The Namesake | Study Guide

Jhumpa Lahiri

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The Namesake | Symbols


Nikolai Gogol's Story, "The Overcoat"

The story "The Overcoat," by Nikolai Gogol, plays a central part in Ashoke's rescue from a train wreck. A page of the story in his hand causes a rescuer to find him rather than leave him to die. Ashoke transforms that moment from one of fear to one of gratitude, so the story serves as a symbol, for him, of survival and of a way to find love and rebirth through his son. The story also sparks Gogol's realization that the name his father gives him is based on gratitude and love rather than out of a selfish desire to commemorate a favorite author. To Gogol, the story is a symbol of his father's love and deep ties to his family. Gogol uses the story after his father's death to keep his father's memory alive; he begins to read the story for the first time, realizing what kind of person his father really was.

Gangulis' House on Pemberton Road

The house on Pemberton Road is not what Ashoke and Ashima would choose for themselves if they were able to have a dream house, but it is an acceptable place to live: close to the university and affordable. Ashima begins to decorate it in a way that makes it her own, and the entire family begins to inhabit the house and transform it into a home. The transformation of Pemberton Road from house to home symbolizes the transformation of the family. The house begins as a symbol of Ashoke's professional success in the United States in his career as a professor of electrical engineering, but it becomes a symbol of the closeness of the family and their connection with the Bengali community.

The house on Pemberton Road is the scene of meals, milestones, arguments, and joys in the Ganguli family. It is also one of the homes on the Bengali community's circuit for weekend dinners and celebrations. When Ashoke passes away, the children return to the house to keep their mother company and grieve the loss of their father, making the home a place for the coming together again of the family. When Ashima decides she is going to sell the house, it is like the loss of a family member for her and for Gogol, who comes for the last Christmas there to say goodbye to the house of his childhood. For Gogol it symbolizes the heart of his family, a place where he can conjure the memory of his father.

Food in Indian Culture

In The Namesake Indian food symbolizes the whole of Indian culture and the closeness of a Bengali family and community. Food plays a central role in illustrating a show of affection, for example, in the case of Ashima to her new husband. She gets to know him by getting to know his favorite foods and flavors (potatoes and salty foods). She also keeps Bengali traditions in the family's life through the food, only compromising a little by giving her children American lunches and an American supper once a week. The rest of the time, the food is Bengali, a way to keep India in her sights.

The absence of this type of food symbolizes the loss of Bengali cultural traditions and heritage. For example, Gogol shares meals with the Ratliff family, eating food that bears no resemblance to his meals at home. Without the food of his childhood, he is independent of his parents. However, when there is a Ganguli family celebration, Bengali foods bring back the connection to India. Weddings are Indian feasts—as are holidays—never devoid of Indian foods. Moushumi's love of French food shows a distancing of her desires from those of Gogol and a desire to shed the identity of a child of immigrants, taking on the identity of a literary intellectual. The vegetarian meals that the remaining three members of the Ganguli family eat and their hunger for them symbolize the strong connection with their culture and their family that surfaces in times of intense sorrow or joy.

The Good Name, Nikhil

Gogol's good name, Nikhil, first symbolizes the need to keep the Bengali naming tradition alive even though Gogol's great grandmother's input becomes impossible to achieve. At first Nikhil is the name of a stranger to Gogol, and he can't use it because it isn't him. When Gogol gets older, though, the good name becomes a way to escape his hated pet name, a name that doesn't reflect his identity in any way, he thinks. Then Nikhil symbolizes a way to be someone else, someone who inhabits at least part of his heritage, though it feels to Gogol as if he is acting when he first changes his name.

By taking on the good name, he both rebels against his parents and pleases them, symbolizing the dichotomy between staying close with Bengali parents and culture and stepping out on his own to be an individual in charge of his own life. Later, when Gogol marries Moushumi, the name represents, for Gogol, the shame of going against the wishes of a father who is now dead. Moushumi reveals that shame when she tells friends that Nikhil wasn't always Gogol's name. Gogol never becomes Nikhil completely, though, because his family continues to call him Gogol at home. This fact reflects the idea that Gogol can never fully let go of his family or his heritage. The good name, oddly, represents his American self, while his pet name connects him to his family.

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