The Essence of Culture in Gogol’s “The Nose”

Nikolai Gogol is known for his satirical works like The Nose which tells the story of a man named Kovalyov who one day wakes up to find his nose missing and riding around St. Petersburg in a carriage as a state counsellor. Although the story has many absurd, yet humorous moments, Gogol uses his characters and their experiences within society to convey his opinions on Russian culture in his day. In The Nose, culture is explored through the characters’ use of appearance, language, and beliefs to reflect the divide between lower and higher class.

Figure 1: Good book to read: "The Nose" by Nikolai Gogol. Anonymous. 2013.

Defining Culture Through Clothing

To an absolute extent, an individual’s appearance reveals a lot about their culture and identity. Clothing transmits a crucial aspect of an individual’s personality, establishing a sense of oneself; nonetheless, some people have little preference for the clothes they wear. Instead in this short story, people dress in ways that suit their social status and society’s values to blend in with people of that same social status. Clothing is seen as a sign of wealth and social rank in many societies, like the one depicted in The Nose. More specifically, clothing reflects one’s level of income. The condition of Ivan Yakovlevich’s tailcoat is described as “piebald… all black but dappled with brownish-yellow and gray; the collar was shiny, and in place of three of the buttons hung just the ends of thread” (Gogol, 1836, p. 60). The irregular patches of colours and the missing buttons show that his clothes were imperfectly cut and presumably worn-out from wearing them so often. In contrast to the clothing of Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov, a client of his, is described as “The collar of his dress shirt was always exceedingly clean and starched” (Gogol, 1836, p. 61) meaning he wears expensive fabric and goes to great lengths to maintain his appearance. The narrator also mentions that Kovalyov, “wore a great many cornelian seals, some with crests and others with Wednesday, Thursday, Monday, etc., engraved on them” (Gogol, 1836, p.62) suggesting that the intricate detail on his uniform is intended to make it more appealing, attracting more attention than a plain uniform. Gogol does not explicitly state each character’s social status but based on the clothing they wear and its quality, it is evident that one belongs to the lower class and the other to the higher class.

Within the same social group, clothing is used to divide socio-economic status. Since the Nose is appointed as the state counsellor while Kovalyov is simply a Collegiate Assessor, the Nose’s clothing is viewed as more elegant and high-status: “He was wearing a gold-embroidered uniform with a big stand-up collar and doeskin breeches” (Gogol, 1836, p. 62). In fact, gold is associated with wealth and the top-notch embroidery work entails that the Nose had a higher status than Kovalyov. Furthermore, Gogol emphasizes the importance of uniforms as prestigious and significant in a culture. Uniforms are worn not only to distinguish a person’s occupation, but also to convey a sense of belonging to a group. The narrator recognizes this prestige that comes with being in uniform when he presents “a police officer of distinguished appearance…wearing a three-cornered hat and with a sword” (Gogol, 1836, p. 60) and later when he comments on the doctor as "a fine figure of a man" (Gogol, 1836, p. 72). The uniforms worn by these characters show their strong image and roles in the Russian culture.

Figure 2: Clothing of Lower class vs. Higher class - Men and woman in fashionable dress sit and stand around as young boys polish the men’s boots. (1801).

The Importance of Hygiene in a Cultural Setting

Some characters in Gogol’s story pay close attention to hygiene, demonstrating how cleanliness evokes their desire for social acceptance, even though this desire affects characters in a different way. After Ivan offers his services to the policeman, the latter bluntly states: “I have three barbers who shave me and deem it a great honor” (Gogol, 1836, p.60) implying that he does not only need one barber but three, in order to maintain his clean look. Another point that deserves attention is the doctor’s cleanness-obsession, described as follows “he had beautiful pitch-black sidewhiskers…and kept his mouth extraordinarily clean, rinsing it every morning for nearly three quarters of an hour and polishing his teeth with five different kinds of little brushes” (Gogol, 1836, p. 72). For Kovalyov, his idea of cleanliness means a great deal when he says to Ivan: “Your hands, Ivan Yakovlevich, always stink” (Gogol, 1836, p. 60) insinuating that Ivan is not up to Kovalyov’s hygienic standards, to which the barber responds: “Why should they stink?” (Gogol, 1836, p. 60) clearly showing Ivan is offended by the comment. Despite the fact that Ivan made a livelihood shaving other people’s chins, his face was never shaven; giving the impression that he had no time for hygienic regimens or that his public image was irrelevant. Still, most of the characters believe having a clean exterior is a way of gaining acceptance and being pleasant to be around in society.

