Study Guide

The Nose Society and Class

By Nikolai Gogol

Society and Class

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.