The Nose by Nikolai Gogol; HarperCollins Publishers (first published 1836); 31 pages; INR 524 (Amazon.in — Used copies)
I’ve always wanted to read at least one of Nikolai Gogol’s works. Why? Because of The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri’s oeuvre that talks about how this name caused an identity crisis of sorts in the mind of a young Bengali immigrant to the States (that, for another review ;)).
Coming back to the short story. It’s the weirdest 35 pages I’ve ever read. I hated it in the beginning. Even the author seems to give up in the end by exclaiming that the entire incident seems ludicrous and quite implausible. However, read it twice, thrice; read about Gogol’s life and the social milieu of 19th century St. Petersberg and an entire array of subtextual underpinnings fly your way.
In my mind, Kovalyov’s (the protagonist) nose is a metaphor for his social standing. The Russian word for nose (Нос) is an anagram of the word for dream (сон) indicating that the Gogol might have intended for the entire story to be a construct of Kovalyov’s nocturnal imagination. However, in some Russian versions, the word for nose was replaced by ‘…’ indicating it might be a placeholder for the slang for the male genitalia (хуй) indicating that the entire episode of the loss of the nose could actually have been castration complex, an overwhelming fear of damage to, or loss of, the male genitalia— indicating emasculation and the fear of being dominated, powerless and feeling insignificant.
Gogol’s society is obsessed with outward appearances and ranks, especially in the bureaucracy that Kovalyov works for. When Kolvalyov discovers one day that he had (literally) lost face, he feels he can never climb the social ladder or find a suitable match for himself. On sighting his nose dressed in the garb of a higher ranking official than himself, he feels a deep sense of anguish and inferiority and orders it to return to its rightful place almost instantaneously. Without the outward embellishment of a nose, he was not even taken seriously when he tried to register an advertisement in the local daily. He had used his nose to look down on the honest Russian working man, [who were almost always]…a terrible drunkard. Even though he was not of very high social ranking himself, he was used to calling himself Major. The nose had entitled him to treat women as prostitutes, calling them to his home if they caught his fancy. He even believed that it was through the black magic of one of his scorned lovers (because he always thought he could get someone better), the daughter of Mrs. Alexandra Grigoryevna, that he happened to lose his respectability in society. In sum, Gogol seems to point out that our dignity seems to have a life of its own, a personality separate from us. The nose is treated as a celebrity when it strolls across the park and finds it easy to shift appearances as per its convenience. Kovalyov used the trick of embellishing his arms with marriage proposals to regain that lost sense of pride. Society often doesn’t identify you as you but by the outward pretenses that you put up for them. Without this, Kovalyov, and indeed all of us feel naked, exposed. The dénouement of the story is when Kovalyov recovers and replaces his nose in its rightful place, he goes back to his previous hedonistic, self-centred life and carries on as if nothing had happened at all.
Hard lessons that are timeless in both Gogol’s Petersberg to today’s rank, money and status-obsessed society. Hard hitting.