburg. It was founded by Peter the Great, who was basically Russia's superhero tsar, using his power to modernize and industrialize the huge country.
While killing and basically enslaving a whole bunch of people in the process, of course.
But in any case, at the time when Gogol is writing, St. Petersburg is Russia's capital: home to the tsar, seat of government, and cultural and artistic center of the country.
This is why many of the story's realistic touches make perfect sense. On the political side, we get Kovalev's totally reasonable decision to move to St. Petersburg to push forward with his civil service career—which, yeah, if you wanted to be in national politics in the U.S., you'd move to Washington, D.C.
And we get his equally sensible habit of walking around Nevsky Prospekt every day—that was the big street where all the fancy people came to see and be seen.
On the cultural side, we get the funny juxtaposition of the grody barber trying to throw the nose into the river Neva from Isaakievskiy Bridge, the very first built across that river when St. Petersburg was first founded. And we also see that one of the confrontations between the nose and Kovalev is set in Great Gostiny Dvor, a huge fancy-shmancy shopping pavilion in the middle of the city.
So, "The Nose" is at least partly set in a real, 19th-century version of St. Petersburg. But there's more than enough weirdness to make us wonder what's really up. Sure, this is a St. Petersburg with all your tourist landmarks. But it's also apparently a St. Petersburg where people see a giant nose walking around like a person and think, "Celebrity!":
[It] began to be said that the nose of Collegiate Assessor Kovalev could be seen promenading the Nevsky Prospekt at three o'clock, or when a crowd of curious sightseers gathered there. Next, someone declared that the nose, rather, could be beheld at Junker's store, and the throng which surged thither became so massed as to necessitate a summons to the police. […] Next, word had it that the nose was walking, not on the Nevsky Prospekt, but in the Taurida Park, and, in fact, had been in the habit of doing so for a long while past, so that even in the days when Khozrev Mirza had lived near there he had been greatly astonished at the freak of nature. This led students to repair thither from the College of Medicine, and a certain eminent, respected lady to write and ask the Warden of the Park to show her children the phenomenon, and, if possible, add to the demonstration a lesson of edifying and instructive tenor. (2.136-138)
Here, suddenly, our little tour of the city turns into a crazy paparazzi-off as everyone tries to get to the latest place where the nose is supposedly hanging out. And just check out how many actual real-life places get name-checked in that passage and sucked into the story's dreamscape mirror version of the city. Here's our question: do all these real places make the setting seem more or less real?
Get out that bowl of popcorn, Shmoopers, because this is an easy read. Funny, exciting, surprising, and brief—this is about as good as a short story gets.
In an early draft of this story, Gogol planned for the whole thing to be Kovalev's dream. Well, it seems like he went overboard in the rewrite, because he crammed realistic and specific details into every description as possible. Dreams are vague and strange and ambiguous, right? So what's less dreamlike than really getting in to the nitty-gritty aspect of everything?
And that goes double for the most dream-like element in the story—the nose itself. Every time we encounter it, we get drowned in details. The nose feels hard to the touch, it's got a zit on it on the left side, and when Kovalev finally sees it, we get such a long and complicated explanation of what it looks like and what it's doing that the nose ends up being the most described character in the whole story:
a door of the carriage opened, and there leapt thence, huddling himself up, a uniformed gentleman, and that uniformed gentleman ran headlong up the mansion's entrance-steps, and disappeared within. And oh, Kovalev's horror and astonishment to perceive that the gentleman was none other than—his own nose! […] It was clad in a gold-braided, high-collared uniform, buckskin breeches, and cockaded hat. And slung beside it there was a sword, and from the cockade on the hat it could be inferred that the Nose was purporting to pass for a State Councilor. It seemed now to be going to pay another visit somewhere. At all events it glanced about it, and then, shouting to the coachman, "Drive up here," reentered the vehicle, and set forth. (2.11)
We know exactly how it's dressed, even down to color and fabric. We know not just that it's moving around, but that it's moving like a guy who is in a big hurry (it "ran headlong," it "leapt"). We even know how it treats its underlings by the way it's not too angry but not too polite with the coachman. And none of the description is in any way surprised or concerned with the logistics of a nose doing any of these things. In fact, the way the info is laid out for us, it's easy to forget we're not talking about a person at all!
Like, how on earth can that thing be small enough to fit on Kovalev's face, but big enough to wear a State Councilor's outfit? And—we just have to ask—out of what part of its anatomy does it talk?
Yes, fair enough, we did already tell you that the nose was a character in the story… but it's pretty clearly also some kind symbol or allegory or something. A man can't just suddenly develop a sentient nose without it meaning something, can he?
Ok, we're just going to throw it out there—the nose is totally a phallic symbol. And it's not just Shmoop that needs to get its mind out of the gutter. This is a really common interpretation, and don't try to tell us it didn't occur to you! In fact, there's even an edition of the story that takes out the word "nose" altogether and replaces it with just a blank "–––," so readers can just go ahead and throw some other body parts into the mix themselves.
