The Namesake | Study Guide

Jhumpa Lahiri

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The Namesake | Chapter 5 | Summary



Gogol prepares to travel to Yale University in 1986 for his freshman year, but before he goes, he decides he will make his identity as Nikhil official. He tells his parents he is going to have his name legally changed from his pet name to his good name because Gogol doesn't reflect his identity. The name is Russian, not American or Bengali, and Gogol recognizes no reason he should keep it. Ashoke is upset that Gogol is so insistent on giving up a name that is important to his father, and Ashima tells him he should not do it, even though Nikhil is his good name. Ashoke concedes quietly, telling Gogol he can do what he wants because "in America anything is possible." Gogol goes to court to change his name, where there is no ceremony or difficulty at all. When he gets to Yale, he revises his paperwork to reflect his new name, but everyone at home still calls him by Gogol, his pet name.

Gogol tells his suitemates and other new friends his name is Nikhil. It takes him a while to remember Nikhil is his name, but he eventually gets used to it. Gogol even gets a fake ID with the name on it so that he can get alcohol. He smokes and drinks at parties, but he still goes home frequently to visit his parents. He begins to study architecture at Yale and falls in love with it. Gogol settles into having a home away from home. In contrast, his sister, Sonia, a typical teenager, has begun fighting with Ashima about everything from her hair to her language, storming off regularly into her bedroom or sneaking out to smoke.

During his sophomore year at Yale, when Gogol goes home to spend Thanksgiving with his parents, he meets a girl on the train. Her name is Ruth, and she is from Maine, heading back there from Yale for Thanksgiving. They talk so long that Gogol, before he knows what he has done, asks for her number. When they both get back to Yale, Gogol and Ruth start seeing each other regularly, and their romance becomes so intense that Gogol can't function without seeing Ruth. She thinks it is romantic that his parents don't approve of her and say Gogol is too young to be dating. The romance, however, is eventually doomed when Ruth decides to spend her junior year spring semester at Oxford. She ends up deciding to stay longer, and when they reunite, the fire is gone from their relationship. They both have changed too much to be compatible.

In Gogol's senior year, when he goes home for Thanksgiving, his train is delayed because someone jumps in front of it and dies. Gogol feels sad about the person who took his life and also feels sad about losing Ruth. The train comes into Boston several hours late, but Ashoke is still there, freezing and pacing, waiting on the platform for Gogol. Gogol asks Ashoke why he bothers to stay so late, and Ashoke finally tells Gogol about his namesake and how a page of "The Overcoat" saved his life in a train crash. At first Gogol is angry Ashoke waited this long to tell him, and he asks whether the name Gogol reminds Ashoke of disaster. Ashoke tells Gogol the name reminds him of "everything that followed," meaning the miracle of survival and Ashoke's life as a husband, father, and teacher.


Gogol's determination to be independent from his parents stems not just from the usual teenage desire to be one's own person, but from his desire to have control over his name and identity. Gogol wants to be Nikhil because he hates the name Gogol but also because it lends him a different air of confidence, in his mind. He feels he can't be romantic with anyone if he is Gogol; but as Nikhil, he is brave. Gogol's first year in college will be his first time living away from home, and he needs a boost of confidence before he goes away to Yale.

The name change to a Bengali name makes sense, Gogol thinks, because it fits with his heritage. But Gogol also thinks he doesn't want to hold on to his heritage the way his parents do. Gogol immerses himself in American college culture, going to keg parties and drinking and smoking, but he can't completely get away from his cultural identity because he is still drawn to his home with his parents, visiting them frequently. He wants to start his life over, but he can't completely leave his old life behind.

Gogol's struggle to balance Indian and American identity is also represented in the relationship with Ruth. She's from Maine, she's white, and she has nothing in common with him culturally. His parents don't approve of her, but he is unable to function without her as soon as they become lovers. Gogol keeps reaching for something in his life that is different from the identity he developed at home as a child. His sister Sonia is beginning to do the same thing, rebelling against her mother's idea of a Bengali American girl. But Sonia seems conscious of her choices, while Gogol seems to fall into his decisions. When Gogol gets Ruth's number, the interaction feels like a dream sequence, as if he is watching someone else interact with Ruth. Their breakup happens in the same fashion when she goes to Oxford and stays longer than intended. There is no betrayal; they simply drift apart.

When Ashoke finally tells Gogol why he stayed on the train platform so long to wait for his son, Gogol is angry. He feels betrayed regarding the origin of his name. Gogol thinks he should have known right from the start. But when his father explains the horrific nature of the accident and the importance of Nikolai Gogol's story "The Overcoat," Gogol retreats from his anger. The awful feeling in the pit of his stomach stems from guilt over being harsh with his father but also from his betrayal of his father by changing his name to Nikhil. Gogol told the judge who changed his name legally that his reason for the change is hatred. This is a fact he could not tell his parents, for fear of upsetting them. But now the knowledge of the symbolic nature of the name for his father and the knowledge that Gogol himself is a miracle in his father's life weighs heavily on Gogol. His father finally reveals a secret to him, but he can't tell his father the truth about his name change. The "good name" Nikhil suddenly doesn't feel good to Gogol, but it's too late for him to do anything about it. The knowledge of his father's story is a painful subject for Gogol, and it will be a secret he carries with him throughout the rest of his life, telling only people he trusts. The interaction between father and son illustrates not only the conflict between culture and identity, but also the conflict between parent and child, even when they both love each other dearly.

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