Parallelism In The Struggle For Diasporic Identities Between The Protagonists Of The Overcoat And The Namesake

April 27, 2022 by Essay Writer

Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake makes constant intertextual references to Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat. Rather the name of the protagonist Gogol Ganguli itself is derived from the author. The paper examines how Lahiri effectively uses the intertextual symbol of Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat to explore his namesake Gogol Ganguli’s life and search for identity and to reflect upon the diasporic conflicts which engender the identities of Gogol and the other characters and the strategies they adopt to negotiate the dualities of cultural identities. The paper also attempts to explore the differences in the diasporic identities of two generations where the identities of Ashoke and Ashima in the diasporic space is associated with home and ties with cultural affiliations and intimacy with people from the same space whereas, Gogol is negotiating between two worlds, the inner world of his family where the Bengali culture is nurtured through various hybridized rituals and the external world which is occupied by formal education and mainstream American culture. Maneuvering between these two cultural identities, he constantly vacillates, experiencing identity confusion from a change of names just like the protagonist Akeky in The Overcoat.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake begins with an epigraph which is an extract from Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat:

The reader should realize that it could not have happened otherwise, and that to give him any other name was quite out of the question. (iii)

Their names become their destinies for Gogol Ganguli of The Namesake and Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin of The Overcoat. Lahiri weaves in constant intertextual references to this short story and its author Nikoli Gogol into the momentous events of the lives of Ashoke and Gogol, shaping and redirecting their destinies. Lahiri entwines the symbolic life of Akaky to that of Gogol’s as he persistently struggles between the dual cultures that he belongs to and through that the dual identities that he embodies in a diasporic world. Lahiri’s novel comes out of, to borrow the term from Fyodor Dostoevsky, Gogol’s Overcoat. The paper examines how Lahiri effectively uses the intertextual symbol of Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat to explore his namesake Gogol Ganguli’s life and search for identity and to reflect upon the diasporic conflicts which engender the identities of Gogol and the other characters and the strategies they adopt to negotiate the dualities of cultural identities.

Ashoke who grew up in Calcutta was introduced to the Russian writers by his grandfather who tells him “They will never fail you.” (Lahiri 12) So, on the significant train journey that will change the course of his life, he is carrying a hardbound collection of short stories by Nikolai Gogol, which was a gift from his grandfather when he passed his intermediate exams. Lahiri physically interweaves the short story into the life of Ashoke at a decisive juncture of his life. His favorite story in that collection is obviously “The Overcoat”, which he is reading on the train when he meets the friendly Bengali businessman who has returned from England because his wife could not fit in abroad and was homesick. He suggests to Ashoke, who is comfortable and complacent in his own cultural space, to see as much of the world as possible. This thought is fortified for Ashoke after the train accident that night, where he is salvaged from among the dead bodies surrounding him, still clutching a single page of “The Overcoat”. Nikolai Gogol saves him as the rescuers identify life in him because of the book. A second chance at life also consolidates his resolve for a diasporic life, which is triggered by a need for, as Makarand Paranjape observes, ‘enactment of desire fulfillment (6). Later, when his son is being born in an American hospital, Ashoke “Instead of thanking God he thanks Gogol, the Russian writer who had saved his life…” (21) Similarly, Akaky in The Overcoat is complacent in his mundane boring job of copying so much so that his involvement with his work contributes to his complete theorance of his own social isolation and any form of intellectual or spiritual growth. Akaky’s old overcoat is worn out and beyond repair and it is essentihe needs to surviveConsequently, there is a pressing need for a new overcoat and this need for change jerks him out of his contentment and brings in him an awakening interest for aesthetic aspects of life and for, the first time he begins to pay attention to other facets others life and surroundings. For Ashoke too, nearly losing his life brings in him the resolve to better his life and to see other places. After the accident he refuses t,o read any of the Russian classics because it reminds him of the places he has not seen. It is only after seven years that with ‘a full felloahip, a newly issued passport in hand’ (Lahiri 20) that Ashoke finally manages to embark on his diasporic journey.

Makarand Paranjape in his essay, “Displaced Relations: Diasporas, Empires, Homelands” proposes that:

“…diasporic experience… must involve a significant crossing of borders. These may be borders of a region or a language, but more often are multiple borders such as the loss of homeland would suggest… the whole importance of the diaspora and its potential for creating a new kind of culture arises out of such a crossing of boundaries. The diaspora, then, must involve a cross-cultural or cross-civilization passage. It is only such a crossing that results in the unique consciousness of the diasporic…Also, the crossing must be forced, not voluntary; otherwise, and the passage will only amount to the enactment of desire-fulfillment. Or, even if voluntary, the passage must involve some significant tension between the source and the target cultures. It is through this displacement and ambivalence that what we consider the diasporic is engendered. (5-6)

This diasporic conflict of cultures is engendered in Ashoke through an ‘enactment of desire fulfillment (6) and in Ashima through a ‘crossing’ that is forced due to her marriage to Ashoke.