And once you have the whole nose = penis (yeah, we said it) thing in your head, some of the story makes a lot more sense. Check out what happens when Kovalev loses the nose. He's embarrassed to walk around, sure, but what is he really prevented from doing? Hitting on the ladies:
Presently the agreeable swish of ladies' dresses began to be heard. […] a slender maiden in a white frock which outlined delightfully a trim figure […] Kovalev moved a little nearer, pulled up the collar of his shirt, straightened the seals on his gold watch-chain, smiled, and directed special attention towards the slender lady as, swaying like a floweret in spring, she kept raising to her brows a little white hand with fingers almost of transparency. And Kovalev's smiles became broader still when peeping from under the hat he saw there to be an alabaster, rounded little chin, and part of a cheek flushed like an early rose. But all at once he recoiled as though scorched, for all at once he had remembered that he had not a nose on him, but nothing at all. (2.28-29)
Surely you can judge what it is for me meanwhile to be lacking such a conspicuous portion of my frame? […] every Thursday I am due to call upon Madame Chektareva (wife of the State Councilor); whilst Pelagea Grigorievna Podtochina (wife of the Staff-Officer, mother of a pretty daughter) also is one of my closest acquaintances. So, again, judge for yourself how I am situated at present. In such a condition as this I could not possibly present myself before the ladies named. (2.63)
The problem here isn't that they'll think he's deformed. Instead, he's worried about propriety, that the women will see him as less of a man or as not even a man at all. That strikes us as pretty striking evidence.
The clincher, though? When Kovalev gets the nose back, he goes around comparing its size to that of other dudes. He might as well be whipping out a ruler.
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.
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?
Pretty straightforward narration here. We get a standard-sounding narrator who sticks closely to the head of the main character, Kovalev. He mostly doesn't clue us into what other characters are thinking, so we learn about them from how they talk to Kovalev and what he ends up thinking about them.
But there are also some weird limits to the narrator's knowledge. The first two sections of the story both end mid-sentence with a variation on this little bizarro statement: "Further events here become enshrouded in mist. What happened after that is unknown to all men" (1.31).
Which, huh? Usually the only thing that a third-person limited narrator doesn't know is what's happening in the heads of secondary characters. This thing with not knowing the plot? Well, that points to a weirder snag.
And yeah—here's the snag. In the third section of the story, the narrator is revealed to be (spoiler alert!) just a guy who has been picking this story up from newspaper articles or gossip or whatever? Either way, suddenly we get to meet him in all of his confused-and-angry-man glory:
how came Kovalev not to know that one ought not to advertise for a nose through a newspaper? Not that I say this because I consider newspaper charges for announcements excessive. No, that is nothing, and I do not belong to the number of the mean. I say it because such a proceeding would have been gauche, derogatory, not the thing. And how came the nose into the baked roll? And what of Ivan Yakovlevitch? Oh, I cannot understand these points—absolutely I cannot. And the strangest, most unintelligible fact of all is that authors actually can select such occurrences for their subject! I confess this too to pass my comprehension, to—— But no; I will say just that I do not understand it. In the first place, a course of the sort never benefits the country. And in the second place—in the second place, a course of the sort never benefits anything at all. I cannot divine the use of it. (3.23)
It's like he's been telling us this story all along, skipping over the mysterious parts he doesn't understand, but then suddenly and out of nowhere he just throws up his hands and is all, "ugh, this story is just too crazy for me. Forget all this nonsense!"
So, have you heard the one about the guy who wakes up without a nose? And is all embarrassed and stuff about what his coworkers and semi-girlfriend are going to think? No? Well, that's what happens here to our friend Collegiate Assessor Kovalev. This bit about waking up without a nose gives us the background info on the situation, so we're prepared for all the wacky hijinks that this guy and his nose are going to get up to.
During the rising action, our intrepid and noseless protagonist encounters conflicts and complications. Like, Kovalev is shocked to realize that his nose is not only leading a separate life, but has already climbed higher in the civil service. In fact, he's so high up that Kovalev has trouble speaking to him. And the kicker? The nose totally denies being Kovalev's nose at all.
Not knowing what else to do, Kovalev decides to put an ad in the paper about it. When that fails, he goes to the police. When that also fails, he goes home only to have a cop bring the nose to him. But this fails also because it just won't stick on his face. You know this is the climax because this is the absolute worst that things get. We have no idea how the story's going to resolve: is he going to get his nose back? Will he ever find out who's responsible? And is he ever going to be able to take snuff again?
Finally, Kovalev gives up his ambitions along with his quest for his nose. He decides to marry the girl he's been stringing along all this time and realizes that he'll never climb the social ladder any more. Yep, we're definitely headed on our way down.
Two weeks later, Kovalev wakes up—and the nose is back on his face. He immediately becomes his old vain, social-climbing self. He decides not to marry that girl after all, and generally goes around town snobbing it up. Resolution? Well, the major conflict is over. But we're not sure that Kovalev actually learned anything from his experience.