In "The Nose," Gogol is making fun of a society that is so obsessed with status that anyone—or anything—with the outward insignia of an important official passes muster. Even something as nightmarish or ludicrous as a nose detached from a human face and dressed as a State Councilor causes envy, admiration, and feelings of inferiority in onlookers—every emotion, basically, except those that you'd expect a normal person to feel. Like fear. Or, come on, at least surprise. Even the owner of the nose himself is scared to speak to it because it looks like it outranks him. Gee, the whole "social class" thing is starting to look pretty silly, isn't it?
The story should really be read as the tragic tale of an ambitious nose whose rise in the world is thwarted by a jealous rival.
The object of the satire in the story isn't Kovalev and the middling civil servants like him who obsesses over status, but actually status and ranking themselves.
Brain-twisting question for the win: are you the same person you were yesterday? Are you sure? Well, you might not be in "The Nose." The great paradox of "The Nose" is that identity is both super-specific and unique and at the very same time totally fluid, depending on what markers the identifier is using. For example, the nose itself is both very easy to recognize (the barber knows whose it is as soon as he sees it), hard to recognize (it manages to escape from its own owner by pretending to be a doctor), and able to create for itself a whole new life apart from its place of origin (to the point that it can even deny being Kovalev's nose right to his face). If identity is really so slippery in this world, then what forms the core of any human being there?
In "The Nose," identity is so fluid that actually the fact that Kovalev emerges as the exact same person at the end of the story is a triumphant happy ending.
Gogol suggests that identity is actually completely static and only seems fluid to those who use primarily external markers as a way of identifying others.
"The Nose," like any work of magical realism, does its best to try to blend the supernatural into the normal and expected. Instead of freaking out when they see a nose walking around without a face behind it, people in this story tend to be calmly puzzled, if anything. At the same time, Gogol throws in elements that take the supernatural to the other extreme—those weird fade-outs at the end of the first two sections really up the ooooh-spoooooky ante. Either way, the result is intentionally comical rather than mystifying.
The nose is to Kovalev as the narrator is to the author of the story. Each escapes from its owner and tries to create a separate life.
The story deftly avoids being either a fable with a moral or an allegory with a definite interpretation by wildly veering from one of these genres to the other.
Let's be honest: fear is a great motivator. The fear that you'll fail your Calculus midterm, the fear that your friends won't like your haircut, the fear that your FB status update won't be funny enough to get "Likes"… yeah, fear drives a lot of what you do. Same in "The Nose." Fear of being inadequate, fear that your drive and ambition are still not enough to outperform a fiercer rival, fear of literally losing your manhood or figuratively being castrated, fear of making a fool of yourself in public. Whew. We're feeling a little anxious ourselves. What's more, although each of these fears is represented through Kovalev's interactions with his nose, they each have a more realistic form as well. For example, the ambition of the nose only matches the ambition of Kovalev's higher-ranking friends; while his sexual fears are pretty clearly based on the fact that there's a rival for Mademoiselle Podtochina's hand in marriage.
The nose is a better, less fearful version of Kovalev. It's really just trying to show him the man he could be if he lost some of his hang-ups.
The point of the story is that fear is the glue that holds society together. Take it away, and you've got rogue operators like the nose heading for total domination.