Nikolai Gogol’s Language Game as the Engine of the Plot in his Absurdist Masterpiece “The Nose”

This is an excerpt from Ksana Blank’s forthcoming book, “The Nose”: A Stylistic and Critical Companion to Nikolai Gogol’s Story. This literary guide leads students with advanced knowledge of Russian as well as experienced scholars through the text of Nikolai Gogol’s absurdist masterpiece “The Nose.” Part I focuses on numerous instances of the writer’s wordplay, which is meant to surprise and delight the reader, but which often is lost in English translations. It traces Gogol’s descriptions of everyday life in St. Petersburg, familiar to the writer’s contemporaries and fellow citizens but hidden from the modern Western reader. Part II presents an overview of major critical interpretations of the story in Gogol scholarship from the time of its publication to the present, as well as its connections to the works of Shostakovich, Kafka, Dalí, and Kharms.

The companion is out April 20, 2021 and is now available for preorder wherever books are sold. The excerpt published here is from the chapter “Language Game as the Engine of the Plot.”


In the annotations to the Russian text of Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose” in the first part of this book, I demonstrate that the originality of the story owes a great deal to Gogol’s wordplay on idiomatic expressions, which are abundant in the work, specifically to the technique of “literalizing” Russian idioms. To be sure, the prime example of such literalization is Gogol’s play with the idiom остаться с носом (“to be fooled”; lit. “to be left with a nose”); this idiom has been noted in Gogol studies on many occasions. In its inverted form it serves as the engine of the plot: the story of how Major Kovalev was left without his nose. The annotations demonstrate that there are dozens of other examples in Gogol challenging the stability of lexical components in set phrases. This device is used for a variety of purposes: to create a comical effect, a biting satire of Russian society, an ironic mode, and a sense of absurdity. These twisted and turned idioms often remain unnoticeable to English readers.

In the section titled “How ‘The Nose’ is Made: Language Game as the Engine of the Plot,” I state that the main protagonist of the story is the Russian language.  

Language Game as the Engine of the Plot

Illustration by Julia Belomlinsky

In this section, I argue that in his language game with the reader, Gogol’s narrator consistently breaks the rules with which the use of idiomatic expressions must comply, thus producing a special type of skaz in “The Nose.”

According to linguistic conventions, idioms (also called idiomatic phrases, set phrases, or phrasemes) differ from “free phrases” in that their meaning bears little or no relation to the meaning of their parts. Thus, for example, the phrase “it’s a piece of cake,” which means “it’s easy,” should not be taken in its literal sense, namely as the sum of the words contained therein. Within a sentence idiomatic expressions function differently from the way “free expressions” do. Specifically, their compatibility with other elements of the text is limited (that is, none of the words should be replaced with another word, not even a synonym). In addition, idiomatic expressions have a fixed syntax. Even the smallest change in syntax usually produces a comic effect. A truncation of phraseological expressions (for example, the use of only some of their components) is also conventionally considered anomalous.¹ As examples given in the annotations to the Russian text of “The Nose” indicate, Gogol’s narrator breaks these rules and conventions by twisting idioms, often “literalizing” them.²

Let us now examine a classification of the phraseological expressions Gogol uses or hints at in “The Nose,” either breaking them or using them in their literal sense. These expressions fall into five major groups.³

Group 1—Expressions containing the word “nose” and words relating to smell

Чтобы духу (чьего) не было (lit. “So I won’t hear its smell”)—highly coll. Used as an independent sentence. It is an order for someone to not appear someplace or quickly leave someplace and not reappear ever again. Eng.: “Get out of here!” [213]. 

Поднимать/поднять нос (lit. “To raise one’s nose”)—highly coll. To behave arrogantly [414].

Хоть кровь из носу <из носа> (lit. “Even if it makes my nose bleed”)—highly coll. In reference to a demand or urgent need to do something. Eng. “No matter what,” “Even if it kills me” [317].

Наставить нос кому (lit. “To attach a nose to someone”)—highly coll. 1. To deceive, to dupe. 2. To disgrace [414].

Утереть нос кому (lit. “To wipe someone’s nose”)—highly coll. To prove one’s superiority in something [414].