Brandi Dutta elucidates in “Diasporic Identity and Journey in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake”,

The intersection between territorialization and deterritorialization creates the ‘third space’ or liminality where the ‘cutting edge of translation and negotiation’ occurs. Therefore, the concepts of homeland and identity in this age of global migration form a complex framework. According to the critics like Homi K. Bhabha, Avtar Brah and Stuart Hall, the floating nature of home and fluid identity have replaced the age-old concepts of fixed ‘home’ and identity as well. The idea of ‘home’ evokes the spatial politics of home, the sense of self, its displacement, intimacy, exclusion, and inclusion. The flow of people across different countries breaks the concept of a true home. The notion of home not only construes the sense of self but also ties with human emotion, feelings, sentiments, proximity, and intimacy. Beyond the spatial territory, ‘home’ is associated with emotional territory. (1)

The identities of Ashoke and Ashima in the diasporic space are associated with home and ties with cultural affiliations and intimacy with people from the same space. Ashoke was more accepting of his displacement as it was a choice he made and therefore, he is clearly aware of the dual identities he has to work with and chooses to give precedence to his Indian identity rather than the American. For Ashima, her preference of Indian identity over the American is more of a need to retain the culture and thus, her own identity which is drawn from the nostalgic memories of her homeland. Both Ashoke and Ashima do not assume a hybrid identity forged from multiculturalism though they live in America till most of their lives, rather, they create a hybrid identity which is constructed on the foundation of a hybrid Bengali community attempting to recreate their cultural artifacts on American soil, like Vijay Mishra, observes in “The Diasporic Imaginary”, “the old Indian diaspora replicated the space of India and sacralized the stones and rivers of the new lands” (442).

The conflict of cultures is mitigated by them by withdrawing more into the haven of the closely-knit diasporic Indian community of Bengalis. Here, an observation can be made that throughout the novel, neither Ashoke nor Ashima makes any attempt at expanding their Indian identity by absorbing other ethnic groups from India who is settled in their spatial location. The author conveniently overlooks the issue of the multicultural nature of the homeland which would make the issue of cultural identities in the domain of diaspora more complex. The strategy that Ashoke adopts to negotiate through the polarized cultural identities is by mooring himself securely to the comfortably known Bengali identity as a young man in India.

But, Akaky does not have a choice as he is thrust into change with no hope of falling safely back on the former life represented through the worn-out overcoat. He must accept that he must change and adapt to the new life that, though expensive, promises new awareness: “Akaky Akakyevitch saw that there was no escape from a new overcoat and he was utterly depressed.” (Gogol, 7)

Akaky’s sense of resignation in terms of choices in life is from the onset of his life. The narrator describes how Akaky got his name. His family name is derived from the word “shoe” and his mother thought it was fate to name her son “Akaky Akakievich”—an ridiculous name that in the Russian language means “mild or inoffensive,” and at times also refers to the Russian word for excrement— thus, paving in the idea that from the moment of his birth, Akaky has had no choice but end up being an insignificant, low-ranking government worker who will never be promoted. The name became the character’s destiny is introduced in The Namesake also, through the bungled-up naming process of Ashoke’s son Gogol. Ashoke gives his son the pet name after Gogol, the writer who gave him a rebirth, to tide over until the grandmother’s letter arrives with the ‘good’ name that the child must assume for public life and official purposes. As they wait for the elusive letter to arrive and the real name of the child to be revealed, the child is stuck with a name from a culture other than the dual cultures that his parents are engaging with. In a turn of events, they are enforced to register his name as Gogol Ganguli which they hope to change once he is old enough for the school. But, Gogol refuses to respond to the name Nikhil, which the father had told the school principal as his official name, in the school and therefore, is registered as Gogol Ganguli: “But Gogol doesn’t want a new name. He can’t understand why he has to answer anything else. “Why do I have to have a new name?” he asks his parents”. (Lahiri 56) It does not bother him as a child to engage with the unique name: “It doesn’t bother him that his name is never an option on key chains or metal pins or refrigerator magnets. He has been told that he was named after a famous Russian author, born in the previous century.” (66) His conflicts with his name occur when as a teenager he becomes aware of the strangeness of the name. He detests his name and struggles with it, embarrassed by it. He conflicts with a name that is not a result of both heritage and so, “He hates that his name is both absurd and obscure, that it is 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…” (76) Gogol is dismayed by the fact that of all the names from Russian writers his parents chose the “weirdest namesake” (76). He muses that if he was also from Calcutta, he could have been like his parents and been Gogol only half the time and he could have had an alternative identity. He encounters Nikoli Gogol head-on in his literature class when his teacher introduces the writer and prescribes “The Overcoat” as one of the texts to be studied. Gogol is visibly embarrassed by the situation and he is acutely aware of how others perceive him. But more them, it is his mind which is blowing the issue out of proportion: “Each time the name is uttered, he quietly winces… He looks at his classmates, but they seem indifferent, obediently copying down the information as Mr. Lawson continues to speak…” (91) He wants to shed this identity and create a redefined identity for himself. To define himself as a born and brought up in the USA rather than identifying himself with his parent’s Bengali immigrant culture, he officially adopts the name Nikhil. For him defining his own identity becomes crucial because it is a part of growing up and finding himself. He is negotiating between two worlds, the inner world of his family where the Bengali culture is nurtured through various hybridized rituals, and the external world which is occupied by formal education and mainstream American culture. Maneuvering between these two cultural identities, he constantly vacillates, experiencing identity confusion from a change of names. His father points out to him, that “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 otherwise, was Gogol.” (99). With clear self-awareness, Gogol chooses to change his name and make choices about his identity and cultural space. There is a constant rupture in his attempts at maintaining a singular identity. He feels a cultural alienation as he constantly compares both the cultures while he is living it out and finds both lacking in their ability to assimilate him. Though initially, he finds the Radcliffe household which is the epitome of American life to be comforting and accepting, his father’s death alters that reality for him as he finds himself spending more time with his mother and sister and engaging more with his Bengali roots, which towards the end of the novel also become a space of disillusionment and yet, the alternative he chooses for himself.

