Throughout Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, themes of marriage, love, and intimacy are carefully woven into the lives of the Ganguli family; namely Gogol and his parents. The novel begins with Ashima and Ashoke, Gogol’s parents, and the beginnings of their arranged marriage, and follows for a brief few chapters the development of their intimacy and relationship. Shortly after their move to America, Ashima gives birth to Gogol and the perspective shifts to him. Gogol struggles with his identity as he progresses through public school, and has several brief affairs with girls, until he manages to enter serious relationships with Ruth, Maxine, and finally Moushumi. The anthology of his relationships in comparison to his parent’s relationship deeply signifies how love comes differently to the various people in this story. While there are several central themes in the novel, love is one of the most defining and characterizing of them all. The major theme of love in The Namesake is shown through his more prominent relationships with women, such as Ruth, Maxine, and Moushumi.
Gogol’s first major relationship in the story is the relationship he shares with Ruth. While this relationship doesn’t last long, it is one of the most significant in the novel. Gogol meets Ruth on a train ride back to New Haven to see his family, and quickly becomes infatuated with her and everything she represents. Ruth, also a student at Yale, is a quirky, white American who embodies everything that her parents are not, and Gogol gets his first taste at American love. About a year after they began dating, Ruth begins studying abroad at Oxford for a semester, but when she becomes enamored with the culture and professors, she decides to stay for another term. After spending so much time apart, Ruth and Gogol find themselves arguing and often at odds with each other’s new identities, stating that “her speech was peppered with words and phrases she’d picked up in England, like ‘I imagine’ and ‘I suppose’ and ‘presumably’…. [b]ut within days of being together again in New Haven, in an apartment he’d rented on Howe Street with friends, they’d begun fighting, both admitting in the end that something had changed” (Lahiri 120). The relationship ends between the two, and Gogol is lonely on campus. This first connection that Gogol sets up is imperative because it sets up a precedent for the women he will seek for future relationships, meaning that he will actively seek women who are Anglo-American, liberal, and scholarly, and because it introduces him to love as a whole. Ruth sets up a stark comparison to Gogol’s parents’ relationship and their cultural practices. Gogol, being unfamiliar with love, falls for Ruth instantaneously and allows himself to become enveloped in the comfort that Ruth provides him in their relationship, and therefore allowing him to further push himself from his parents’ lives and culture (Lahiri).
The next major relationship that Gogol partakes in is his relationship with Maxine. In said relationship, Gogol finds initial solace in the separation he gains from his family and their culture, as well as the freedom that comes with that, until eventually she becomes a symbol of guilt and his father’s death. Shortly after he has graduated from architecture school, Gogol is in New York at a lush party when he meets Maxine, a young, attractive, Anglo-American female who fits his rebellious type of woman that he has been seeking since young adulthood. Gogol seems to be infatuated with Maxine’s life and lifestyle, rather than Maxine herself, and he quickly becomes envious of her identity. Maxine lives her lavish life unapologetically, and is entirely comfortable with her identity, something that Gogol has struggled with since birth. Maxine and her family represent freedom from his family’s lifestyle and the inevitable confrontation he will have to have with his own identity. Their relationship is solid, until the first conflict that arises in Gogol’s conscious. This first issue occurs when, on his 27th birthday, he and the Ratliffs are at their cabin in New Hampshire to celebrate. He is surrounded by strangers, who he claims will forget about him by the next day, and Pamela, a family friend of the Ratliffs, makes racist comments about him being Indian and assumes that he cannot get sick because of this. She questions his origins and Lydia, meaning well, states that Gogol (Nikhil) was born in the United States, but then immediately questions it herself. Gogol is irritated by the comments, but then gains an understanding that he is incredibly different from the Ratliffs, even though he had been living with them for an extended amount of time. The next, and final, crux that happens between Maxine and Gogol is his father’s death. Gogol immediately feels guilt that he had not spent more time with his family and therefore associates that guilt with his relationship with Maxine. Gogol spends much more time with his family, which upsets Maxine, and the relationship ends (Lahiri). This relationship is crucial for Gogol’s development as a character, as well as his perception of love and family. Gogol tries to separate himself from his family and their cultural traditions, which Maxine’s relationship with him allows for, but soon he develops a realization that he and Maxine, as well as all of his other Anglo-American girlfriends, are too different and that the women he has been with cannot relate to his background, identity, or emotions that come with the two. This relationship leads him to accept his family more, feeling as though he had taken it for granted after his father passes away, and turns back to them to regain a true sense of identity.
Following his relationship with Maxine Ratliff, things seem to be going well for Gogol as he returns to his family and connects to his heritage, and after a brief affair with a married woman, Gogol’s mother sets him up with Moushumi. The two share a few dates, one in which Gogol purchases an expensive hat for her, and several months later they begin dating. Moushumi, who has spent the majority of her early life in England and Paris, is much different from Gogol and this appeals to his “type” of women that he usually seeks. Moushumi tells Gogol her life story, followed by an introduction of her ex fiancé Graham and a short explanation of the end of their relationship the summer before she and Gogol met. Gogol and Moushumi marry as per their family’s request, in a semi awkward realization that the sari that Moushumi is wearing is from her previous engagement. Months later the two of them are staying in Paris for a conference that Moushumi is attending, and Gogol begins to feel like a tourist both in Paris and in Moushumi’s life. The couple visits a party in which Moushumi betrays Gogol’s trust by exposing his good name. The story then jumps to Moushumi’s perspective, and her high school crush is introduced in a flashback that brings serious foreshadowing to the plot, followed by her writing down Dimitri’s cell phone number and contacting him. The two begin having an affair, and the two split after Moushumi accidentally tells Gogol about Dimitri and their indiscretion (Lahiri). This relationship is crucial for Gogol because it allows him to connect to his roots, find his most true identity, get over his father’s death, and provides a clear comparison between himself and Moushumi. Moushumi, obviously unhappy with the relationship and the safety of being married to someone so similar to herself, cheats on Gogol and represents the rebellious period that Gogol himself went through as an adolescent. Moushumi and Gogol both come from Indian parents, in foreign lands, and went through a period of rejection towards their Indian roots. The difference between the two characters is that Gogol has already matured and realized that his family and heritage is important, while Moushumi is still rejecting that lifestyle. This relationship leads to Gogol accepting his family and the namesake he was given by his deceased father.
Gogol approaches love in many different ways throughout The Namesake, but there is a clear pattern to his methodology towards love and women (Lahiri). Gogol seeks out what he doesn’t have but wants in his relationships, such as with Ruth. He falls in love with Ruth’s carefree intelligence and slight freedom from family, and with Maxine he falls for her lifestyle and her comfort within her own identity. Lastly, with Moushumi he falls for her heritage and background, as well as sense of family. Gogol actively seeks out traits that he doesn’t have, such as comfort with oneself, and he tries to feed off of those traits to gain them himself. These relationships all lead to Gogol’s own acceptance of himself and his identity, and for that reason makes the themes of love and relationships extremely important.