The Nose, by Nikolai Gogol

Major Kovalev, a Caucus-made collegiate assessor (in other words, a minor official who has been elevated by his connections rather than his intelligence), awakens on March 25th to discover that his nose is missing. To his dismay, he later sees his nose masquarading around town in the guise of a state councilor (equivalent rank of general). Kovalev absurdly tries to put his nose in its place.

Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose” is a satirical short story written around 1835. It is one of Gogol’s well-known Petersburg tales. Gogol is the father of Russian modernism and strongly influenced writers like Dostoevsky. Most literary critics consider Gogol to be a social satirist and protector of the little man; though Richard Pevear, in his introduction to The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol claimed: “Whatever semblance of social criticism or satire there may be in the Petersburg Tales is secondary and incidental.” (1) He feels that  Gogol included elements of social satire in his stories, but the satire so quickly dissolves into the absurd that this fantastic element should be considered the primary point of Gogol’s stories. While reading “The Nose” I was struck by the social satire, but I DO agree that, as quickly as it came, the satire faded and absurdity reigned.

My thoughts/summary (may contain middle-of-story spoilers)

Major Kovalev was a stupid, self-important, vain, name-dropping minor official, but as he desperately tried to regain his lost nose I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. Imagine the horror he felt when he awoke to find his nose missing. What would all his important friends think? Would he ever be able to flirt again? This blow was clearly below the belt. He rushed out into the world, impotently searching for his nose when lo! He saw the nose! It was so finely dressed that even Kovalev had trouble recognizing it. At first, he felt chagrin – he wasn’t even sure how to address the clearly-high-ranking nose. But it was his nose, after all, and he mustered up the courage to politely suggest that the nose re-join his face. But the nose politely refused to understand Kovalev. Finally, he blurted out: “It seems you ought to know where you belong, and where do I find you?” The nose blithely answered: “Judging by your dress, there can’t possibly have been close relations between us.” (2)

I had to laugh at that quote. The nose, which had formerly been very intimate with Kovalev, but which is now an elevated rank, pretended that it couldn’t possibly have ever known him. 🙂 Remind you of anyone?

Kovalev then tried to put out a notification in the newspaper saying that his nose was masquerading as a high official, don’t let it fool you…and don’t let it leave town! But the newspaper office was much more interested in lost dogs and bicycles for sale than the heinous nose-theft. They didn’t want the responsibility of such an advert, and so they simply denied that they could do anything about it and suggested another office Kovalev should try. (That reminds me of a time when I called up the customer service of [un-named corporation] and spent a couple hours transferring back and forth from office to office – often the the same office multiple times – to fix a problem that (as it turns out) was an easy fix on the internet.)

The police commissioner was also dramatically unhelpful. The indolent police commissioner had been about to take a nice long post-lunch nap when Kovalev came with his complaint. He should not be expected to start an investigation on a full stomach, the commissioner claimed. “Moreover, they don’t tear noses off decent citizens’ faces.” (2) The police commissioner excused his laziness by blaming the victim for the crime, which, as far as I’m concerned, is crime in itself. A crime that still happens to this day. Whenever we hear “she was asking to be raped – the way she was dressed,” the speaker is excusing his inability to do anything useful about a problem by blaming the victim. 

I adored this story. I got a good laugh while nodding in emphatic agreement with Gogol’s still-relevant criticisms of society. But there are so many other ways of interpreting this work. In his introduction to The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, Richard Pevear says “Gogol was made uneasy by his works. They detached themselves from him and lived on their own, producing effects he had not forseen and that sometimes dismayed him.” Although this statement was not in reference specifically to “The Nose,” it is clear that Pevear (perhaps unconsciously) views the story as an allegory for Gogol’s dismay at the unintentional social impact of his stories. 

(1) Gogol, Nikolai. The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Knopf  Doubleday Publishing Group. 2001. ISBN-13: 9780307803368.
(2) Dialog is taken (sometimes paraphrased) from Gogol, Nikolai. The Diary of a Madman and Other Stories, translated by Andrew MacAndrew. Penguin Group. 1960. ISBN 0451524039.

The Country of the Blind, by H. G. Wells


As another Coursera Fantasy and Science Fiction assignment, I’ve finished reading H. G. Wells’ short story “The Country of the Blind,” first published in 1911. In this story, a mountaineer has an accident and falls into a valley inhabited by blind people who have been separated from humanity for fourteen generations. They do not believe that there is a sense called “sight.” Likewise, the mountaineer discovers that the blind people have strengthened hearing and smell which make them much less helpless than he’d imagined. 

