Major Kovalev was in the habit of taking a daily walk on Nevsky Prospekt in an extremely clean and well-starched shirt and collar, and in whiskers of the sort still to be seen on provincial surveyors, architects, regimental doctors, other officials, and all men who have round, red cheeks, and play a good hand of "Boston." Such whiskers run across the exact center of the cheek—then head straight for the nose. […] And, finally, Major Kovalev had come to live in St. Petersburg because of necessity. That is to say, he had come to live in St. Petersburg because he wished to obtain a post befitting his new title—whether a Vice-Governorship or, failing that, an Administratorship in a leading department. Nor was Major Kovalev altogether set against marriage. Merely he required that his bride should possess not less than two hundred thousand rubles in capital. The reader, therefore, can now imagine what was the Major's disposition when he saw that instead of a not unpresentable nose there was on his face an extremely uncouth, smooth, and uniform patch. (2.4-5)
Ok, so right away we know that Major Kovalev is the diametric opposite of the barber (clean, precisely shaven, not a drunk). Also, totally ambitious about getting up into society. Check out how he does that thing where you're supposed to dress like what you aspire to be (when you're going in for a job interview anyway). His facial hair looks like the facial hair of other mid-high level officials, he plays the right kind of card game (think of businessmen and golf for a modern-day analogy), he's moved to the right city, and now he's looking for the right wife with the right dowry. Meaning, he's a guy who's devoted a huge amount of time to looking the part—and now he doesn't look right at all.
Sure enough, the Nose did return, two minutes later. 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. (2.11-12)
So, in the space of a day, the Nose has leapt off of Kovalev's face and gotten himself into a higher-ranking position. Yeah, this is well out of the realm of realism. And notice how apparently this one facial feature was the location of all of Kovalev's ambition—and now that it's a lone actor, it can just go forth and conquer without being held back by the rest of Kovalev.
Kovalev felt so upset that for a while he could decide upon no course of action save to scan every corner in the gentleman's pursuit. At last he sighted him again, standing before a counter, and, with face hidden altogether behind the uniform's standup collar, inspecting with absorbed attention some wares.
"How, even so, am I to approach it?" 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—— " (2.13-16)
Kovalev believes in social status so much that he might as well be a seventh grader at recess. He immediately buys into the idea that the nose now outranks him and is crazy stressed about how to start talking to this much more important individual than with anything else… like say the idea that this is his nose!
Presently the agreeable swish of ladies' dresses began to be heard […] 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)
It's just really funny how totally incongruous everyone's actions are. Kovalev keeps falling back on "proper society behavior" in every new situation—here, as soon as he sees a cute girl walk by, he starts in with the lady-killing. And then of course he remembers that he has no nose, and has to totally change his programming to something else. Because you can't just go up and ask for some girl's number without a nose, can you?
Meanwhile, as the day was fine and sunny, the Prospekt was thronged with pedestrians also—a whole kaleidoscopic stream of ladies was flowing along the pavements, from Police Headquarters to the Anitchkin Bridge. There one could descry an Aulic Councilor. whom Kovalev knew well. A gentleman he was whom Kovalev always addressed as "Lieutenant-Colonel," and especially in the presence of others. And there went Yaryzhkin, Chief Clerk to the Senate, a crony who always rendered forfeit at "Boston" on playing an eight. (2.30)
So, a little peek into the character our dear friend Kovalev. He's the kind of dude who loves to parade his fancy friends in front of other people (check out how he makes a big deal out of using the Lieutenant-Colonel's title whenever he can). It's no wonder that all of that ambition and upward mobility is even more concentrated in the guy's nose—you know, the snob body part.
Yes, the inspector gave it Kovalev between the eyes. And as it should be added that Kovalev was extremely sensitive where his title or his dignity was concerned (though he readily pardoned anything said against himself personally, and even held, with regard to stage plays, that, whilst Staff-Officers should not be assailed, officers of lesser rank might be referred to), the police inspector's reception so took him aback that, in a dignified way, and with hands set apart a little, he nodded, remarked: "After your insulting observations there is nothing which I wish to add," and betook himself away again. (2.89)
That Kovalev! Insult his mom all you want, but don't you dare mess with his titles. What makes the story funny is that the titled guy always wins—and that what freaks Kovalev out about losing his nose isn't, you know, randomly not having a nose—but losing is social status.
