Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Nose by Nikolai Gogol

The Nose, a short story by Nikolai Gogol, is a satire about a self-important man who loses his nose and the agonies he goes through as a result. The story is set in 1836 St. Petersburg and is in three parts.

In part one, a barber finds a nose in his newly baked loaf of bread at breakfast. He immediately recognizes it as belonging to as his regular customer, minor government official, a municipal "committee man" Major Kovalyov. The barber tries to get rid of it by throwing it into the Neva River from Issac Bridge, but he gets caught by a police inspector.

This story is a cross between magic realism and sheer nonsense with humor and entertainment mixed up together and dressed in elegant writing. The "telling details" are what beginning writers are always told are important—this here is a fine example of that.

In part two of the story, the major has woken up and discovered a flat patch of skin where his nose should be. He is horrified first for vanity's sake and then for the loss of power in his promotion bid and the loss of consideration as a suitable mate for an acquaintance's daughter and as attractive to other pretty girls.

He rushes off to the chief of police but on the way there encounters his nose dressed up in the gold-embroidered uniform of a state councilor, a higher ranking official as compared to himself. He tries to engage the nose in conversation but is brushed off.

The rest of part two deals with the major's various attempts to retrieve his nose, to no avail. By the time he return home, a police commissary arrives with his nose wrapped up in paper. The major is delighted almost beyond reason. However, his doctor friend cannot fit it back on his for him and advises him to forget about it.

Kovalyov is aghast. He dare not show his face anywhere. Meanwhile rumors run rampant in the city about the doings of the nose, which people pay money to view, though there's of course nothing to see now that the nose is in the major's safekeeping.

On occasion, Gogol talks to the reader directly, at one point saying, "Strange events happen in this world, events which are sometimes entirely improbable." (Just in case, you believed the story to be true...)

In part three, without much fanfare, the nose is back in its appointed position of the major's face. And it's as if all the events in part two were a dream. His barber from part one shows up as scheduled. And Kovalyov struts off into the city.

There are many suppositions about the deeper meaning behind the loss of the nose—some even going so far as to equate it with emasculation. However, most critics maintain it is a study in absurdity.