“The Nose” details an “extraordinarily strange incident” of status-obsessed Kovalev and his nose. The story begins with drunken barber Ivan Yakovlevich unexpectedly discovering a nose in his breakfast, which he immediately recognizes as belonging to Kovalev, who is one of his clients. Fearing legal trouble, Ivan Yakovlevich hastily dumps the nose in the river. When a police officer asks him what he’s up to, Ivan Yakovlevich nervously tries to sidestep the question, but the officer won’t relent. The section ends at this exchange, leaving the subsequent encounter between the police officer and Ivan Yakovlevich a mystery.
The second section begins with Kovalev waking up one morning to a smooth patch of skin in place of his nose. Horrified and confused, Kovalev disguises the absence of a nose with handkerchief as he attempts to go about his day. Kovalev soon discovers his nose dressed as a man of high rank entering a church. When Kovalev timidly confronts the nose, the nose responds with annoyance, declaring that he is own person—not Kovalev’s nose. When Kovalev distractedly pauses to leer at a young woman, the nose slips away.
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From there, Kovalev fails to place an ad for his nose in the newspaper when a newspaper clerk declares that the ad would be too strange to print. Then, the police commissioner refuses to assist Kovalev, essentially declaring that whatever happened was probably Kovalev’s own fault. Kovalev returns to his apartment, withdrawing from his regular practice of social climbing and pursuing women.
That evening, though, the police officer from the first section returns the nose to Kovalev. The nose is no longer a gentleman, but is now lifeless and normal-sized. After failing to reattach the nose himself, Kovalev frantically requests a local doctor’s assistance. The doctor ultimately declines to help Kovalev, determining that even though he could reattach it, he thinks Kovalev is better off without the nose. After offering to buy the nose from Kovalev—an offer the protagonist rejects—the doctor leaves.
Wondering how such a terrible fate could have possibly befallen him, Kovalev accuses Podtochina, the mother of a young woman he mistreated, of casting a spell on him. He sends Podtochina a letter threatening legal action. When Podtochina’s reply indicates that she has no idea what Kovalev is talking about, he rules her out as a probable cause.
Meanwhile, rumors of the nose circulate throughout town, and the story of the nose eventually becomes a city-wide myth. With most of the city’s population enthralled, some high-status men dismiss talk of the nose as crude gossip.
The third section picks up two weeks later. Upon waking up one morning, Kovalev is delighted to find his nose suddenly back on his face, as if it had never left. After a careful shave from Ivan Yakovlevich, Kovalev returns to his old ways, climbing the social ladder and objectifying women.
The narrator concedes how the story’s bizarre and unexplained elements are difficult to believe. Still, the narrator maintains that the story is true. He ends the story: “such incidents do happen in the world—rarely, but they do happen.”
The Nose — satirical opera in three acts
Composer: Dmitri Shostakovich
Librettists: Georgy Ionin, Alexander Preis, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Yevgeny Zamyatin
St. Petersburg/Leningrad. Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov gets a shave in Yakovlevich’s barbershop. The following morning, Yakovlevich, to his horror, finds a human nose in a freshly baked loaf of bread. Furious, his wife accuses him of having cut off the nose of one of his customers and orders him to dispose of it. Yakovlevich tries to get rid of the nose in the street but keeps running into acquaintances and becomes increasingly confused. When he finally manages to throw the nose into the Neva River, a police officer sees him and takes him in for questioning.
Kovalyov awakes and discovers that his nose has disappeared. His initial disbelief turns into shock and he rushes off to search for it. Entering the cathedral, he finds the nose, now the size of a human being, at prayer and dressed in the uniform of a State Councilor. He asks it to return to its proper place, but the nose doesn’t understand him and refuses to have anything to do with a person of lower rank. When Kovalyov is momentarily distracted, the nose escapes.
Still in search of his missing nose, Kovalyov arrives at the apartment of the chief of police, who is not at home. Frustrated, he decides to place an advertisement in the paper. At the newspaper office, the clerk is busy with the footman of a countess whose dog has gone missing. When Kovalyov is finally able to explain his situation, the clerk refuses to accept the advertisement, claiming that the paper would lose its good reputation. Kovalyov pleads with him and uncovers his face, revealing that his nose is truly gone. The astonished clerk recommends that Kovalyov sell his story and, in a gesture of friendship, offers him a pinch of snuff. Insulted, Kovalyov leaves. Back home, he finds his servant lying idly on the sofa, playing the balalaika. He sends him away and launches into a monologue of self-pity.
The police have taken up the chase and are looking for the nose. At a railway station on the outskirts of the city, an inspector rallies his men. Travelers get ready to leave. A young pretzel vendor distracts the policemen and general confusion ensues, when suddenly the nose enters running, trying to stop the train. Everybody pursues the nose, which is finally arrested, beaten back to its normal size, and wrapped in a piece of paper.
The inspector returns the nose to Kovalyov, who unsuccessfully tries to reattach it to his face. Even a doctor can’t help. Kovalyov now suspects that the cause of his misfortune might be Madame Podtochina, who put a spell on him for refusing to marry her daughter. He writes her a letter but her reply convinces him that she had nothing to do with the matter. Meanwhile, rumors have spread that the nose is on the loose in the city, and people rush about to catch a glimpse of it until police restore order.
Kovalyov awakes one morning to find his nose back in its place. Overjoyed, he dances a polka. Yakovlevich, who has just been released from prison, arrives to give him a shave. Kovalyov strolls along Nevsky Prospect greeting acquaintances, delighted by the return of his nose. Some of the characters reflect on the story just told.
Source: Metropolitan Opera