Щелкнуть по носу кого (lit. “To snap someone’s nose”)—coll. To reprimand someone [417].

Комар носа не подточит (lit. “A mosquito will not sharpen his nose”)—coll. Used as an independent sentence or subordinate clause. Something is done so flawlessly that no defects can be found. Eng. “It is a very neat job” [296].

Ни за понюх табаку пропасть, погибнуть (lit. “To perish / To destroy someone for less than a pinch of tobacco”)—highly coll. To die, to have one’s career destroyed needlessly, for no (good) reason [487].

As mentioned in the Introduction, the idiom that has a primary significance in the story is the expression остаться с носом, which means “to be fooled” (lit. “to be left with a nose”). The plot of “The Nose” evolves as a literalization of this expression. Gogol reverses the idiom and uses it in its literal sense: Major Kovalev learns that he is left without his nose. While trying to find it, the Major attempts to figure out who might have fooled him (“left him without a nose”)—the barber Ivan Yakovlevich, the staff officer’s wife Podtochina, or the devil.

As is often the case with idioms, because of their archaic nature, the genesis of the expression “to be left with a nose” is vague and unclear. According to the phraseological dictionary, this expression has nothing to do with the nose. Rather it is a homonym of the noun нос, which comes from the verb носить (to carry). In olden times, the word meant “an offering / a ransom”—something that is brought or delivered. The dictionary clarifies, “According to an ancient custom, the groom brought нос to his bride’s parents, i.e., a gift, a ransom. If the bridegroom’s marriage offer was refused, the gift was rejected and the bridegroom would remain ‘with his ransom’ (‘with a нос’).”⁴

Gogol seems to have been familiar with the origin of this idiomatic expression. The story contains the theme of a marriage proposal and a (non-)refusal of the hand of a daughter. Significantly, it is the staff officer’s wife, Podtochina, who uses this idiom in a letter to Kovalev: “You also mention a nose. If by that you mean that I supposedly led you by the nose and intended to refuse you formally (будто бы я хотела оставить вас с носом, то есть дать вам формальный отказ), I am surprised that you speak of it, since I, as you know, was of the completely opposite opinion, and if you were to propose to my daughter in a lawful fashion right now, I would be ready to satisfy you at once, for this has always constituted the object of my liveliest desire, in hopes of which I remain, always ready to be at your service.”⁵

There is also a slightly different explanation of this idiom: in times past, the word нос signified “offering/bribe,” and thus the expression meant “to be left with an unaccepted offering/bribe, i.e., without making a deal.”⁶ Since bribery is one of the main themes in the story, Gogol was familiar with this meaning as well. Thus, the central idiom of the story, “to be left with a nose,” creates  a triple focus: on Kovalev’s loss of his nose, on his inability (or unwillingness) to marry Podtochina’s daughter, and on the problem of bribery common among government officials of the time. All these meanings remain obscure not only for those who read the story in translation but also for many modern readers with a native knowledge of Russian.

Group 2—Words denoting various parts of the body and parts of the face other than the nose 

Намылить шею (lit. “Lather the neck”)—substand. To beat someone severely [812].

Опускать / опустить руки (lit. “To lower hands”)—coll.  To become disheartened and lose the desire or ability to act.  Eng. “X gave up” (in despair) [568].

Не в бровь, а прямо в глаз (lit. “Not in the brow but straight in the eye”)—coll. To say something apt, exactly right. Eng. “Hit the nail on the head” [33].

Язык отнялся (lit. “The tongue fell away”)—coll. Someone suddenly lost the ability to speak. Eng. “X lost his tongue” [830].

Дареному коню в зубы не смотрят (lit. “One should not look a gift horse in the mouth”)—saying. One should not complain about or look for faults in something that is freely offered. Eng. “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” [302].

Нечистый на руку / нечист на руку (lit. “With impure hands”)—coll. One who is inclined to steal or swindle. Eng. “X is sticky-fingered” [574].

Gogol’s manipulation of these expressions creates a favorable background for the central literalized idiom остаться с носом (lit. “to be left with a nose”), which becomes the basis for the development of the plot.