And majestically [the doctor] withdrew. Kovalev, meanwhile, had never once looked at his face. In his distraction he had noticed nothing beyond a pair of snowy cuffs projecting from black sleeves. (2.130)
Once again, Kovalev is totally thrown by the exterior markers of status and can't see what's behind that surface exterior. Spoiler alert: dude, it's your nose dressed up as a doctor and making its escape.
In the street, on leaving the colleague's, he met Madame Podtochina, and also Madame Podtochina's daughter. Bowing to them, he was received with nothing but joyous exclamations. Clearly all had been fancy, no harm had been done. So not only did he talk quite a while to the ladies, but he took special care, as he did so, to produce his snuffbox, and deliberately plug his nose at both entrances. Meanwhile inwardly he said:
"There now, good ladies! There now, you couple of hens! I'm not going to marry the daughter, though. All this is just—par amour, allow me." (3.14-21)
Great, Kovalev has his nose back. And what's his takeaway? The big lesson learned? The Golden Moment? Just one more thing to be a snob about—the size of the noses on other people's faces. Check out how now apparently most of his status-seeking gestures (checking himself out in the mirror constantly, using snuff) are nose-related.
Barber Ivan Yakovlevitch, a dweller on the Voznesensky Prospekt (his last name is lost now—it no longer figures on a signboard bearing a portrait of a gentleman with a soaped cheek, and the words: "Also, Blood Let Here") […] Raising himself a little, he perceived his wife (a most respectable lady, and one especially fond of coffee) (1.1)
An amazing run of totally random, highly specific, and at the same time completely useless ways to identify people here. We've got the barber, who gets a profession, no last name, and a super-detailed description of his shop sign. Then there's his wife who gets a super-vague description ("respectable lady"—that could mean anything!) and a detail that really doesn't amount to much of anything ("loves coffee").
[The barber] realized that the nose was none other than that of Collegiate Assessor Kovalev, whom he was shaved every Wednesday and Sunday. (1.9)
The joke is either the idea that the barber could actually identify a nose without a face attached (who could possible actually do that?), or that the barber is exactly the kind of person who could identify the nose since he has to hold each man's nose during a shave. You pick what you think is funnier. (And of course, nothing makes jokes funny like a long and drawn out explanation of their humor. You're welcome.)
Like every decent Russian tradesman, Ivan Yakovlevitch was a terrible drunk. What's more, even though he daily shaved the chins of others, his own was always unshorn, and his jacket (he never wore a topcoat) was piebald—that is it was black, but thickly studded with grayish, brownish-yellowish stains—and shiny at the collar, and adorned with three drooping tufts of thread instead of buttons. (1.18)
Here's another bit of character description that starts out pretty normal and then just totally careens off the rails. Remember, we're working with the 19th-century tradition here, where the general rule is that every time a new character is introduced, the narrator does a head to toe, backwards and forwards, origin story and emotional issues type of reveal. Which is kind of how we start out: the barber Ivan is a drunk, which is a national pastime for men of his age and class in tsarist Russia; he doesn't take care of his appearance or his clothes, which is definitely supposed to tell us something about him as a person (go ahead, list the things meant to be revealed by that). But then we veer off into crazy town—the barber is cynical, the narrator tells us (Ahem, big money word here! A cynic is someone who is scornful, jaded, and generally thinks that people are motivated by greed and self-interest rather than integrity)—and what supports this idea? The fact that the dude whose nose he finds has sometimes told him that his hands smell? What?!?!
Collegiate Assessor Kovalev also awoke early that morning. […] Here let me add something which may enable the reader to perceive just what the Collegiate Assessor was like. 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, they are—[…] 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." (2.1-2)
So, first of all, the idea is that Kovalev only got his job in the civil service because he served in the military, which makes him feel inferior to people who got to his level through school and college. Anyway. Again, Gogol is playing with the traditional 19th-century realist thing of giving the reader a back story for every character—and preferably a back story with some kind of read on society or on psychology or whatever. Sure, we get that here, with Kovalev's feelings of inadequacy and the way he clings to his old army title ("Major"). But we also get a sense of how ridiculous the whole thing is, because the constant repetition of the word "Collegiate Assessor" ends up sounding like gibberish.
"Good sir"—Major Kovalev gave his shoulders a shrug—"I do not know whether you yourself (pardon me) consider conduct of this sort to be altogether in accordance with the rules of duty and honor, but at least you can understand that—— " […]
"My dear sir, you speak in error," was its reply. "I am just myself—myself separately. And in any case there cannot ever have existed a close relation between us, for, judging from the buttons of your undress uniform, your service is being performed in another department than my own."
