Notes on Gogol’s “The Nose”

Nikolai Gogol’s story of “The Nose” opens with a macabre scene: a nose found in a loaf of bread. Perhaps this is going to be a murder mystery.

But then the story becomes absurd: the nose found its way into the loaf of bread after having got up and left the face of Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov, and going around town pretending to be a state councillor.

The nose is finally apprehended. There are gaps in the story: we never find out how the nose found its way into a loaf of bread, nor do we hear how it got to shore after being thrown into a river. And finally the nose fixes itself again to Kovalyov’s face. He wakes up one morning and there it is. Until that point the Collegiate Assessor had been unable to reattach the recovered nose, but now it is back, and no reason for the nose’s sudden change of heart is given.

The narrator himself points out all that is unlikely about the story: How could a nose just get up and walk around? Why would it pretend to be a state councillor, of all things? How could it get stuck in a loaf of bread? And the narrator’s conclusion is: doesn’t every tale include such unlikelihoods and omissions of detail? How likely, really, is anything that happens in the world? We might add the philosophical question: Why is there, after all, something rather than nothing?

The day the nose is reattached, Kovalyov spends the whole time checking every mirror he can find, as he walks the streets in triumph: the nose is there, he reassures himself, every time he sees his reflection. The nose is there. Imagine such a thing as still having a nose from one minute to the next being remarkable! And yet it is, along with so many other small miracles we take for granted every day. This, for me, is the lesson of the story.

(I’ve been reading The Overcoat and Other Short Stories by Nikolai Gogol, published by Dover Thrift Editions.)

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