The Language Role in Culture

One of the most significant aspects of culture is language. It is the method by which individuals communicate with one another, allowing them to express their ideas and feelings and form relationships with others. Language has an impact on how people see the world, as a result, on how they choose to interact with it. When a person is exposed to a variety of situations, both informal and formal, the words or speech they employ reveal their true nature. When the barber’s wife sees the nose on the table and yells at her husband “You beast, where did you cut off a nose?... Scoundrel! Drunkard!” (Gogol, 1836, p. 59) exemplifies her forthright personality in a casual context. On the other hand, when the barber is apprehended by the policeman, he removes his cap and says: “I wish your honor good health” (Gogol, 1836, p. 60) proving the barber’s ability to be courteous in a formal context. Kovalyov uses another example of language in a formal context when he says: “my dear sir… forgive me, if one were to look at this in accordance with rules of duty and honor… (Gogol, 1836, p. 63). It appears as if Kovalyov is capable of being respectful, but only towards someone of higher rank, the Nose. It is no wonder that when he arrives home he speaks to his valet in a hostile manner: “You pig, always doing something stupid!” (Gogol, 1836, p. 69) thus underlining his double standerds. The dialogues Gogol establish in his story highlight how people use language in a variety of social circumstances, as well as how language differs by social class, allowing the readership to understand what is not clearly stated, namely, the social classes of characters.

Figure 3: Language in a social setting - Two men performing a show to an audience at a public house, using sign language. (1875).

The Use of Etiquette

Gogol’s impression of etiquette, more specifically of how culture defined and categorized women, is observed in the story as a peculiar theme. This aspect comes to the surface especially with the character of Kovalyov, the town's womanizer. He takes pleasure flirting with any woman that crosses his path whilst convincing her she has a chance to marry him. His usual pick-up line would be: “Listen, my dear woman… come to my place, my apartment is on Sadovaya; just ask where Major Kovalyov lives, anyone will show you” (Gogol, 1836, p. 61). His behaviour confirms his disrespect towards women he has no interest, leading consequently to their objectification. Yet, a different approach is employed with higher-ranking women when he says: “I call at the house of Mrs. Chekhtaryova, a state councillor’s wife. Mrs. Podtochina, Pelageya Grigoryevna, a field officer’s wife, and her very pretty daughter, are also very good friends of mine” (Gogol, 1836, p. 67). This quote provides an example of the main character's attentiveness toward influential people, that are therefore to be respected. Kovalyov not only objectifies women, but he also blames one for his misfortune of losing his nose. Considering all the possibilities of the cause of the missing nose, the narrator comments: “Kovalyov was inclined to think that most likely it was the fault of none other than the field officer’s wife Mrs. Podtochina, who wanted him to marry her daughter” (Gogol, 1836, p. 70). In analysing the use of etiquette in the story, what emerges is its relation to culture. Good etiquette refers to appropriate behaviour in all social situations, not just between acquaintances. Kovalyov, on the other hand, uses etiquette to be included in a high class society and to attempt to climb the social ladder.

Figure 4: The Importance of having a social identity - The Nose or the Conspiracy of Mavericks. Armknecht, O. (2020).