And the Nose definitely turned away. (2.21-26)
Who knew switching identities was so easy? Kovalev immediately starts treating the nose as an individual, and a higher-ranking individual at that—and the nose immediately starts acting like it's its own person, dismissing the low-ranking official who's bothering it with dumb questions of being a nose. The kicker? Kovalev accepts that as appropriate. Which fits nicely with the story's theme of identity being very much an external thing, not something psychologically innate. Just—whatever you present to the world, that's what you are. No black-market passport necessary.
"No," he said at length. "Insert such an announcement I cannot. […] it might injure the paper's reputation. Imagine if everyone were to start proclaiming a disappearance of his nose! People would begin to say that, that—well, that we printed absurdities and false tales."
"But how is this matter a false tale? […] I am advertising not about a poodle, but about my own nose, which is surely, for all intents and purposes, myself?" (2.58-70)
And there we have it folks—a grand philosophical question right in the middle of a hilarious scene of a guy trying to put a classified ad in the paper about his missing nose. If the nose now has its own life, is it its own person? Or is it still a part of Kovalev? At what point is he supposed to write it off as no longer belonging to himself but having its own individual existence? If our bodies change, grow, and shed over time, do we remain fundamentally the same people? Deep thoughts, Shmoopers, deep thoughts
"Ah, you!" Here Ivan Yakovlevitch glanced at the nose. Then he bent his head askew, and contemplated the nose from a position on the flank. "It looks right enough," finally he commented, but eyed the member for quite a little while longer before carefully, so gently as almost to pass the imagination, he lifted two fingers towards it, in order to grasp its tip—such always being his procedure. (3.12)
Ok, so first of all, why on earth would Kovalev still use the same barber after the cop clearly told him that this dude was involved in the nose business? Whatever. In any case, we are loving the idea that the barber can immediately identify each nose on sight—and that here, he's been through enough trouble with this thing that he still calls it "you" even though the nose is all done being its own person and is back to being an object on someone's face.
And from that time onwards Major Kovalev gadded about the same as before. He walked on the Nevsky Prospekt, and he visited theaters, and he showed himself everywhere. And always the nose accompanied him the same as before, and evinced no signs of again purposing a departure. Great was his good humor, replete was he with smiles, intent was he upon pursuit of fair ladies. Once, it was noted, he even halted before a counter of the Gusting Dvor, and there purchased the ribbon of an order. Why precisely he did so is not known, for of no order was he a knight. (3.22)
So, this is the opposite of a traditional story. You know, usually there's a character arc and the point of the reading the thing is to find out how a character goes from being one way to being another way. But here? This totally nightmarishly crazy thing happens, and then Kovalev just goes about his business like always. He doesn't even end up marrying that girl. What do we do with a protagonist that straight up refuses to change in any way. Is this aspect of "The Nose" the most mysteriously magical one of all?
[Ivan Yakovlevitch] cut the roll open. Then he glanced into the roll's middle. To his intense surprise he saw something glimmering there. He probed it cautiously with the knife—then poked at it with a finger. […] He stuck in his fingers, and pulled out—a nose! .. His hands dropped to his sides for a moment. Then he rubbed his eyes hard. Then again he probed the thing. A nose! Sure enough a nose! (1.5-7)
Now, it's true that in this first section we don't really get to the high level of magical realism from the story's second section, but we're already starting to get the slightly off-kilter feel of the story's universe here. It's a nose, and it's totally intact to the point that the barber will be able to recognize it. Which means, no blood, no knife marks—nothing of the kind of scene it could be if we were working with realism here. But instead it's just a weird and inconvenient object, like if you found a rock in your bread roll, or a small stick maybe. Definitely not a severed finger in your French fries.
This made Ivan Yakovlevitch blanch, and——
Further events here become enshrouded in mist. What happened after that is unknown to all men. (1.30-31)
Oh yeah: Gogol's tongue is pretty firmly jammed into his cheek on this one. We've got a way, way overblown mystically magically mysterious conclusion to the whole barber story. Seriously? "Unknown to all men"? That's taking it to the farthest extreme of mock-spookery. With hilarious results! No, really. Hilarious.
