The Namesake Novel
Love in The Namesake
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.
Isolation and Identity in The Namesake
The Namesake explores the themes of isolation, identity, clash of cultures and the immigrant experience. Through the Ganguli family Lahiri looks at how the immigrant experience is different for the two generations of immigrants, Lahiri does this by first introducing us to Ashima’s experience and her feeling of alienation which is representative of most of the first generation immigrants. Lahiri contrasts Ashima’s experience to Gogol’s experience as a second generation immigrant when the perspective changes to that of Gogol. Lahiri illustrates the problems he faces like lacking an identity and feeling isolated from his two cultures. The book starts with Ashima’s perspective, which gives us an insight about her feeling of isolation, homesickness and alienation from her new home. Ashima has a difficult time letting go of her Bengali culture, she tries to hold on to it as much as possible, whereas Gogol tries to disconnect himself as much as he can from his roots as he has grown up seeing and accepting the American culture, which he feels he cannot be fully apart of if he accepts his Bengali heritage, so in order to fit in the American society he goes out of his way to forget all about his Bengali roots. Lahiri shows us the journeys of the Ganguli family members, and us how the parents slowly start accepting the American culture through their children, while the second generation try to figure out which culture they belong and discover their true identity.
In the very beginning of the novel we can tell that Ashima is feeling very homesick, and Lahiri makes this clear when Ashima says “nothing feels normal” to her in this alien land. We find out that Ashima is “… terrified to raise a child in Country where she is related to no one, where she knows so little, where life seems so tentative ands spare.”, this presents one of her biggest fears of raising Gogol in a place where there is a different culture and different people, that she does not understand and she knows nobody here which strengthens the theme of isolation and the immigrant experience. We also know her night at the hospital is “…the first time in her life she has slept alone, surrounded by strangers”, which again stresses upon the theme of Ashima’s isolation, as it shows us how important family is to her and now in this new land she does not have them with her by her side. Ashima tries to hang on to her beloved Bengali culture through symbols of her home such as her “tattered copy of Desh magazine… “, the watch she got as a departing gift, her group of friends, Bengali books, letters from her family back home and traditional celebrations and practice. Her group of friends “…all come from Calcutta, and for this reason alone they are friends.”, which shows us what a strong bond and connection sharing the same values and norms of the Bengali culture can bring about in first generation immigrants, as they feel like they can after a long time relate to someone. Even after the culture shock, the Ganguli parents have to go through a lot of other hardships as they are now isolated from their loved ones, and Lahiri tells us that “… Ashoke and Ashima live the lives of the extreme aged, those for whom everyone they once knew and loved is lost… Even those family members who continue to live seem dead somehow, always invisible, impossible to touch.”, and so all the loved ones they have loved behind are lost to them since they hardly communicate and even if they do ones in the while it is impossible to truly connect and feel their presence over the phone. “…Ashima is beginning to realise, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy — a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. “, here Lahiri describes how Ashima feels a lack of belonging, and is constantly waiting for some connection to be formed, she tells us assimilation is a “constant burden” and living in this environment surrounded by an alien culture she feels “out of sorts.”, and it is for this reason that she wants to go back to her loved ones in Calcutta and raise Gogol there, but does not for Ashoke’s sake.Even when they go to visit India the trip is “…put behind them, quickly shed, quickly forgotten… irrelevant to their lives”, which reinforces the theme of isolation from ones home Country and the immigrant experience.
A little later on in Ashima’s journey, she started to feel more settled and in control of her new life, although she does not assimilate fully into her new culture she is learning to come to her own terms with it. We see that“By and by she comes to her own, takes pride in rearing up the child, moves out alone in the market with her baby in the pram, communicates with the passers-by who smile at her and goes to meet her husband on the campus, thus growing confident…”, so she starts to become more confident and less intimidated by the new culture and people. Ashima and Ashoke make a very active effort to preserve their culture in their new home, they teach their children they language and teach them about their traditions and beliefs. One example could be the rice ceremony they had for Gogol, and when they asked him to memorize a four-line poem by Tagore. However, Ashima and Ashoke realize that for Gogol his American culture is also important to him, but they do not realize just how much until later on. Ashima gets her first job in the library, “… she is friendly with the other women who work at the library…They are the first American friends she has made in her life.”, so we can tell that Ashima is really growing and becoming more comfortable with the American society, and is breaking out of her isolation by diversifying her group of friends to more that just Bengali’s. Lahiri tells us “she has learned to do things on her own”, and we can see this as she has her own job, a bigger group of friends, and learns to do different tasks. Towards the end of the novel when Ashima decides to stay in India for six months every year and is packing up her home, we come to know that “She feels overwhelmed by the thought of the move she is about to make, to the city that was once home and is now in its own way foreign.”, this shows us that she feels like her name suggests “…without borders”, and she feels that because it’s been such a long time India which was once her home without any doubt, is also starting to feel “in its own way foreign”, this also highlights the themes of the importance of names and the immigrant experience. Lahiri makes it clear to us that “… she does not feel fully at home within the walls of Pemberton Road she knows that this is home nevertheless…”, for Ashima this is her home as well, for which “…she is responsible.” again showing us how much she has grown over the years, and it tells us that she has made a lot of effort to make Pemberton Road home for herself and her family, and feels proud to have done that successfully.
