Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake opens with a pregnant Ashima attempting to recreate a favorite snack from India. This image, of a woman clearly homesick and disconnected from her roots, sets the tone for Gogol’s birth shortly thereafter. When the infant Gogol is named, a further disconnection is underlined in the form of a lost letter from India, one containing the boy’s intended formal name. This twist of fate leaves Gogol with no more than a pet name, albeit one with great significance. Despite this, his parents Ashoke and Ashima hope to replace the name when Gogol begins his formal education. However, the five-year-old Gogol, too young to question who he is, accepts only his pet name, rejecting his formal name, Nikhil. Here, another twist of fate, again underlying the Gangulis’ foreignness, occurs. Gogol’s American teachers, unfamiliar with the Indian tradition of pet and formal names, accept Gogol’s birth certificate and his wishes.
As Gogol grows up, however, he becomes more and more aware of his dual heritage and of the pitfalls inherent in navigating it. To him, his name has grown to embody these pitfalls, and he resents it accordingly. He is unaware of the true meaning behind his name, and Gogol overlooks the gift of Nikolai Gogol’s short stories given to him by his father on his fourteenth birthday. This willful ignorance continues throughout his life, as Gogol studiously avoids reading the Russian author’s works. To do so, he feels, would be to accept a name he in no way accepts. Later, though, when Gogol legally changes his name, he only complicates matters. He does not want to be Gogol, and yet he does not ‘‘feel like Nikhil.’’ His dual names—one at school, one at home—make him feel as if ‘‘he’s cast himself in a play acting the part of twins.’’ Trapped between his two names, Gogol ‘‘feels helpless, annoyed . . . caught in the mess he’s made.’’ Although this feeling subsides as Gogol makes his way in college, his feelings toward his dual heritage have grown no less accepting. In fact the opposite occurs. Even when Gogol learns the truth behind the meaning of his name during his senior year at Yale, his ambivalence toward his Indian heritage remains unabated.
Gogol’s two girlfriends are perfect examples of this pattern. The first, Ruth, will surely bring his parents’ disapproval. Gogol is well aware of this, and he avoids mentioning her for as long as possible. Even though he and Ruth date for almost two years, Gogol never introduces her to his family. The relationship, like most college liaisons, ends when both Ruth and Gogol grow apart. Gogol again rejects his Indian heritage, to an even greater degree, when he dates Maxine Ratliff. Both she and her family are the direct opposites of the Ganguli clan, a fact of which Gogol is acutely aware. He constantly makes comparisons between the two families, all of which cast the Gangulis in an unflattering light. Indeed, ‘‘he is conscious of the fact that his immersion in Maxine’s family is a betrayal of his own.’’
However, the death of Gogol’s father sparks a deep change in his view of himself and his family. Indeed, when Ashoke dies, Gogol insists on traveling to Cleveland without Maxine, and he does not invite her to join his family in the initial mourning period. Indeed, for the first time in his life, Gogol finds himself clinging to the Bengali rituals that follow in the wake of his father’s death. According to Natalie Friedman in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Gogol ‘‘desires a ‘return’ to his Indian-inflected parental home and his Indian community in Massachusetts after the death of his father, which awakens in him a sudden need to reconnect with lost Bengali rituals.’’ Gogol’s desire to embrace his Indian heritage is, unsurprisingly, matched by his failing desire to actively reject it—especially in the form of his girlfriend. Friedman observes:
“Gogol recognizes his romance with Maxine for what it was: a temporary experience, a diversion. The return to his family and to Bengali rituals serves to reinstate for Gogol the importance of his ethnic difference, and he loses interest in Maxine.”
Friedman adds that ‘‘his return to his parents’ house in Massachusetts is a physical and metaphoric return to his Indian roots; it is the first time in the novel that Gogol acknowledges that he is Indian and not simply another American suburban boy.’’
Gogol’s next girlfriend underscores his closer ties to his family and heritage. Indeed, while Gogol is surprised by his love for Moushumi Mazoomdar, it hardly comes as a surprise to the reader. Gogol’s weekly visits home, an acquiescence to his mother’s nagging, are in line with the changed Gogol. Moushumi, who has shared a similar distaste for her background, is motivated to return to tradition following a broken engagement to an American. Gogol and Moushumi marry as expected, and they hold a traditional Bengali ceremony only to please their families. The irony, of course, is that Moushumi remains dissatisfied with her roots in a way that Gogol no longer shares. That dissatisfaction ultimately sows the seeds of discontent that will destroy their marriage. The irony, of course, is readily apparent: while Gogol chases his perceived American ideal before growing disenchanted with it, he unwittingly marries a Bengali woman who is still actively chasing that ideal.
Despite his acceptance of his cultural identity, Gogol still struggles to accept his given name. This is evidenced in two events that occur with Moushumi. In the first, Moushumi reveals Gogol’s birth name at a dinner party, and Gogol can barely conceal his anger and resentment. Indeed, his unresolved feelings toward his name are revealed again only a moment later when he tells the shocked partygoers that children should go only by pronouns until they name themselves at the age of eighteen. In the second instance, when Gogol learns the name of Moushumi’s lover, it is ‘‘the first time in his life, [when] another man’s name upset him more than his own.’’ Nevertheless, only a year later, Gogol finally accepts his name. In doing so, he finally accepts himself, and his father (who named him) as well.
In fact, it is Gogol’s discovery of his father’s long-ago gift—a book of Nikolai Gogol’s short stories—that triggers this epiphany. Gogol discovers an inscription from Ashoke inside the book and realizes that ‘‘the name he had so detested . . . was the first thing his father had ever given him.’’ He also thinks that there are only a few people left in his life who know him as Gogol, and ‘‘yet the thought of this eventual demise provides no sense of victory, no solace. It provides no solace at all.’’ Still, Gogol’s final epiphany has been brewing for some time. Earlier that day, he thinks of the bravery required of his parents to live so far from their homes, and of how he has never lived farther than a quick train ride away from his own. This line of thought is brought on by the knowledge that Ashima will spend half the year in Calcutta and that his childhood home has been sold. Indeed, as Friedman states, ‘‘with Ashima’s retirement to India, Gogol will be, effectively, without a home.’’ And so, in the face of that loss, he chooses no longer to be without a name.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Jhumpa Lahiri, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.
Leah Tieger, Critical Essay on The Namesake, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.