Elements of Religion and the Supernatural

Beliefs are what make a culture different. According to Jervis, the concept of beliefs has several connotations, some of which involve faith and emotions (2006, p. 641). By setting the story in real-life places such as St. Petersburg, St. Isaac’s Bridge, and the Kazan Cathedral, Gogol explains his ideas on how religion is portrayed in a high-class society. Religion is the belief in something divine, such as a god or gods, in which individuals interact with them through prayer. When Kovalyov unexpectedly encounters his own nose dressed as a high-ranking official, he follows the Nose into the Kazan Cathedral, where he sees him “praying in an attitude of utmost piety” (Gogol, 1836, p. 63). It would appear that the nose is praying in order to confess his sins. Symbolically, the Nose represents Kovalyov’s subconscious, which is where all of his misdeeds are hidden. Perhaps Gogol was describing arrogance behaviour as dissociation from oneself; hence, the nose escaping Kovalyov’s body. In The Nose, Kovalyov uses religion to great effect, transitioning from swearing by God to swearing by the devil. For instance, when he enters the coffee house he says: “Well, thank God, there is no one here” (Gogol, 1836, p. 62) giving gratitude that no one can see his disfigurement. During his moments of desperation causes him to plead for mercy saying: “O Lord, O Lord! What have I done to deserve such misery?” (Gogol, 1836, p. 69), therefore resenting God. Likewise, when Kovalyov’s rank or social standing is questioned, he believes it is due to the devil’s antics as he cries: “Damnation! How disgusting! If at least there were something in place of the nose, but there’s nothing” (Gogol, 1836, p.62). As he grew more and more helpless, he believes the devil perhaps took his nose indeed as he exclaims: “How then, how on earth could this have happened? The devil alone can make it out” (Gogol, 1836, p. 74). Gogol hints at the fact that God knows the cause of Kovalyov’s missing nose when the narrator says: “because his nose itself was goodness knows where” (Gogol, 1836, p. 66) suggesting all that is almighty is aware of the unexplained. Unfortunately, Kovalyok has not grasped of what God is showing him, for all he knows is: “the devil must have wished to play a trick on me!” (Gogol, 1836, p. 67).

Another close relation to the devil is the supernatural, which is also discussed in the story. The narrator concludes it is the field officer’s wife who took her revenge on Kovalyok and hired a witch to put a curse on him (Gogol, 1836, p. 70). In Kovalyov’s letter to the officer’s wife, he writes “it is nothing other than the result of a spell cast by you or by those who engage like you in such noble pursuits” (Gogol, 1836, p. 74). According to Worobec, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Russian and Ukrainian peasants living within the Russian Empire shared beliefs in witches and sorcerers, as well as the ability of humans to cross “the boundaries of the moral community” by injuring others with the help of evil spirits and black magic (1995, p. 165). That is the reason why elements of religion and the supernatural are used to represent the characters’ beliefs in the story giving the implication how culture was seen in Gogol’s time.

Figure 5: Kazan Cathedral in Saint Petersburg - The Magic and Mystery of Gogol’s “The Nose”. Angus. (2019).

In conclusion, appearance, language, and beliefs are aspects of culture through which individuals establish their sense of identity as well as their role in society. Clothing may identify a person’s social status, dialogue or speech can alter in socioeconomic circumstances, and religion is viewed differently in a high-class society, according to Gogol’s The Nose. That is why his views on culture were creatively crafted by using the characters in the story to explain that, as it goes today, all of these aspects of culture are critical to human life and development.

Bibliographical References

Bowman, H. E. (1952). The Nose. The Slavonic and east European review, 31(76), 204–211.

Curtin, M. (1985). A question of manners: Status and gender in etiquette and courtesy. The Journal of Modern History, 57(3), 396–423.

Davydov, S. (2006). Gogol’s Petersburg. New England Review (1990-), 27(1), 122–127.

Jervis, R. (2006). Understanding beliefs. Political Psychology, 27(5), 641–663.

Gogol, N. (1836). The Nose. University of Glasgow.

Ruane, C. (1996). Clothes make the comrade: A history of the Russian fashion industry. Russian History, 23(1/4), 311–343.

Worobec, C. D. (1995). Witchcraft beliefs and practices in Prerevolutionary Russian and Ukrainian villages. The Russian Review, 54(2), 165–187.

Visual Sources

Figure 1: Unknown. (2013). Good book to read: “The Nose” by Nikolai Gogol [Illustration]. Splendour Eye.

Figure 2: Unknown. (1801). Men and woman in fashionable dress sit and stand around as young boys polish the men’s boots [Etching]. Wellcomecollection.

Figure 3: Unknown. (1875). Two men performing a show to an audience at a public house, using sign language [Wood engraving]. Wellcomecollection.

Figure 4: Armknecht, O. (2020). The Nose or the conspiracy of Mavericks [Image]. Film.

Figure 5: Angus. (2019). The magic and mystery of Gogol’s “The Nose” [Photo]. Mostly About Stories.

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Jessica Vizuette

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