Ashoke embraces their new life, while Ashima clings to her culture with full force, and Gogol and Sonia feel like they don’t belong in either culture and try their best to fit in to their American surroundings. Ashoke is quite settled as he has a job he is proud of, “what a sense of accomplishment it gives him to see his name printed under “Faculty”in the university directory”, here the theme of the American Dream is touched upon, how Ashoke is now working his dream job and living in America it was possible for him to find such a perfect job. Ashima is not willing to change herself and her culture, and “Though Ashima continues to wear nothing but saris and sandals from Bata, Ashoke, accustomed to wearing tailor-made pants and shirts all his life, learns to buy ready-made.”, and so we can tell that Ashoke is quickly assimilating into the American culture and making little changes that make him feel more apart of the American culture. He is also informed about the politics in the US, as “He reads about U.S. planes bombing Vietcong supply routes in Cambodia…”, and now has more exposure to the outside world and US itself. Although the Ganguli parents try to raise their children in the Bengali way, Gogol and Sonia are both very influenced by the American culture outside of their home. Sonia and Gogol try to find themselves and what culture they fit into, and because they are exposed to the American culture and grow up surrounded by it, they think of it as their best match. When ‘Nikhil’ calls his New haven hostel his home, Ashima does not approve and does not understand this need for distance or Gogol’s very American behavior. Ashima does not force her future upon her children, but teaches them about it hoping they will learn to accept it and eventually follow it. We know that the children face an identity crisis and Lahiri sums this up when she says: “The question of identity is always a difficult one, but especially for those who are culturally displaced, as immigrants are who grow up in two worlds simultaneously”. The children of the migrants face their own problems that are different from the ones of their parents, as they do not feel they belong fully to either culture, and Lahiri shows us this through mostly Gogol and Sonia in some cases. It is due to their children that Ashoke and Ashima reluctantly start embracing the American traditions and culture, and“For the sake of Gogol and Sonia they celebrated with progressively increasing fanfare, the birth of Christ, an event children look forward to more than the worship of Durga and Saraswati.”. Lahiri also tells us that the children prefer the American culture over the Indian, because they are more familiar with this culture. The children help their parents assimilate to the American culture, and here the theme of clash of cultures also comes about. Even when Gogol falls in love with various American girls, although his parents do not approve, they are almost forced to accept it for the sake of their children. This also makes it clear that there is a big cultural gap between the first and second generation of immigrants. Food is an important symbol of the Bengali culture, and soon they make sacrifices when it comes to Bengali food since “In the supermarket they let Gogol fill the cart with items that he and Sonia, but not they, consume.”, which emphasizes on the clash of cultures and the cultural gap between the parents and the children. So, it can be said that the children bring both their parents closer to and help assimilate them into their American culture.
Gogol wants to change his name in order become more like his American classmates and people outside of his home, however to do so he tries to get rid of his past and he does this by avoiding any reminders of the past like his family. Eventually he gets rid of the name Gogol and tries to become someone else. Lahiri still calls him Gogol so we know that Gogol is his real self, but Gogol doe not know this at the time. Gogol feels like his name alienates him from both his cultures “For by now, he’s come to hate questions pertaining to his name, hates having constantly to explain and tell people that it doesn’t mean anything in Indian…”, Lahiri is trying to show us that Gogol feels like his name holds him back from being apart of both the American and Bengali culture. Gogol starts to think about changing his name, and “In history class, Gogol has learned that European immigrants had their names changed…Though Gogol doesn’t know it, even Nikolai Gogol renamed himself…”. Lahiri also emphases the similarity between Gogol and his namesake, since even his namesake had changed his name. Gogol does not understand the point of having two names, Ashima replies saying “It’s our way”, it almost implies that Gogol does not know understand the Bengali way and does not want to follow it, however it is still the “way” of his parents.
He manages by entering university far from his parents to separate himself from his family geographically. So now he can create his own world and personal identity for himself in a place where everybody would know him as Nikhil. In his new world he finds Gogol uses their relationship as an escape from finding out his own identity, and from his past. He starts living with Maxine in her parental home, and begins to distance himself from his own family as much as possible. He stops responding to his mothers phone calls, partly because he does not want to be reminded of his past of who he was before and how different that is from who he has become or is trying to be. “He is conscious of the fact that his immersion in Maxine’s family is a betrayal of his own”, he knows that he is being distant from his family and by spending so much time with Maxine’s family where he feels like he fits in, but he knows his parents would not; “He cannot imagine his parent’s sitting at Lydia and Gerald’s table… And yet here he is night after night… doing just that.”. By spending so much time with Maxine’s family who are so different from his own and who he prefers to spend time with, he feels by doing this he is being disloyal to his own family. The word “betrayal” and the fact that he is thinking about being disloyal to his family, hints that he is feeling guilty about it and knows he is doing something wrong. However, “he feels free of expectation, of responsibility, in willing exile from his own life”, this relationship is an escape for him. This life that he creates becomes nothing more than an escape from the old one, and with Maxine and her family he celebrates his twenty-seventh birthday, “the first birthday in his life that he hasn’t spent with his parents either in Calcutta or Pemberton Road.”, which goes to show how much he has distanced himself from his family, and almost completely replaced them with this relationship that serves as an escape from his parents and the culture they used to share. On his birthday “…he remembers that his parents can’t possibly reach him… That here at Maxine’s side, in this cloistered wilderness, he is free.”, this verifies that Gogol views their relationship as a retreat from his old life and in the process he feels “free”.
Everything changes for Gogol after his father passes away, his attitude towards his family completely changes and so do his priorities. Maxine cannot understand what Gogol’s going through and does not realize how much this effects him, she asks him to get away from his family for a while, but he replies saying “I don’t want to get away.”. His priorities shift from Maxine to his family, and “He does not want to be with someone who barely knew his father, who’s met him only once”. He begins to reflect on his relationship with his parents, and he realizes he should not have tried to escape them. His father is gone now and he knows that it is too late to get to know his father better now, so he begins to search for his father by finding whatever is left of him, so he can find a sense of connection with his father. He now wants to get in touch with his family and embrace the Bengali part of him, he does this by coming together with Moushumi, spending time with his family and trying to understand his parents and their culture. He starts looking up to his parents now, as “He knows now the guilt that his parents carried inside, at being able to do nothing when their parents had died in India, of arriving weeks, sometimes months later, when there was nothing left to do …”. He also starts to grasp some of the Bengali traditions,“ Years later Gogol had learned the significance, that it was a Bengali son’s duty to shave his head in the wake of his parent’s death.”, Lahiri shows us that Gogol has after all this time connected to his parents and their culture. Finally, he starts to also accept and try and understand his name, “The name he had so detested, here hidden and preserved — that was the first thing his father had given him”. By doing this he is also finding another way to connect to his father through the name that his father had given him.
In The Namesake Lahiri records the journey of the Ganguli family members to finding their own identities (personal and cultural) and finding a sense of belonging. Lahiri looks at the immigrant experience in depth using the experiences of the Ganguli family. Lahiri also looks at the different problems the first and second generation of immigrants face. Ashima represents the first generation immigrant who feels homesick and displaced, Lahiri tracks her journey and towards the end we see just how much she has grown. Then we the novel switches to Gogol’s perspective, who is the second generation immigrant and looks at all the problems he faces with confusion about his identity
In The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahari explores the themes of identity, clash of culture, isolation, importance of names and family. Both of the Ganguli parents, especially Ashima, struggle with assimilating to this new culture that they are not accustomed to. Lahiri looks closely at the contrasting experiences of first generation and second generation immigrants, Lahiri looks at the cultural gap between the two and all the problem that they face. By reading Lahiri’s prose, we get an insight to Bengali culture through the customs, traditions and language that Ashima and Ashoke hold on to. Jhumpa Lahiri recalls that it was easiest for her father arriving in America. “In an office setting he was a part of another family structure, contributing to another purpose. My mother would go for days and days at home. The outside world was scarier to her for longer.”, which is similar to how she portrays Ashima and Ashoke’s experience. Through Ashima’s pain and struggle to build a new life in a different world, the theme of the immigrant experience and dislocation are made clear.
