Study Guide

The Nose Identity

By Nikolai Gogol


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?