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).
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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. […]