We are introduced to Ashima when she is “combining Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl”, and thus we find out that “Ashima has been consuming this concoction throughout her pregnancy, a humble approximation of the snack sold for pennies on Calcutta sidewalks”. This first paragraph introduces us to the theme of clash of cultures, as Ashima is using Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts; which are two American products, to make an Indian snack. We also learn that “it is the one thing she craves.” which emphasises her home sickness, and also gives the impression that she craves for the familiar culture and atmosphere. Food plays an important role in the Namesake, it is used as a symbol for Bengali culture, and emphasises the dislocation and homesickness Ashima and Ashoke face. We see at the very beginning of the novel that Ashima is trying to hold on to her culture through Indian food and “her Murshidabad silk sarI”. “She is asked to remove her Murshidabad silk sari in favor of a flowered cotton gown that, to her mild embarrassment, only reaches her knees. ”, which introduces the theme of clash of cultures.
Lahiri continues to emphasis the theme of dislocation, the immigrant experience and clash of cultures through Ashima’s experiences; we also find out how much Ashima has had to give up for Ashoke and Gogol. “It is the first time in her life she has slept alone, surrounded by strangers; all her life she has slept either in a room with her parents, or with Ashoke at her side.”, this shows us how sheltered Ashima has been all her life, sand implies this experience is out of her comfort zone. We find out the extent to which she has been sheltered when she reveals “twenty-six members of her family had watched from the balcony at Dum Dum Airport, as she was drifting over parts of India she’d never set foot in, and then even farther, outside India itself,”. Not only was Ashima very sheltered, but she was also very close to her family, knowing this we realise she has left everything she knows and loves behind. We can predict that coming from such a sheltered background and having a lack of exposure to the outside world, Ashima would have a hard time understanding American culture, and so it would be a constant struggle for her to assimilate to the new culture. This is a complete change for Ashima, and a change that is too far from her comfort zone, Lahiri emphasises this when she associates physical pain with the “American seconds” as she tells us “American seconds tick on top of her pulse point, For half a minute, a band of pain wraps around her”. This foreshadows how painful the immigrant experience is going to be for Ashima. Lahiri also points out that Ashima feels “relief.” as “She calculates Indian time on her hands…And then, again, relief. She calculates the Indian time on her hands.”, which goes to show India is where she feels comfortable.
Now Ashima is in a hospital giving birth in this alien land where nothing seems familiar. “Nothing feels normal to Ashima. For the past eighteen months, ever since she’s arrived in Cambridge, nothing has felt normal at all.”, everything is unfamiliar and there are no loved ones except Ashoke to give her the support she needs in this time. She is so used to being with her family on an everyday basis, that is feels strange or “miraculous” that she is giving birth without any of her family members around, other than Ashoke. “It’s not so much the pain, which she knows, somehow, she will survive. It’s the consequence: motherhood in a foreign land.”, so we know the pain doesn’t bother her, it’s raising Gogol in this unfamiliar Country, her fear is explained further as Lahiri writes “she is terrified to raise a child in a country where she is related to no one, where she knows so little…”, and this introduces the theme of clash of cultures. Ashima admits she knows very little about the American culture which Gogol will grow up immersed in and we get a hint that Gogol is going to have a disconnected relationship with his parents, because of the clash of cultures, and even Ashima worries that this might just be the case. She also fears raising Gogol alone without the help of her family. Knowing how scared and distressed Ashina is, creates empathy towards her in the readers. especially as we see her fear manifest itself into reality. Lahiri also hints that Ashima will remain homesick and find it difficult to settle, as she has nothing to do in this Country, and her life may start seeming “tentative and spare” to her. Ashima stays at home, cooks clean and takes care of Gogol and here traditional gender roles are also present.
We see both Ashoke and Ashima struggling to asimilate and also trying to hold on to their cultural identity. “Ashima looks up from a tattered copy of Desh magazine”, this magazine that she “still cannot bring herself to throw away.”. is a symbol of her culture and all that she has left behind which she is clutching on to through this magazine as well as other symbols. Other symbols that represent her culture include the people she associates with who are all Bengali, we notice that “Apart from his father, the baby has three visitors, all Bengali”. There are moments that show just how much pain and isolation Ashima feels, a powerful example is when “Patty smiles, a little too widely, and suddenly Ashima realizes her error, knows she should have said “fingers” and “toes.” This error pains her almost as much as her last contraction. ”. These little errors make her feel disconnected from this alien place and culture.
Ashima is not comfortable with raising Gogol in an apparently alien land, especially because she feels he will be distanced from his extended family, and she wants him to have a good relationship with his family like she does. Ashima “…can’t help but pity him. She has never known of a person entering the world so alone, so deprived.”, unlike Ashoke she feels sorry for Gogol, because he will not have that extended family bond, that he could have had if he was raised in India. This concerns Ashima so much so that she tells Ashoke “… I don’t want to raise Gogol alone in this country. It’s not right. I want to go back”, and although Ashoke feels guilty for bringing her to this alien environment, they both decide to stay for Gogol’s sake. Ashima wants to remain close and connected to her family, and so she asks her grandmother to name Gogol, however the letter gets lost which leaves Ashima disappointed and feeling disconnected from her past. Ashima tries to hold on to her cultural identity by only associating with Bengali acquaintances and we find out “They all become friends only for the reason that they all come from Calcutta.” Robert Cohen comments that “distinct diaspora communities are constructed out of the, . . . conference of narratives of the old country to the new which create the sense of shared history. Thus a member’s adherence to a diasporic community is demonstrated by an acceptance of an inescapable link with their past migration history”.
