Thoughts on Nikolai Gogol’s "The Nose" and "The Overcoat"
July 14, 2010 § 5 Comments
This originally was meant to be part of an online story discussion at this site, but I was busy and couldn’t post it until now:
Although I enjoyed Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls when I read it in grad school during the late 1990s, I never got around to reading any of his short fiction until a few weeks ago. In reading the stories found within The Diary of a Madman and Other Stories, I found a few elements in common among the two stories being discussed, “The Nose” and “The Overcoat,” that I want to explore in this short essay. In particular, I want to concentrate on the use of the comic to set the stage for the tragic.
Of the two stories, “The Nose” is the lighter-hearted and more comic of the two. It is, on the surface, a farce about a government official literally losing his nose and searching for it. For much of the time, Gogol has great fun at this officious official’s expense. In passages such as the one quoted below, much is stated in comic terms about just how stratified Russian society was in the early 19th century:
But, in the meantime, a few things should be said about Kovalev to show what sort of collegiate assessor he was. Collegiate assessors who reach their positions by obtaining academic degrees cannot be compared with the collegiate assessors that used to be appointed in the Caucasus. They are two completely unrelated species. The collegiate assessors equipped with learning…
But Russia is a strange place and if we say something about one collegiate assessor, all of them, from Riga to Kamchatka, will take it personally. The same is true of all vocations and ranks.
Kovalev was a Caucasus-made collegiate assessor. Moreover, he had been a collegiate assessor for only two years. In order to feel distinguished and important he never referred to himself as a collegiate assessor but employed the equivalent military rank of major. (pp. 33-34)
Gogol does an excellent job portraying not just Kovalev as being an officious minor official, but also his use of Kovalev’s absconded nose, first found to be with the humble barber Ivan Yakovlevich, Gogol further mines the possibilities of this societal satire on wealth and privilege when Kovalev’s nose decides to have a few adventures:
Suddenly he stopped dead near the entrance door of a house. An incredible sequence of events unrolled before his eyes. A carriage stopped at the house entrance. Its door opened. A uniformed gentleman appeared. Stooping, he jumped out of the carriage, ran up the steps and entered the house. A combination of horror and amazement swept over Kovalev when he recognized the stranger as his own nose. At this eerie sight, everything swayed before his eyes. But although he could hardly stand on his feet, he felt compelled to wait until the nose returned to the carriage. He waited, shaking as though he had malaria. (p. 35)
Today, this sort of nasal adventure might seem to be nothing more than a farce. But within this story is a darker tale, one of a Russia, where in the 19th century and certainly in the centuries prior to it, social rank and position are key. Without all of the accouterments of high rank, a person there was almost a complete non-entity. Here, Kovalev’s nose could be viewed as a symbol of stripping away of that status, of a sort of metaphorical castration caused by the removal of a sign of rank, even one so fine as a nose. Considering how “The Nose” concludes, this interpretation of the nasal loss as being representative of a stripping away of power, privilege, and ultimately identity perhaps provides some possible solutions for interpreting this story through a perspective that is, in many respects, alien to contemporary Western views of rank and identity.
“The Overcoat” is a darker, more sinister tale. It is a tale of a poor clerk and his inordinate pride in his increasingly shabby overcoat, but it is also a reflection of Russian society during the early 19th century. The introductory paragraphs paints a very grim picture of life then:
Once, in a department…but better not mention which department. There is nothing touchier than departments, regiments, bureaus, in fact, any caste of officials. Things have reached the point where every individual takes an insult to himself as a slur on society as a whole. It seems that not long ago a complaint was lodged by the police inspector of I forget which town, in which he stated clearly that government institutions had been imperiled and his own sacred name taken in vain. In evidence he produced a huge volume, practically a novel, in which, every ten pages, a police inspector appears, and what’s more, at times completely drunk. So, to stay out of trouble, let us refer to it just as a department
And so, once, in a department, there worked a clerk. This clerk was nothing much to speak of: he was small, somewhat pockmarked, his hair was somewhat reddish and he even looked somewhat blind. Moreover, he was getting thin on top, had wrinkled cheeks and a complexion that might be aptly described as hemorrhoidal. But that’s the Petersburg climate for you. (p. 68)
So this is a specific story told through a generic setting, with such a setting as being presented as being necessary due to the nature of the agency for whom this clerk, this wretched mouse of a man worked without distinction. Gogol’s humor here is much less obvious than in “The Nose”; the civil servant is presented as having an outsized pride in his poor, shabby overcoat and it is his efforts to get it repaired and the resulting tragedy that turn this tale into a biting attack on the ridiculous, callous nature of Russian society and especially Russian civil service departments. Gogol portrays the pettiness here through the use of sharp contrasts, most especially between how the poor clerk in this tale sees his prized, shabby overcoat and how his fellow workers view him (and it) with scorn and derisive laughter. It is not a pleasant tale, nor are there any cheery endings. But as a satire, it is effective in how well it presents the absurdities of life in early 19th century St. Petersburg.
If Dead Souls could be viewed as Gogol’s masterpiece of comic social commentary, perhaps “The Nose” and “The Overcoat” could be interpreted as being precursors to that great work. Not only does Gogol engage with elements of Russian society, particularly the vast gap between the privileged classes and the commoners, but his use of farce to underscore this social polarization is effective and hints at what was to come in his most famous novel. These stories, along with the others in the collection I read, certainly are worth reading, not just for fans of Gogol’s longer fiction, but for those curious to see how 19th century Russian writers such as Gogol managed to portray their society during a tumultuous period following the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the 1825-1832 unrest in Poland and other western provinces.