Another character who chooses the third culture to escape the conflicting dual cultural identities is Moushmi. She adopts French to escape from the pressures of conforming to either of the cultures of her origins: “Immersing herself in a third language, a third culture, had been her refuge – she approaches French, unlike things American or Indian, without guilt, or misgiving, or expectation of any kind.” (214) The only character who straddles both the cultural spaces and negotiates between the different cultures to forge a hybrid identity for herself is Sonia. Sonia finds a harmonious relationship with Ben and has a steady job and is inherently happy in her space and identity. On the last visit of Gogol to Pemberton, when Sonia comes to pick him up at the station, he envisions her with a complete happy family and knows that she has achieved her balance between the two cultural spaces that define her identity. Gogol still occupies the luminal ambivalent space between the two cultural identities, though he is veering more towards his Indian immigrant identity.

Akaky is bereft of such choices in his transformation from an uninteresting, obliterated personality to a more socially awakened person. The overcoat opens up a whole new dimension of experience for Akaky: suddenly he has a social life and goes out at night for the first time in years. They are an important element of a fulfilling life. He has a heightened awakening of his surroundings as he notices minute details which he missed in the daily course of his life at the beginning of the story. He would carry dust and other garbage on his coat, collected from his walk to the workplace because he is oblivious to the surroundings. In contrast, now he engages with his surroundings like a small delightful child. The newly earned confidence due to the overcoat not only raises his social status but also accords him with new ways of relating to the world. It introduces dimensions of his personality to him which had been suppressed for very long, including his recognition of his sexual awareness. But, even though the overcoat has given him opportunities and recognition among his fellow civil servants, the scene at the party shows that Akaky’s social standing is still very limited. The coat allows his inclusion in the social class of his coworkers but he himself lacks the confidence and the social skills required to fit in. And though the other officials are friendly to Akaky and courage him to stay, Gogol implies that they do not truly care about the clerk. His overcoat lying on the floor when he reaches the door, and no one notices when he leaves. As hard as he has tried, Akaky remains insignificant and hangs in the liminal space between absolute social inclusiveness and being marginalized like Gogol in Namesake.

These liminal spaces are created for both the protagonists from various sources. For Akaky, the social exclusion and apathy of the bureaucratic egos weigh down on his own lack of self-worth, psychologically making him an introvert and social pariah. For Gogol, his occupation of liminal space is a result of mostly his own mental torments surrounding his name and his confusion over adopting a singular identity or synthesizing multiple cultural identities to create a hybrid identity. The external factors of racial discrimination, ethnic marginalization that mainstream American social practices which many times, become the chief cause of identity confusion for a second-generation immigrant are conveniently glossed over by the writer, as she makes only fleeting references to racial slurs and attacks that Ashoke or Gogol witness. Even when they occur, the response of the characters is mostly passive towards it.

Thus, the struggle for the creation of meaningful identities is paralleled in the character of the novel, and in the character of the short story it constantly intertextually intertwines throughout the narration. The overcoat of Gogol’s short story becomes the symbolic overarching coat of identity that Gogol in the novel struggles with throughout his life. The namesakes do not just share the names, they share the destinies of a tryst with their identities.


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