Lahiri also emphasis the importance of name through Ashima, as we are told the meaning of her name and we see how accurate the meaning is for Ashima. “Ashima means “she who is limitless, without borders.”, and as Ashima grows she becomes even more true to her name, because by the end Ashima no longer can call either India nor America home. Throughout the play although Ashima makes continuous effort to preserve her Bengali culture within the four walls of the Ganguli household, she does make changes for the children in the form of American holidays, food e.t.c. However, Ashima does make sure that her children are well informed about their roots, while not forcing them to choose their roots over the culture their surrounded by. She exposes her children to the Bengali customs, beliefs, food, habits e.t.c, Ashima teaches Gogol To memorize four-line children’s poem by Tagore, and the names of the deities adorning the ten-headed Durga during Puja…”, however “Every afternoon Ashima sleeps, but before nodding off, she switches the television to channel 2, and tells Gogol to watch Sesame Street and The Electric Company, in order to keep up with the English he uses at nursery school”. Gogol later recalls that “. . . it was for him, for Sonia, that his parents had gone to the trouble of learning these customs”.
Although the family members “progressively” celebrate American holidays and start accepting some parts of American culture, Lahiri shows us that for Ashima assimilation still remains a struggle. Unlike Ashoke who seems to be settled with his job, Ashima still feels uncomfortable with this new culture, and she holds on to her past through several symbols or means such as clothing, food, traditional celebrations. Now that Gogol invites American children to his birthdays, Ashima finds preparing food a large number of Bengali dishes for above forty Bengali guests “less stressful than the task of feeding a handful of American children…”. Ashima also “…continues to wear nothing but saris and sandals from Bata, Ashoke, accustomed to only wearing tailor-made pants and shirts all his life, learns to buy ready made.”, and so we learn that although Ashoke changes his apparel in accordance to the American culture, Ashima still wears traditional clothing which might be because she s not comfortable letting of any part of her Bengali culture. Soon Ashima realises “…being a foreigner, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy — a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. “, which sums up Ashima’s state of mind and emphasis the painful immigrant experience due to clash of cultures and isolation. Lahiri brings forward the theme of isolation from their past and Bengali culture when she writes; “… Ashoke and Ashima live the lives of the extreme aged, those for whom everyone they once knew and loved is lost… Even those family members who continue to live seem dead somehow, always invisible, impossible to touch.”. This creates sympathy for the two characters, whose struggle and isolation from their loved ones and familiar culture is being made more clear. Their isolation from their culture is further explained when we are told that in their trip to India “…Ashima and Ashoke speak in broken Hindi…”, showing us the disconnect from their culture through language. This also reinforces the meaning of Ashima’s name, as it creates the effect of not feeling the sense of belonging to even their home Country which are “…quickly shed, quickly forgotten… irrelevant to their lives”
Towards the end of the novel we see just how much this journey has changed Ashima, and how much she has grown because of it. In the end, there is a shift from Gogol’s perspective back to Ashima’s, which makes us realise it was her journey all along. Ashima is packing up and going back to India, “and She feels overwhelmed by the thought of the move she is about to make, to the city that was once home and is now in its own way foreign.”, this also brings us back to her name and how “true to the meaning of her name she will be without borders, without a home of her own, a resident everywhere and nowhere.”. Ashima has learned to do things herself, and she is not the same Ashima she once was, “For thirty-three years, she missed her life in India. Now she will miss her job at the library, the women with whom she’s worked.… She will miss the country in which she had grown to know and love her husband.”. and at this point Ashima is “true to the meaning of her name she will be without borders, without a home of her own, a resident everywhere and nowhere.”, emphasising the theme of importance of names.
Ashima’s struggle to adapt to her host Country’s culture is the first thing we learn about when reading The Namesake. The perspective changes from Ashima to Gogol at the beginning of the book and later changes back to Ashima, creating the effect that this story has been about Ashima’s journey in this alien land. Ashima is attached to the Indian culture and life in India which she has had to leave behind, and so we constantly see her trying to preserve the tradition and values of the Bengali culture, which creates a sense of isolation from the host Country. In the end we see that Ashima learns to overcome, to a great degree, the isolation that she faces and she comes to terms with the American culture without fully assimilating to all aspects of the culture and it’s values. We see Ashima become independent and true to her name, because in the end she cannot pick one home.
Relationships, Marriage, and Complexity in The Namesake
Within The Namesake, Lahiri presents the relationship between men and women as heavily shaped by their environment, heritage and socio-economic background. The relationship between the Ratliffs, Maxine’s parents, Gerald and Lydia, is directly juxtaposed against the relationship of Ashoke and Ashima as being more loving and physically affectionate, due to the Western culture they have been brought up in. Gogol and Maxine’s relationship is purposefully depicted as intensely and explicitly sexual to signify Gogol’s character’s rebellion against the sexual puritanism of his parents while Gogol and Moushumi’s relationship is depicted as doomed to fail through the continual insecurity present within both partners as they struggle to find their identities. Thus, Lahiri approaches each couple through the lens of a post-colonialist writer, characterising each union through the vastly differing identities resulting from their different experiences.
Lahiri presents the relationship between Ashoke and Ashima as fairly austere, emotionally and sexually due to the dictum of Bengali customs. This can be seen through Lahiri’s depiction of Ashima’s reaction to one of the patients’ husbands at the hospital, where she is about to give birth to Gogol, declares that he loves her. Ahsima ‘has neither heard nor expects to hear [this] from her husband; this is not how they are.’ The matter-of-fact tone that Lahiri imbues Ashima’s perspective with creates a sense of pathos for Ashima, but more importantly, it reveals the differing expectations of a married Bengali woman of her station would have of love, compared to a typical, modern American woman. Lahiri deftly deploys punctuation to create a pause for the reader, which has the effect of increasing the sense of finality of Ashima’s assessment of her relationship, that it ‘is not how they are.’ Lahiri potentially utilises the formality of the phrase ‘not how they are’ to show how far customs and traditions as well as Indian decorum have influenced Ashima and Ashoke, that even so far away from the homeland, or ‘Desh’ they still practice it. Although Lahiri avoids clear-cut moral positions and focuses on feelings and emotions of the characters rather than trying to interpret them, through the objective, 3rd person narrative, we the readers can infer she does seem to encourage sympathy for Ashima that she can never expect to hear loving platitudes, such as ‘I love you’ or ‘sweetheart’, from Ashoke because of the impropriety of the exchange as per Bengali custom. The fact that Ashima does not even say ‘Ashoke’s name’ although she ‘has adopted his surname, but refuses, for propriety’s sake, to utter his first.’ Lahiri perhaps allows the reader to glimpse this seemingly intimate detail about Ashima and Ashoke’s relationships to convey how subsumed Ashima is to Ashoke, how she is no longer ‘Ashima Badhuri’, an identity personal to her, but now ‘Ashima Ganguli’, denoting her status as Ashoke’s consort. Yet, Lahiri notes, ‘propriety’ with its connotations of rectitude and societal acceptability, prevents her from being truly connected with Ashoke. We the readers note how earlier in the novel, Ashima’s grandmother expected no ‘betrayal’ , predicting Ashima ‘would never change.’ This expectation, where the grandmother represents larger Indian society’s expectations, seems to be a golem looming over Ashima’s marriage, enforcing the old ways. Lahiri’s purpose here might be to reveal to readers the limitations of traditions and how it can rob a marriage of passion and romance, at the altar of conformity. Thus, she explores their relationship through a post-colonial lens, insinuating that their Indian heritage has continued to shape them even as they have transgressed its physical borders, reminescent of Elizabeth Brewster’s line, “People are made of places.” And so Ashoke and Ashima’s relationship is made of the customs of their ‘place’, India and is portrayed as stifled because of it.
