Study Guide

The Nose Themes

By Nikolai Gogol

  • Society and Class

    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?

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Would Kovalev been more successful at confronting the nose if it had become a small-time tradesman like the barber? Or would that have been such a low position that Kovalev would have ignored the nose entirely as being beneath his dignity? What emotions does Kovalev seem to feel about the nose?
    2. Why does the nose take Kovalev's ambition? Why not his insecurity or some other quality? Is a nose particularly well matched with a particular aspect of human character? (Think about the phrase "nose in the air.")
    3. Find all the moments when Kovalev is comparing himself to other men (the dude with the young woman at the shopping center, for example, or the dude with a small nose at the end of the story). How are they similar? Different?
    4. Why does Kovalev keep Ivan as his barber even though he has smelly hands and was even implicated in the nose thing by the cop?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Identity

    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?

    Questions About Identity

    1. Why doesn't Kovalev recognize that his nose has turned into the doctor that is fooling him? Is he way dumb or is the nose way clever? Or does it not have to do with intelligence at all?
    2. Both the celebrity seekers and the newspaper advertising man connect all the totally unrelated odd things happening around town together. Why? Is this a way of embracing the weirdness? Cataloguing it for better understanding?
    3. Kovalev starts the story with two identities. Is he really Major Kovalev, who served in the army and got a cushy civil service job out of it? Or is he Collegiate Assessor Kovalev, who is all ready for his next promotion and maybe marriage? What other identities does he pick up as the story goes on? Which stick? Which don't?

    Chew on This

    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 Supernatural

    "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.

    Questions About The Supernatural

    1. The nose is constantly changing size—small enough for a face, big enough to wear clothes, etc. Why doesn't this get brought up in the story itself? What would change if Kovalev or another character thought about this?
    2. Are there any other supernatural elements besides the nose? Do those other strange things (the possessed chairs, etc.) count? Why or why not?
    3. How does the sudden appearance of the narrator as a real life person change the way we see the story? Is this yet another transformation of an mostly inanimate object—the narrator as a structure for the author's voice—into an actual living being?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Fear

    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.

    Questions About Fear

    1. What does Kovalev fear the most? The least? Does that change from the beginning of the story to the end? Why or why not?
    2. Is the nose scared of anything? Is it even scared of being caught? What poses a threat to it, if anything?
    3. Many of the story's confrontations are funny because they are all about social embarrassment and awkwardness—think about the way Kovalev talks to the nose, or the way he talks to the police inspector. How would the story be different if Kovalev were a little smoother and cooler with other people?

    Chew on This

    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.