But, to his unbounded astonishment, there was only a flat patch on his face where the nose should have been! Greatly alarmed, he got some water, washed, and rubbed his eyes hard with the towel. Yes, the nose indeed was gone! He prodded the spot with a hand—pinched himself to make sure that he was not still asleep. But no; he was not still sleeping. Then he leapt from the bed, and shook himself. No nose! Finally, he got his clothes on, and hurried to the office of the Police Commissioner. (2.1)
Nice, we're back to the fantastical again. Why do we say that? Ok, imagine you wake up in the morning, and the nose is missing from your face. Is your first reaction to run to the office? Yeah, not so much. But this guy is still mostly stressed about getting to work on time. (Come to think of it, you know who else has the same exact reaction? Gregor Samsa, when he wakes up and has turned into a cockroach in Kafka's "Metamorphosis." All of literature is giant game of connect the dots, people.)
Then [Kovalev] halted as though riveted to earth. For in front of the doors of a mansion he saw occur a phenomenon of which, simply, no explanation was possible. Before that mansion there stopped a carriage. And then 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! (2.11)
You guys, did you crack up at this? Yeah, us too. Just the mental work necessary to picture a nose in a uniform? Somehow getting out of a carriage? Meaning… does it now have feet and stuff? So funny.
"Already it had entered a stagecoach, and was about to leave for Riga with a passport made out in the name of a certain civil servant. And, curiously enough, I myself, at first, took it to be a gentleman. Luckily, though, I had my eyeglasses on me. Soon, therefore, I perceived the 'gentleman' to be no more than a nose. […]"
"Do not trouble, sir. Knowing how greatly you stand in need of it, I have it with me. It is a curious fact, too, that the chief agent in the affair has been a rascal of a barber who lives on the Vozkresensky Prospekt, and now is sitting at the police station. For long past I had suspected him of drunkenness and theft, and only three days ago he took away from a shop a button-card. Well, you will find your nose to be as before."
And the officer delved into a pocket, and drew thence the nose, wrapped in paper. (2.106-110)
Hilarity again, guys. (1) The nose changes in size so crazily that it's impossible to actually visualize any of the ostensibly visual descriptions: first it's big enough to look like a person, then it's clearly a nose, and then it's back to regular nose size and fits in a pocket. (2) The cop is so near-sighted that he can't tell the difference between a nose and a human? Wha??? (3) The cop returns the nose just as if it were a wallet or something, no biggie. Are there other incongruous or strange details here?
Everyone's mind was, at that period, bent upon the marvelous. Recently experiments with the action of magnetism had occupied public attention, and the history of the dancing chairs of Koniushennaia Street also was fresh. So no one could wonder when 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)
The nose as perfect tabloid fodder! Gotta love the slippage here between (1) a supernatural phenomenon (the nose is another freak show thing like possessed chairs), (2) celebrity sighting magnet (Nevsky Prospect is the place to see and be seen in St. Petersburg), and (3) teachable moment (for children and med students alike!). Another great example of just how magical realism happens—the walking-around nose is ostensibly really actually happening in the world, but this wondrous event is treated as though it were just the usual, run-of-the-mill nonsense that fills the gossip pages.
The world is full of nonsense. Sometimes what happens is really completely unbelievable. And so, the nose which lately had gone about as a State Councilor and stirred up the city, suddenly reoccupied its proper place (between the two cheeks of Major Kovalev) as though nothing at all had happened. The date was April 7th, and when, that morning, the major awoke as usual, and, as usual, threw a despairing glance at the mirror, he this time, beheld before him, what?—why, the nose again! Instantly he took hold of it. Yes, really, the nose! (3.1)
So what do we make of Gogol classifying what he's been describing as "unbelievable nonsense"? Are we meant to take this seriously? Is Gogol, like, throwing down the genre gauntlet and challenging us to a fight about it?
To think of such an affair happening in this our vast empire's northern capital! Yet general opinion decided that the affair had about it much of the improbable. Leaving out of the question the nose's strange, unnatural removal, and its subsequent appearance as a State Councilor, how came Kovalev not to know that one ought not to advertise for a nose through a newspaper? […] 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! (3.23-24)
Whoa, Nellie! Now we have not only a bunch of in-story supernatural stuff going on, but also a metafictional bit of the supernatural! (Slow down, there, Shmoop: what does that mean? Well, friends, "metafiction" is a literary device—basically, it's when a piece of art starts being all self-referential, and aware of itself as a work that someone produced. So like, when an actor suddenly turns to the camera and starts talking right to the audience, pointing out that he is in a movie. Or if at the end of the book, we suddenly read that we are coming to the end of the book.) Here, the narrator suddenly points out story problems and then blames the "authors" for them—but… does that mean the narrator has suddenly turned into another reader? Oooooh, spooky.