Contrastingly, the relationship between the Ratliffs is portrayed as very loving and physically affectionate despite their being past the throes of young love. We the readers witness this, through Gogol’s wondering eyes, as Lahiri describes how ‘vociferous [they are] at the table’. This is a deliberate choice by Lahiri to utilise the adjective ‘vociferous’ as it creates an impression of vehemence and clamour. This is the opposite of dinner with Ashima and Ashoke, as Lahiri tells us through Gogol’s perspective, as they are ‘indifferent to : movies, exhibits at museums, good restaurants, the design of everyday things.’ Lahiri’s use of ‘indifferent’ illustrates the apathy the Ganguli progenitors possess towards hallmarks of liberal, upper-middle class American culture that the Ratliffs take for granted. It is clear to the readers that Gogol wishes for his parents to possess the same ease with each other as Gerald and Lydia, Maxine’s parents, that they can discuss such things with each other. However, Lahiri subtly hints to the readers that this is because of the immense privilege and wealth afforded to them, instead of the constant financial, personal and societal anxieties that first-generation immigrants experience. Lahiri further develops this idea with her vivid picture of ‘the two of them kissing openly’ and ‘going for walks in the city’. The key observation here, made by Gogol, is that he ‘has never witnessed a single moment of physical affection between his parents’. Lahiri conveys to the readers that the Ratliffs are like ‘Gogol and Maxine’, behaving in such an ‘open’ way because they have grown up around Western ideals of love, perpetuated by Hollywood and enabled by their ‘WASP’ affluence. It is almost as if Lahiri has crafted the Ratliffs as a direct antithesis to the Gangulis whose love is a ‘private, uncelebrated thing’, which illuminates the traditional view that the intimacy between married individuals must remain hidden and covert rather than explicitly expressed, as it is with Gogol and Maxine, and later Moushumi.
Gogol and Maxine’s relationship is Lahiri’s embodiment of the sexual rebellion that Gogol undertakes, almost as if to spite the sexual puritanism his parents have experienced. They go ‘skinny-dipping’, which is an extraordinarily subversive act for Gogol, perhaps more psychologically than physically, because of his parents’, particularly Ashima’s, discomfort at being disrobed publicly, which he has been influenced by. His mother is ashamed when her ‘Murshidabad silk sari’ is removed, as it symbolises a stripping of her identity and her connection to her Indian past, symbolised by the proper noun ‘Murshidabad’. Lahiri intends to show the readers that Gogol eschews this modesty, rebelling through the sex act with Maxine, because he desires, above all, to distance himself from the lives of his parents. Lahiri suggests this through her slice into his innermost thoughts, revealing that he believes, when they ‘make love on the grass that is wet from their bodies’, ‘he is free.’ The phrase ‘he is free’ is almost Freudian in concept, as Lahiri implies he is attracted to things missing from the model of love shown to him ; that his rebellion stems from the sexual repression he experiences second-hand from his parents. Through his sexual rebellion and promiscuity he sets himself inevitably free from his inferiority complex he possessed in his youth, believing he cannot ‘court girls’ like his peers. We ,the readers, also note Maxine is as far as one can get from Ashima physically, with ‘dirty blonde hair’ and eyes that are ‘greenish’. Like Ruth, Maxine is overtly Caucasian, and Lahiri possibly intends to demonstrate how deep-seated Gogol’s insecurities with his Indian heritage is, that he seeks stereotypically American women to aid his conformity to wider American society, through overtly sexual behaviour. Thus, we can deduce that Lahiri presents their ill-fated but passionate union as an allegory for the desire of the second-generation immigrant, symbolised by Gogol, to assimilate and rebel against the traditions imposed upon them by their parents, similar to Moushumi, showing how Lahiri connects the portrayal of relationships with heritage.
Finally, Lahiri presents the relationship between Gogol and Moushumi as destined to fail due to their perennially insecure identities that are constantly in flux. As Scott Peck said, ‘Not only do self-love and love of others go hand in hand but ultimately the are indistinguishable’. Moushumi and Gogol, Lahiri reiterates throughout the later part of the novel, can never truly love each other because they are not truly comfortable with each other. This is particularly true of Moushumi; Gogol at least makes some attempt to reconcile the two halves of his identity whereas she cannot find solace in either being American or Indian. This can be seen when ‘she approached French, unlike things American or Indian, without guilt’. The use of the verb ‘approached’ gives us a sense of Moushumi’s character; Lahiri alludes to how wary, and yet eager,she is of exploring other viable identities to swap in exchange for her own. She is portrayed as self-loathing through her sordid affairs with ‘married [men]’ who were ‘far older, fathers to children in secondary school.’ Once again, Lahiri employs a Freudian undertone where Moushumi’s promiscuity is directly linked to her lack of confidence in her own identity as an Indian-American woman; she desires to be French, to live the French way, almost reminiscent of Emma Bovary in ‘Madame Bovary’. We the readers realise she can never truly love Gogol because he represents a ‘capitulation or defeat’ for her because he is neither Graham nor Dimitri Desjardins, who represent for her, a permanently tangible escape from the stifling reality of living up to her parents’ expectations due to their ethnicity and upbringing which she finds exotic. Lahiri communicates to us Moushumi’s feeling ‘wildly trangressive’ though she ‘genuinely liked Nikhil.’ Lahiri intends to show us that because Gogol himself struggles with the conflict of being Nikhil-Gogol, they are not meant to be together as both have a tennis hold on their identities, constantly in flux due to their hyphenated identities.
Lahiri portrays relationships in The Namesake as being coloured by the personal and racial histories of the characters. Gerald and Lydia behave intimately so openly and unconcernedly because everyone else around them did the same. Ashima and Ashoke, on the other hand, cannot and do not because of their strict upbringing and bring Gogol up the same way only to have him rebel, echoed by his ex-wife Moushumi.
