Study Guide

The Nose The Supernatural

By Nikolai Gogol

The Supernatural

[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.