Group 3—Idioms and other fixed expressions relating to emotional states, personal characteristics, and human behavior

Как убитый (lit. “As if killed”)—coll. About someone sleeping very soundly, someone falling into a deep sleep; Eng. “Dead to the world” [721].

Сапожник <всегда ходит> без сапог (lit. “A bootmaker never has boots”)—highly coll. To do something very poorly or clumsily [584].

 —Знать свое место (lit. “To know one’s place”)—occas. derog. To act or behave in keeping with one’s position. Eng. “To know one’s place” [363].

Во всю ивановскую (lit. “So that the whole Ivanovskaya hears it”)—highly coll. Someone who does something at a very high level of intensity [263]. Usually used with sound verbs: to shout,  to snore.

Плевать в потолок (lit. “To spit at the ceiling”)—coll. To idle, do absolutely nothing [499].

Поехал в Ригу (lit. “Went to Riga”)—old-fash., euph., past tense, highly coll. To vomit, usually as a result of excessive intoxication [545].

Знает кошка, чье мясо съела (lit. “The cat knows whose meat it ate”)—saying. The person knows that he is guilty (said of a person whose behavior suggests that he is aware of his wrongdoing). Eng. “That’s your <his> guilty conscience speaking” [309].

Мost of the expressions in thеse three groups have no direct equivalents in English, which makes translation difficult. Only a few of them can be rendered in English without any loss in meaning, such as, for example, the expression “to know one’s place.” The narrator uses it in the episode in Kazan Cathedral when Kovalev addresses his nose to tell him/it that the nose “must know his/its place.” The phrase figuratively implies that the nose must behave in keeping with his position, whereas literally it means that it must return to Kovalev’s face. The humor of this remark can be easily preserved in translation.

Another example of a linguistic equivalence is the episode when Kovalev, examined by the doctor, pulls his head “like a horse who is looked in its teeth.” The phrase brings a strong association with the English proverb “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” which means “Don’t be ungrateful.” In Russian, this ancient proverb is phrased as дареному коню в зубы не смотрят (lit. “one should not look a gift horse in the teеth”). The hint at this proverb creates a double entendre: the doctor examines Kovalev as if he is not a human being but an animal, thus behaving very unprofessionally.

In most cases, however, the narrator’s language game becomes lost in translation, as, for example, the most brilliant instance of a literalization—the episode in which the narrator reports that Kovalev’s servant, Ivan, лежа на спине, плевал в потолок (lit. “lying on his back, spat at the ceiling”). In Russian, the idiomatic expression плевать в потолок (to spit at the ceiling) signifies “to do nothing” (the English equivalent is “to sit twiddling one’s thumbs”). Gogol gives a literal meaning to this expression, thus creating a comic effect and a sense of absurdity. The subsequent remark that the servant попадал довольно удачно в одно и то же место (lit. “successfully hit the same place”) makes the joke hilariously funny in Russian and introduces an even greater degree of absurdity.


1. V. Z. Sannikov, Russkii iazyk v zerkale iazykovoi igry (Moscow: Iazyki russkoi kul′tury, 1999), 298–99.

2. Sannikov calls this device a “reanimation” of the original meaning of the words constituting an idiomatic expression, a practice that creates a comic effect. Ibid., 297.

3. In each group the expressions are accompanied by brief commentaries from Lubensky, Russian-English Dictionary of Idioms, with page numbers indicated in square brackets. The expressions are listed in the order in which they appear in the story.

4. A. K. Birikh, V. M. Mokienko, and L. I. Stepanova, eds., Slovar′ russkoi frazeologii: Istoriko-etimologicheskii spravochnik (Saint Petersburg: FolioPress, 1998), 409.

5. Nikolai Gogol, “The Nose,” in The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, 321.

6. Birikh, Mokienko, and Stepanova, Slovar′ russkoi frazeologii, 409.

Ksana Blank is a senior lecturer in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Princeton University. She is the author of Dostoevsky’s Dialectics and the Problem of Sin (2010) and Spaces of Creativity: Essays on Russian Literature and the Arts (2016).

“The Nose”: A Stylistic and Critical Companion to Nikolai Gogol’s Story is available for preorder here and wherever books are sold.