Setting and Adaptation in The Namesake
In the novel The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, the main character, Gogol, is forced to adjust to many different environments as he ages; including Calcutta, the different apartments he occupied throughout college, and his ex-girlfriend Maxine’s house. Gogol’s parents, Ashima and Ashoke, were born in India; however Gogol was born in America. Because of this difference in upbringing, Gogol and his parents shared very different definitions of home. The culture clash between Gogol’s Bengali heritage and new American ideals brought on internal conflict for him, as he struggled to decide where he really belonged during his childhood and even continuing into his adulthood.
Starting early in his infanthood, Gogol and his family made infrequent trips to Calcutta, India, where most of Ashima and Ashoke’s family lived. They would either go for just a visit, or make the trip due to a recent death in their family. Gogol never considered Calcutta his home, like his parents did. He and his sister dreaded the trips there, especially the one they took for eight months while Gogol was in 10th grade. While they are getting ready to leave Gogol expresses disinterest in India being his temporary home, “…labeled with the address of his father’s home in Alipore. Gogol always finds the labels unsettling, the sight of them making him feel that his family doesn’t really live on Pemberton Road.” (147) However, Lahiri suggests that “Within minutes, before their eyes Ashoke and Ashima slip into bolder, less complicated versions of themselves, their voices louder, their smilers wider, revealing a confidence Gogol and Sonia never see on Pemberton Road. “I’m scared, Goggles,” Sonia whispers to her brother in English, seeking his hand and refusing to let go.” (150) The transformation of Ashima and Ashoke when they arrive in India suggest that they consider themselves home, while Gogol and Sonia are slightly skeptical and weary of this unfamiliar place. Ashima and Ashoke attempted to keep Bengali customs and traditions alive while living in America, for example the two names given to their son, Gogol and Nikhil. Gogol, however, did not understand the tradition and instead went against his parents’ wishes; he declared his “good” name the same as his “pet” name.
It is evident that Gogol never considered his place of heritage in Calcutta home in the manner of his parents; he was born in America surrounded by American ideals, which caused him to consider that his home. After Gogol graduates high school and is accepted to Yale, he moves into a dormitory in New Haven with two roommates. In Chapter 5 while he is living in the dorm, he makes frequent weekend visits home to visit his family on Pemberton Road, however on one particular weekend he makes the declaration that he considers his dorm his home: “One weekend Gogol makes the mistake of referring to New Haven as home. “Sorry, I left it at home,” he says… Ashima is outraged by the remark, dwelling on it all day. “Only three months, and listen to you,” she says, telling him that after twenty years in America, she still cannot bring herself to refer to Pemberton Road as home.” (193-194) This quote is another example of how his parents will probably always refer to India as their home, while their children, especially Gogol, take comfort in different environments in America and adapt their definition of home. Gogol admits that “…it is his room at Yale where [he] feels most comfortable.” (194) He states how he enjoys the feel of his dormitory, the oldness and grace especially, he also claims that it feels more like home than his house on Pemberton Road. Thus, Gogol’s temporary place of solace becomes his Yale dorm instead of his childhood house, suggesting that he more easily adapts to new places than his parents do.
Another home that Gogol grows accustomed to is his girlfriend at the time, Maxine’s parents house in New York. He spent a lot of time there, whether it was spending the night or attending a dinner party thrown by Maxine’s parents, Gerald and Lydia. Eventually, Gogol is asked to move in with Maxine. He quickly adjusts to the Ratliffs lifestyle and their more laid-back tendencies. On page 251, Lahiri writes “And yet here he is, night after night, a welcome addition to the Ratliffs’ universe, doing just that.” Gogol starts to put off going back to Pemberton Road to visit his family, as he would rather spend the weekend with Maxine and her parents. Which suggests that his definition of home had changed yet again, and he felt most comfortable in the gigantic Greek Revival that Maxine grew up in. Also, a frequent theme in the novel was families putting their last name on the door/mailbox of their home, something Gogol never did at his apartment while dating Maxine. Lahiri portrays that his apartment at the time was never considered home, “His futon and his table, his kettle and toaster and television and the rest of his things, remain on Amsterdam Avenue. His answering machine continues to record his messages. He continues to receive his mail there, in a nameless metal box.” (248-249) This quote suggests that although he was technically living there, he never considered it as much home as the Ratliffs house.
Gogol moves through and visits many different places throughout his life, whether in India or America. However, he always seemed to change his definition of home and where he felt most comfortable. It changed with different goals, different girlfriends, and different desires. Some places he adapted to more easily, such as the Ratliffs home; others prove somewhat more difficult to adapt to, like his grandparents’ home in Calcutta, where his parents felt most at home.
The Quest for Identity: Symbolic Intricacies
In the novel, The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri uses symbolism to explore the quest for identity, specifically through the protagonist: Gogol Ganguli. One of the first instances Lahiri uses symbolism to explore Gogol’s identity is when she writes about Gogol’s six-month-old rice ceremony, the first external thrust toward his inherited culture. The ceremony itself is meant to be symbolic in that, in the Bengali tradition, it might indicate which traditional career path the child might pursue – perhaps “a landowner, scholar, or businessman.” However, this particular scene in the novel is also literarily symbolic. When prompted with the tray of objects, each symbolizing one of the aforementioned careers, “Gogol frowns,” as he is “forced at six months to confront his destiny,” and “begins to cry.” Such phrases might symbolize Gogol’s dissatisfaction, even from the very infancy of his life, with conforming to a predestined, Bengali future while simultaneously revealing, suggesting, and foreshadowing the internal struggle with identity Gogol will have all throughout the novel as he ventures to find himself.
Another way Lahiri uses symbolism to explore Gogol’s quest for identity is through the revealing account of Gogol’s school trip to a cemetery. Upon Gogol exploring the cemetery, Lahiri makes the point to convey the discrepancies between Gogol and the other children, describing them “looking for their own names,” among the gravestones while Gogol knows “there is no Ganguli here.” This comparison between Gogol and the other children seems to symbolize the idea that Gogol is accepting of the fact that he is not like most children, honing in on his understanding of his identity.
