How Can Literature Define the Parameters of Identity?

An astutely stated and compelling assertion that “perhaps it’s impossible to wear an identity without becoming what you pretend to be” brings light to one of the myriad disputes concerning what constitutes the core of any human being and whether or not man remains fundamentally the same person depending upon his chosen markers of identity. On the other hand, one of the greatest dramatists of all time and a pertinent figure in the development of literary Realism, Ukrainian-born novelist Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol seeks to resolve such a question by exploring the peculiar fate of a pretentious man whose nose has gone missing in his satirical short story The Nose. Structured in a linear, chronological fashion, The Nose captures the classic conflict of developing one’s identity through a supernatural twist in which the protagonist Major Kovalyov’s own nose detaches itself from his body and leads a separate life as a civil servant. Challenging the literal paradigm of verisimilitude and logic, Gogol entwines the idea of identity only being external with the simplistic, one-dimensional portrayal of his characters and the absence of a character arc to suggest that identity itself is static and solely changes to those who use physical markers to recognize others.

Identity is characterized in an unconventional manner since Gogol presents it as being a profoundly external quality rather than a psychologically intuitive entity. Collegiate assessor Kovalyov, for instance, a civil servant characterized by his extensive arrogance and egotism prior to losing his nose such as in, “he never called himself collegiate assessor, but ‘Major’” (6), easily switches identities with his nose and treats it like a higher-ranking individual when he encounters it in the church:

“‘My dear sir (…) You will agree that it’s not done for someone in my position to walk around minus a nose. (…) If one considers this from the point of view of duty and honor… then you yourself will understand’” (9-10).

By the same token, the nose concedes Kovalyov’s exchange and acts in control of its own individual existence since it is “a person in [its] own right” (10), dismissing the man as a low-ranking official for pestering it with questions of being a nose. Furthermore, the nose contentiously responds to Kovalyov by proclaiming, “‘I don’t see that we can have anything in common. Judging from your uniform buttons, I should say you’re from another government department’” (10-11), which Kovalyov deems appropriate given the situation. Essentially, their conversation and switched roles reveal that Gogol’s Saint Petersburgian society values outward appearance far more than true identity of which the latter only varies to those who rely on external markers as a means of identification. In addition to such an establishment of static, superficial identity, Gogol hints that there exists a significant imbalance between characters’ personal evaluation versus how the rest of the world perceives them (as in Kovalyov’s case prior to the loss of his nose, for instance). Thus the absurd encounter between Kovalyov and his nose implies that the basis of one’s identity lies almost exclusively in how an individual chooses to present himself to the world and nothing else.

The aforementioned conclusion, likewise, inevitably leads to a noticeably oversimplified and frivolous representation of the story’s characters. Effectively, the characters’ personalities are all fundamentally defined by their physical characteristics which determine their psychological profile to a certain extent. A minor character and Kovalyov’s barber, tradesman Ivan Yakovlevich, for instance, is described as a scornful, jaded cynic and drunkard based upon the mere observations that “his frock-coat (…) could be best described as piebald: (…) it was black, but with brownish-yellow and gray spots all over it” (4) and that “his collar was very shiny, and three loosely hanging threads showed that some buttons had once been there” (4) in spite of the fact that basic facts about him such as his surname “[have] been lost” (1). Furthermore, his cynicism is supported by Kovalyov’s comment that Ivan’s hands always stink, to which Ivan replies, “‘But why should they stink?’” (4); hence, characterization in The Nose is exaggerated and superficial, contributing to the story’s overall satirical attributes. Even Kovalyov’s character is entirely dependent upon his external appearance; prior to losing his nose, his personality is a pompous one dictated by pretension and contempt towards others. Nonetheless, upon traversing town with a flat, noseless face, Kovalyov is obstructed from flirting with a woman because “he remembered that instead of a nose he had absolutely nothing, and tears streamed from his eyes” (11). In such a way, Gogol makes use of abundant highly specific yet impractical details to externally identify characters.

Thus, Gogol’s one-dimensional characterizations effectively contribute to the absence of a character arc. Unlike traditional stories in which there exists a convention for the protagonist to undergo a transformation or inner journey, The Nose’s main character Major Kovalyov remains perpetually unchanged despite the hectic series of events concerning the loss of his nose. Kovalyov, an arrogant egocentric at the start of the story, is consumed by status and wealth such as when he only calls himself “Major” to “make himself sound more important and to give more weight and nobility to his status” (6). Moreover, Kovalyov doesn’t hesitate to belittle those around him whilst he refers to women as prostitutes in, “If he met a woman in the street selling shirt fronts he would say: ‘Listen dear, come and see me at home’” (6-7), and his brash, flirtatious temperament follows him throughout. Only for a very brief occasion in the second part of The Nose is Kovalyov shook and humbled by losing his nose such as when he is no longer confident enough to approach women, hence “reducing [him] to utter despair” (12). However, as soon as he wakes up with his nose back on his face, Kovalyov’s newfound humility shrivels, and he gads about “as though absolutely nothing had happened” (34). His recurrent pompous, overconfident behavior continues seeing as “he was in perpetual high spirits, always smiling, chasing all the pretty girls, and on one occasion even stopping (…) to buy ribbon for some medal, no one knows why, as he did not belong to any order of knighthood” (34-35). It is clear therefore that Kovalyov is static and steadfast in his refusal to change in any way, adding an element of absurdism to the story as to how one could undergo such a ghastly situation without any psychological effect. In this way, Gogol defies conventional literary aims by introducing a flat, one-dimensional character to support his story’s absurd motif.

The Nose eloquently captures one of the many interpretations of identity by accentuating its static quality throughout its audacious, brazen protagonist. During the course of the entire story, bizarre extremes such as assumptions that identity is based purely off of external aspects rather than psychological innateness, preposterously oversimplified characterizations, and petulant, unchanging characters all support Gogol’s initial notion that one’s identity is constant and will only vary slightly according to certain identifying markers. Through his supernatural “twist” added to an originally realistic plot as well as several Surrealist elements, The Nose is a literary masterpiece and satirical gold that cleverly makes use of humor and cynicism to poke fun at society’s self-absorbedness, pomposity, and lack of identity. Yet simultaneously, Gogol intuitively warns his readers of the difficulty involved in wearing an identity without becoming what one pretends to be, but that above all, psychological freedom is unattainable without independence over one’s own life and development for himself.