He stuck in his fingers, and pulled out—a nose! [...] His hands dropped to his sides for a moment. Then he rubbed his eyes hard. Then again he probed the thing. A nose! Sure enough a nose! Yes, and one familiar to him, somehow! Oh, horror spread upon his face! (1.7)
You have to love how Kovalev experiencing fear looking at a facial feature… and that fear is being reflected on his own features. Like, we aren't told that he feels bad, but instead that the badness can be seen on his face. But, uh, without much a face left, how does that horror spread? You can practically hear Gogol laughing at us.
So [the barber] sat silent. At the thought that the police might find the nose at his place, and arrest him, he felt frantic. Yes, already he could see the red collar with the smart silver braiding—the sword! He shuddered from head to foot. (1.14)
Fear seems to pretty much be the barber's main emotion. He's stressed at the idea of exposure and being caught, which is fine, but, uh, shouldn't there be other feelings? Guilt or innocence? Confusion about how this nose came to be in his bread roll? Sudden and dramatic loss of appetite?
"Stop, Prascovia Osipovna! I'll wrap it in a rag, in some corner: leave it there for awhile, and afterwards I'll take it away." […] But at last he got out, and donned waistcoat and shoes, wrapped the nose in a rag, and departed amid Prascovia Osipovna's forcible abjurations. His one idea was to rid himself of the nose, and return quietly home—to do so either by throwing the nose into the gutter in front of the gates or by just letting it drop anywhere. Yet, unfortunately, he kept meeting friends, and they kept saying to him: "Where are you off to?" or "Whom have you arranged to shave at this early hour?" until finding a suitable moment became impossible. (1.10-16)
The barber is totally unable to commit to a plan of action. Everything he does is totally reactive—to his wife, to the nose, to friends he meets on the street. Are we supposed to think that he's different from Kovalev—or is this something the two dudes have in common?
He approached a mirror in some trepidation, and peeped therein. Then he spat.
"The devil only knows what this vileness means!" he muttered. "If even there had been something to take the nose's place! But, as it is, there's nothing there at all."
He bit his lips with vexation, and hurried out of the restaurant. No; as he went along he must look at no one, and smile at no one. (2.5-11)
Ok, so… what exactly is making Kovalev scared here? He's holding up the hanky, so he's clearly stressed about being seen—but is he assuming the reaction of other people will be disgust? Terror? Not really, right? And that's what makes this funny—he's basically acting as if he has a giant zit on his face. His main fear is that he'll be laughed at rather than that he'll be seen as a monster.
Eventually, having once more reviewed the circumstances, he reached the final conclusion that he should most nearly hit the truth in supposing Madame Podtochina (wife of the Staff-Officer, of course—the lady who wanted him to become her daughter's husband) to have been the prime agent in the affair. True, he had always liked dangling in the daughter's wake, but also he had always fought shy of really coming down to business… Yes, the truth must be that out of revenge the Staff-Officer's wife had resolved to ruin him, and hired a band of witches for the purpose, seeing that the nose could not conceivably have been cut off. (2.96-97)
It's interesting that Kovalev immediately gets into some super-paranoid conspiracy theories about what happened to his face. Some of it is probably some guilt about the daughter situation (you know, why isn't he putting a ring on it if he likes it?), but there's also a sense that the whole world that he lives in is kind of a mess of ulterior motives and hidden agendas. When you look at it that way, the idea that this is all part of some big plot against him doesn't seem so far-fetched.
Feeling, somehow, very nervous, he drew the mirror closer to him, lest he should fit the nose awry. His hands were trembling as gently, very carefully he lifted the nose in place. But, oh, horrors, it would not remain in place! He held it to his lips, warmed it with his breath, and again lifted it to the patch between his cheeks—only to find, as before, that it would not retain its position.
"Come, come, fool!" said he. "Stop where you are, I tell you."
But the nose, obstinately wooden, fell upon the table with a strange sound as of a cork, whilst the Major's face became convulsed.
"Surely it is not too large now?" he reflected in terror. Yet as often as he raised it towards its proper position the new attempt proved as vain as the last. (2.117-122)
The nose has been out in the world and it's gotten too fancy for Kovalev. Or something. Basically isn't this just a way over-heightened version of that weird feeling you get when you try to put on clothes that are too cool or too whatever—just not quite right for you somehow? It's like your body isn't really just your body but an extension of your personality. And what if they don't match? Then bye-bye cool new version of yourself.