The Namesake | Study Guide

Jhumpa Lahiri

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The Namesake | Chapter 4 | Summary

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Summary

It is 1982, and Gogol is turning 14. His parents let him have an American party, complete with friends, a basketball game, pizza, and ice cream for dessert. However, the Gangulis have become part of a very close-knit Bengali community that spends weekends at one another's houses and celebrates special occasions together. Thus there is also a Bengali party for Gogol. This second party includes traditional Bengali foods, especially Gogol's favorite dishes. Among the many guests at the party is a family that has recently arrived from England, and Gogol meets their daughter, Moushumi. Moushumi is a shy girl with an embarrassing British accent, and all she wants to do is sit and read books. Gogol doesn't interact with her after their introduction.

For Gogol's birthday Ashoke gives him a volume of Nikolai Gogol's short stories. Ashoke nearly tells Gogol about his gratitude to the author for saving his life, but he holds back and ends up telling his son that "we all came out of Gogol's overcoat," a paraphrase of a quotation by Fyodor Dostoevsky, another Russian author. Ashoke also decides against telling Gogol that the author Gogol spent most of his life outside his homeland, much like Ashoke. Gogol brushes off this experience with his father and hides the book in his room, where he doesn't look at it again.

Now that Gogol is in high school, his name becomes an issue for him because it is neither American nor Indian. He has to explain his name to people, which is embarrassing for Gogol because he has no personal connection with his namesake, the Russian author. His attempts to fit in socially are interrupted by the news his father is going on sabbatical and plans to take the family to Calcutta for eight months. Gogol and Sonia are horrified, but they have no choice but to go with the family.

In Calcutta the kids see their parents in a completely different light, comfortable among family members and much more expressive in their mother language. But Sonia and Gogol are bored and don't want to go out beyond the residence because they feel like outsiders. Their Bengali is not good enough to communicate with people, yet they look as if they should be able to speak the language. Finally, Ashoke plans a road trip to other cities in India, including Delhi. They also tour the Taj Mahal, which serves as artistic inspiration for Gogol, despite the fact that he and Sonia both fall ill during the trip. Gogol's interest in architecture is stimulated by the trip, and he feels a little less like an outsider because his parents, too, are outsiders in other Indian states where Bengali is not the primary language.

The name problem gets worse the next year, when Gogol's 11th-grade English teacher, Mr. Lawson, decides to include Nikolai Gogol's short story "The Overcoat" on the syllabus. Gogol purposely avoids reading the story. Every time he hears Mr. Lawson say Gogol's name, he feels conspicuous and embarrassed. Nikolai Gogol's life turns out to have been an awful one, with bouts of depression and mania, failure at his work, and eventual self-starvation. Gogol is ashamed his father would name him after such a loser, and he worries the other students will think badly of him. He begins to regret his choice to be called by his pet name.

Gogol goes to a college party with high school friends, unbeknownst to his parents. The party includes a keg of beer, and nearly everyone is smoking, so Gogol indulges too. He meets a girl named Kim, sits down to talk with her, and introduces himself, to his own surprise, as Nikhil. Kim thinks the name is lovely, and Gogol feels like he's an actor on a stage, using his good name for the first time. His identity change boosts his confidence, and he kisses Kim.

Analysis

The chapter opens with cultural differences between an American birthday celebration for a typical teenage boy and a Bengali birthday feast. Lahiri uses descriptions of food that Ashima prepares for the Bengali celebration to show how important food is in Bengali cultural traditions. The American celebration's pizza and ice cream are just pizza and ice cream, but the Indian foods are described in detail. Lahiri's focus on the Indian celebration reflects Ashima's efforts to retain her culture in her family's life as its members honor important milestones.

Gogol meets Moushumi, who will become important later in the novel, but at this age, neither of them has much to say to the other. They both isolate from the crowd, but in different ways. Moushumi's love of books will play a part in the direction of her life later in the novel as well. Another event that will become meaningful later in the novel is Ashoke's gift to Gogol of a volume of Nikolai Gogol's stories. The book is symbolic for Ashoke, but it means nothing to Gogol, who has never read the stories and doesn't plan to do so. Ashoke's unwillingness to share his story of survival with Gogol ensures that Gogol does not share his love for the story or his attachment to the name Gogol. It's a name Ashoke's son has come to hate. Ashoke's thoughts show his internal conflict over telling Gogol about the accident. In contrast Gogol's body language and actions show his indifference. Later in the chapter Gogol physically cringes when he hears the name in school, and he is upset he has been named after a person with such a terrible life story. This moment provides a "last straw" event for Gogol, who decides he will now use a different name.

Gogol and Sonia's experience in India connects with the themes of culture and identity. Gogol and Sonia feel isolated and uncomfortable because their Bengali is not good enough for them to interact with people, but they are expected to be able to do so. Their identity as Indian Americans makes them outsiders in the United States and outsiders in India. But they get to experience their parents in a completely different way, watching them interact with family and friends in their maternal language, exuding confidence they don't have in the United States.

The importance of naming comes up again when Gogol goes to a party. He uses his so-called good name, Nikhil, for the first time in public. Even though he has no connection with the name apart from it being Indian, the name change gives him confidence to kiss a girl for the first time. Gogol understands that it is Nikhil who is brave enough to kiss Kim, not Gogol. The new name allows Gogol to try on a new identity and will continue to gain significance in the novel.

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