Lahiri also uses the antithetical perspectives of Gogol and his mother to symbolize the shift in self-identity that Gogol undergoes at this particular stage in the novel. Although Gogol is cognizant of his uniqueness, this seems to be a climatic moment of his attitude toward his name. Lahiri describes Gogol taking notice of peculiar names such as “Abijah Craven,” “Anguish Mather,” and “Peregrine Wotton,” and how “he likes these names, likes their oddness, their flamboyance,” thus symbolizing the positive acceptance and appreciation Gogol has for his name. Upon leaving the cemetery, Lahiri depicts Gogol as seemingly dignified with his rubbings, and thus himself, through the description of “his rubbings rolled up carefully like parchment in his lap.”
“At home, his mother is horrified,” by the rubbings Gogol presents to her, perhaps symbolizing the act of Gogol proclaiming to his mother his self-acceptance, and despite her negative comments, Gogol “refuses to throw the rubbings away,” because he “is attached to them.” Ashima’s stubbornness and Gogol’s defiance creates an inability for their mentalities to harmonize and is the moment a rift is torn between Gogol and Ashima: the moment his mother becomes his biggest antagonist. The rupture in Gogol and Ashima’s relationship paves the pathway for Gogol to spiral and stray far from his origins, and is thus symbolic as it represents the impetus for Nikhil’s birth as he slowly cracks out of the shell of Gogol.
The entities of Nikhil and Gogol are a heavy thread of symbolism themselves. Most of the novel is shaped around the symbolism of the two names that the protagonist takes on – one representing the identity he has inherited, Gogol, the other representing an identity he has created all on his own, Nikhil. Through Lahiri’s choice of narrator, the reader is granted access into the stream of consciousness of Gogol, thus allowing the reader to grasp the internal discrepancies between Gogol and Nikhil despite their physical uniformity. Prior to Nikhil’s existence, the narrator depicts the hatred Gogol has of his name, and furthermore himself, as “his name is both absurd and obscure, it has nothing to do with who he is, that is neither Indian nor American.” This single quote epitomizes the struggle Gogol faces the duration of the novel.
The narrator also provides the reader keen insight of Gogol’s internal thoughts when describing the toll “his name, an entity shapeless and weightless,” takes on him as it “manages nevertheless to distress him physically, like the scratchy tag of a shirt he has been forced permanently to wear.” By vividly depicting the name in such a way, Lahiri reveals how symbolic the name is by conveying the tangible power an intangible object has. Similarly, Lahiri conveys the contrasting effects that the name Nikhil has on Gogol describing his thoughts as “he wonders if this is how it feels for an obese person to become thin, for a prisoner to walk free.” This description of Gogol’s thoughts again hones in on the idea of the symbolic nature of a name, as the new name of Nikhil causes Gogol to feel like a new person, free from the confinements of his past that have encaged him all of his life. Both descriptions explore how a name has the authority to destroy or empower an individual, and thus the symbolic power each name envelopes.
The various symbolic elements that Lahiri implores throughout The Namesake enliven the pursuit of Gogol’s quest for identity. Whether it a full-fledged account of symbolism such as the scenes of the ceremony and the cemetery or a thread of symbolism such as the names Gogol and Nikhil, each provides an intricate and potent effect to the overall plot of the novel. These symbolic elements illustrate vividly both the apexes and troughs of Gogol’s lifelong sinusoidal quest to seek an identity true to himself.
Overcoat Symbolism in The Namesake
Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake is a story that is parallel to Nikolai Gogol’s short story The Overcoat. Gogol’s work is commended and mentioned countless times by Lahiri in her writing. The Overcoat is about a man named Akaky Akakievich, who, at first, is content with his life then begins to question his identity. In an attempt to better himself, he replaces his old overcoat with a freshly-tailored one, and everyone envies it. At the instant his overcoat is robbed from him, not one person lent him a helping hand. In The Namesake, an overcoat is one’s identity, a burden that everyone possesses, and it can reveal or conceal a character’s true colours.
Each name is an overcoat. Gogol Ganguli, the main protagonist, was named after Nikolai Gogol, the author of the story that saved his father’s life in a massive train wreck. “With a slight quiver of recognition, as if he’d known it all along, the perfect pet name for his son occurs to Ashoke… ‘Gogol,’ he repeats, satisfied” (Lahiri, 28). This name “was the first thing his father had given him” (Lahiri, 289) and it was presented with a purpose. It so happens that Gogol’s life bares resemblance to Akaky’s. For instance, Akaky discovers that his shame is possibly the result of having an ugly overcoat, just as Gogol finds shame in being Gogol. “He thought that the sin might perhaps lie with the overcoat” (Gogol, 400). When Akaky wears he his overcoat, Akaky suddenly changes, becoming the complete opposite of himself. During the party, he “dined cheerfully and wrote nothing after dinner…” (Gogol, 410). This is similar to how Gogol transforms when he changes his name to Nikhil. “But now that he’s Nikhil it’s easier to ignore his parents, to tune out their concerns and pleas… It is as Nikhil, that first semester, that he grows a goatee, starts smoking Camel Lights at parties…, gets himself a fake ID that allows him to be served liquor…, loses his virginity…” (Namesake, 105). By wearing Nikhil, Gogol becomes the version of himself that he found the most happiness in. In the process, a new character was revealed along with his traits, personality, niches and tendencies.
An overcoat can reveal a character. In the novel, Gogol is involved in a love affair with Maxine Ratliff. The name Maxine means “the greatest, maximum.” She represents the epiphany of American women: smart, sophisticated, and sexually uninhibited. Her outgoing personality and openness to Gogol appealed to him and made her seem as though she was perfect for him, hence being the greatest. “He is curious about her, attracted, flattered by the boldness of her pursuit” (Lahiri, 130). The closer Gogol is with her, the more naked she becomes to him. It is the way she accepts herself that makes her unique and different from Gogol. “She has the gift of accepting her life; as he comes to know her, he realizes that she has never wished she were anyone other than herself, raised in any other place, in any other way. This, in his opinion, is the biggest difference between them, a thing far more foreign to him than the beautiful house she’d grown up in, her education at private schools” (Lahiri, 138). Just as an overcoat can expose everything about a character, it is able to do the complete opposite.