This story is deeply meaningful on many levels, and I had difficulty grasping exactly what to say about it. I could see that it was an allegory in perception…but what was he REALLY trying to say? One student on the class forum suggested a novel with a similar theme of questionable perception: Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, by Edwin A Abbott, first published in 1884. I haven’t had time to read it yet, but it, too, introduces the concept that what we perceive might only be shadows of reality–there may be more dimensions out there that we are blind to. 

A few other students noticed the similarity of Wells’ story to the “Allegory of the Cave” in Plato’s Republic.  I should have seen this myself, but apparently I am blind. 😉 This metaphor pops up often. The best-known reference in today’s popular culture is probably The Matrix–which I suppose can be considered cyberpunk Plato with a Christ figure. 🙂

The allegory is a conversation that Plato attributed to Socrates with Plato’s brother Glaucon. The idea is this: People are chained to chairs in a cave and cannot even turn their heads. Their whole lives, they’ve been watching shadows of the real world which are cast on the cave wall by the light of a fire behind them. To them, these shadows ARE the real world. But imagine the confusion of someone who is untied from his chair and introduced into the real “real world.” After suffering from shock of seeing direct light for the first time in his life, he grows accustomed to the light. Then he is amazed by all that he learns. He wants to share his new knowledge with those in the cave, but when he returns he is blinded by darkness. This blindness is true of the mind’s eye, as well. Both upon walking into and walking out of the light, a person is confused and blinded. I believe Plato meant for the light to be goodness of spirit or divine contemplation.  

Like the people in the cave, the blind people have lived their entire lives without the sense of sight…indeed, without knowing that sight existed. They can’t even imagine what sight is when the mountaineer describes it to them. The mountaineer sees them as blind (literally and figuratively) to the “real world.” Thus far, the allegory fits with Plato’s. However, because the blind people had heightened smell and hearing, I don’t feel that they were in “darkness” and the mountaineer in “light.” I think they were all equally in the dark because they assumed that their OWN world view was the correct one. 

That was the reason I thought this story might be an allegory about the evils of colonization. The mountaineer is like the white man who tries to “enlighten the savages” by forcing “civilized” customs and religions on them. Finally, the mountaineer realized that “you cannot even fight happily with creatures who stand upon a different mental basis to yourself. ” He couldn’t convince them of something that their own senses told them was impossible. In order to fight, you have to be in the same plane of reality.

The Star, by H. G. Wells

Image taken from a NASA Google+ post*

The Star” is an apocalyptic short story written by H. G. Wells in 1897. According to Wikipedia, it founded a science fiction sub-genre of post-apocalyptic fiction in which two celestial objects crash into each other. The description of apocalypse-on-Earth was probably rather original for its time–it was vivid and striking. It also had a very powerful message that was told in a rather unique way. I was reminded of a book I read recently, Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie…not in narrative style (not in the slightest!) but in underlying message.

Spoilers start here:
While I was reading “The Star” I was distracted by the detachment of it all. We seemed to be observing it from afar rather than experiencing it through the eyes of tortured souls. At the last sentence, I realized WHY he made the story so detached. He was writing with the detachment of a far-away observer. Of someone who’s just reading about the events in a newspaper. We see the murders, the famines, the plagues; but we don’t FEEL them. This reminded me of a touching novel about the Biafra / Nigeria civil war: Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In this gut-wrenching, but beautiful book Adichie asks the question “were you silent when we died?” 

Spoiler-free zone commences:
I think it’s horrible how we can watch news of horror and tragedy from afar and simply shake our heads and say “that’s too bad….” and not worry about it any more. The idea of such uncaring thoughts (literally) brings tears to my eyes. And then the biologist in me rears her ugly head and says: this detachment is necessary for our own individual sanity. We have to, at some level, separate personal tragedy from the tragedy of people who have no impact on ourselves. If we didn’t, we would be constantly overwhelmed by emotions that distract us from our own lives and do not provide any personal advantage. I suppose if I were constantly overwhelmed with emotion about distant tragedies, I’d be on the far-opposite end of the autism spectrum. 🙂 I think we should honestly consider the pain of other people and, if we can, do something about it. But where do we draw the line for emotional involvement? I suppose this is something that each individual must answer for him or herself.