An overcoat can also conceal a character. Moushumi means “A damp southwesterly breeze” (Lahiri, 240). A breeze comes and goes, like Moushumi’s past and present. When Gogol had first seen her at pujos when they were teenagers, she was a quiet character and always had her nose in a book. At the time when they formally met, at the insistence of their parents, she was striking and bold, a significant shift in personalities. “She was exactly the same person, looked and behaved the same way, and yet suddenly, in that new city, she was transformed into the kind of girl she had once envied, had believed she would never become.” (Lahiri 215). The breeze is also a symbol of the coming and going of men in her life. “She allowed the men to buy her drinks, dinners, later to take her in taxis to their apartments…” (Lahiri, 215). Unfortunately, Gogol became a victim of Moushumi’s breeze when Moushumi decided to have an extramarital affair with her high school pen pal. Everything is a just a “breeze” for Moushumi, a happy-go-lucky soul that slyly wanders from place to place and person to person. Her overcoat concealed her from the ones she “cared” about, especially Gogol. She needs her overcoat, but it is a hindrance that doesn’t seem to change.
Overcoats are necessary, but can become a burden. In the novel, the main protagonist goes back and forth with becoming Gogol and Nikhil. At first, he is comfortable in his own overcoat on the first day of kindergarten, then he begins to” save up money” for a new overcoat as the story progresses. It is when he becomes old enough that he replaces his former overcoat. Gogol’s name change symbolizes his transition into adulthood as he deserts the childhood ties that come with his daknam. Nikhil was Gogol’s new overcoat. Nikhil means “he who is entire, encompassing all”, something that Gogol thought he was after he had his name legally changed. “He wonders if this is how it feels for an obese person to become thin, for a prisoner to walk free” (Lahiri, 102). The Gogol overcoat became a burden to him because it prevented him matching his expectations and from becoming the version of himself that he envied. “He hates that his name is both absurd and obscure, that it has nothing to do with who he is, that it is neither Indian nor American but of all things Russian. He hates having to live with it, with a pet name turned good name, day after day, second after second” (Lahiri, 76). On the other hand, Nikhil was a burden to his family. As he gets closer with Maxine and mainstream American culture, Gogol strays farther his family. When Ashoke dies, he carries the guilt that comes with being so distant from his family. It was then that he decides to accept Gogol back into his life, but on his own terms. “Nikhil will live on, publicly celebrated, unlike Gogol, purposely hidden, legally diminished, now all but lost” (Lahiri, 290). He still chooses to conceal Gogol despite accepting him. An overcoat can either define a person or a person can define it.
Everyone has an overcoat. Everyone needs an overcoat. It’s defined by one’s name, culture, upbringing, accidents, losses, relationships. All that transpired in Gogol’s life had a purpose, that it was not in vain. He was destined to find The Overcoat in his room. He was destined to be a child of Bengali immigrants, to live in America, to become an architect, to find love countless times and fail as many times, to live when his father ceased to. He was destined to become Nikhil only to become Gogol again, but he had to choose to accept himself on his own terms, as the other character’s did, choosing to hide behind their overcoats or become proud of it. Regardless, “We all came out of Gogol’s overcoat” (Lahiri, 78).
Gogol’s Search for Greater Understanding
Jhumpa Lahiri eloquently points out in her novel, The Namesake, “For his [Gogol’s] father had a point; the only person who didn’t take Gogol seriously, the only person who tormented him, the only person chronically aware of and afflicted by the embarrassment of his name, the only person who constantly questioned it and wished it were otherwise, was Gogol” (100). In this excerpt the reader explores the implications, consequences, and more of changing one’s legal name. Gogol Ganguli wishes to change his name to his intended good name, or legal name, Nikhil, though he is already eighteen. His father questions his motivations by asking who did not take his son seriously due to his name alone. Gogol, about to embark on a new life in college, wishes to do away with the name he hates and attempt to try on a new identity, one that he has complete control over. This sentence from the novel manifests the protagonist’s search for identity and understanding of self through name, culture, and society.Gogol has always hated his name. He never understood why he, and American-born Bengali, was given the last name of a Russian author. In Bengali tradition, a pet name means nothing; a good name holds the meaning for the world. A good name describes the person to all they encounter. His mother’s name, Ashima, means the one without borders. His sister’s name, Sonali, means “she who is golden.” These names allow others to know and interpret the person that stands before them. Gogol, on the other hand, is a pet name, without meaning as far as Gogol can see. It means nothing, it comes from no tradition or culture, and it is merely the surname of a dead author that Gogol’s father adored. A name in this sense can identify a person, and as far as Gogol can see, his name is silly and meaningless, two attributes he does not want to identify with.Gogol does eventually come to understand the reasoning behind his seemingly thoughtless and meaningless pet name. Knowing the story of his father’s lucky escape from death brings a newfound appreciation for his father, appreciation for his birth name. Even with this, knowing that his name marks the reason his father and consequently he exists does not solve the issue of identity. Gogol remains lost in a world full of confident, assured Americans that know who they are, where they came from, and where they are going. Gogol is constantly searching for his identity. He like the passage claims “constantly questioned it.” He questions his parent’s life, his culture, his heritage, and his role in the American society.For the majority of the novel Gogol spends his time searching for an identity as an American, rejecting the heritage of his family and the confusion of the names they give. Gogol wants nothing to do with the people that remain unchanging, foreign, and primitive when the world he is immersed in at school and with friends is full of new interesting ideas and experiences. Here experimentation, love, excitement, indulgence, and risk fill the gaping holes of Gogol’s unknown identity. He is continually searching for himself in others as he moves from one love to another. His relationships with women, not unlike his exploration of different American lifestyles, demonstrate his constant questioning of identity. Along this journey of lifestyles there is one that he tries to continually reject. He rejects his parents’ Indian-American lifestyle, or at least he is convinced that he has.The fact is that despite his attempts to explore identities of other Americans, he never truly rids himself of who he is. He is a Bengali-American. He never strays too far from his parents, and though he begrudges their way of life he also appears to find some solace in it. After his father’s death it was Indian tradition that comforted him. Though sometimes he keeps his shoes on in the house, many times he openly respects the traditions that his mother keeps. He speaks in Bengali with his parents, not always translating for those around him. At the same time, he is an avid member of the American economy and culture. He is an educated architect with an expansive knowledge. He is an independent man that is simply searching to understand life. This is no different than most. The key thing that Gogol is missing is the knowledge that humanity, not just him as an individual, struggles with identity in all its forms. Names, cultures, society, relationships, and family all contribute to one’s identity, but none are the sole provider for that identity. It seems that Ashoke, Gogol’s father is aware of this truth as he questions why his son must change a name that in one sense, means the world, but in another, means absolutely nothing.Plagued by the name that began his disorientation in life, Gogol attempts to start fresh, as he does many times, by changing what he believes is the reason for the demise of his identity. He never stops questioning himself, his names, his actions, his past, or his future. His simply lives, like many do, in search for a greater understanding.