The Namesake | Study Guide

Jhumpa Lahiri

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The Namesake | Themes


Importance of Names

The central theme of The Namesake is the importance of names. The Bengali tradition of naming includes the development of a daknam, a pet name or nickname, and a bhalonam, a good name, used in public life and on official documents. The tradition acknowledges that "one is not all things to all people." It also allows people to use the name that fits the occasion, losing the formality of the good name when appropriate. It is a tradition Ashoke and Ashima, who are Mithu and Monu to their families, have kept and intend to keep for their firstborn child, but there is another tradition of naming that gets in the way. The parents do not choose the good name; they wait for an elder in the family to choose it. Ashima's grandmother has that duty, but the name never arrives. The choice of good name, for Ashoke and Ashima, is so important that they refuse to choose it themselves. They relax these rules for their second child, but at that point, Ashoke and Ashima have become more American in their lifestyle and choices.

The theme of names touches on cultural differences, as well, because the cultural tradition of having two names—one which the parents don't choose—runs up against American laws regarding identity and naming. The couple is pressured into giving the baby a name for the birth certificate, and they have no choice, they think, but to give the pet name. They run into a similar problem when they try to register their son for school and the principal hears them use the pet name instead of the name on the registration form. At this point the parents lose the right to determine where and when their child uses the pet name, because their son doesn't know his good name.

The choice of name for Gogol carries a great deal of emotional weight, both for Ashoke and for Gogol himself. Ashoke wants to honor the author whose story he was reading when he nearly died in a train wreck, where the torn page falling from his hand alerted rescuers. Nikolai Gogol is not only Ashoke's favorite author, but he is the reason Ashoke is still alive and can have a son. But the weight of gratitude for this name doesn't extend to his son Gogol, who grows to hate his name as something he cannot understand or see to be representing him. For Gogol, the name doesn't reflect his Bengali heritage, nor does it acknowledge that he is American. Gogol hasn't read the stories his father loved, so he has no connection with the name at all and is embarrassed to be named after an author he thinks is completely depressing and morose. Gogol doesn't want to hurt his father by telling him he hates the name his father gave him, so he tries to cover up his real feelings by claiming that now he can go by his good name, Nikhil, like his parents originally wanted him to do. The sterile American court, however, witnesses the real reason: Gogol hates the name Gogol and can't envision himself carrying that name throughout his whole life.

Soon enough, Gogol discovers that his mother's admonition that it isn't easy to change a name is correct. For months Gogol has a hard time answering to Nikhil because it feels like he can't inhabit the name. He feels like he's trying on an identity, like an actor playing a part. Eventually he gets used to the change, but he is still sensitive about the name issue, so much so that when his wife reveals his pet name to her friends, he gets extremely upset about it and feels she has broken his trust. Gogol's names are not just ways of identifying himself; they are representative of the family and cultural ties with which he struggles.

Cultural Identity

The theme of cultural identity is present throughout The Namesake because the main characters are immigrants and the children of immigrants. Ashoke is less tied to Bengali tradition once he has been in the United States for several years and is willing to compromise to fit into American society and allow his children to do so. Ashima, however, starts her life in the United States feeling completely at odds with her new environment and desperately missing her life and her family in Calcutta. Ashoke modifies the way he dresses to fit his workplace, but Ashima continues to wear saris, holding on to her traditional Bengali dress. She continues to wear vermilion, or bright red pigment made from powder, in the part of her hair, signifying she is a married woman, and she wears an iron matrimonial bracelet, another Bengali tradition. She compromises later in the novel regarding American food, once a week, to please her children, but during the rest of the week, she makes food from her homeland. Friends of the family all come from the Bengali immigrant community in the suburbs of Boston. The Gangulis celebrate Christmas, but they also make sure the children participate in Bengali holidays with other families.

Sonia, the Gangulis' daughter, immerses herself in American culture, especially as a teenager, with piercings, hairstyles her mother hates, and clothing her parents find inappropriate. She smokes and drinks, something her parents would never do, and she feels isolated and uncomfortable during visits to India. Rather than submitting to an arranged marriage, she marries a half Chinese, half Jewish man, Ben. Her only return to Bengali culture happens with her family: at her wedding and in mourning the death of her father. Her mother fights with her about her choices, but her father is more understanding about the importance of her identity as an American citizen and her lack of connection to a country she only visits and has never lived in.

Gogol struggles with his identity as an American child of Bengali immigrants as he struggles with his identity as Gogol, a name that is neither Indian nor American. His choice of name, Nikhil, is his Bengali good name, revealing his desire to stay connected to his heritage, but it also serves as a way to placate his parents when he changes his name. By changing to Nikhil, he can hide the fact that he hates the name Gogol, only revealing his distress to the judge.

Gogol tries to escape not just his traditions but his family as well when he lives with Maxine and keeps his parents from being able to contact him at the Ratliff's vacation home in New Hampshire. He can lose himself in a way of life that is completely different from that of his parents. When Lydia Ratliff defends him at a dinner party as being American and therefore not automatically immune to diseases he could contract in India, he gets a glimpse of just how different he is from the Ratliffs and their friends, no matter how much he tries to make his background disappear. He exiles the Ratliffs and their differences from his life when his father dies, and he embraces Bengali traditions again, going through traditional mourning rites and then agreeing to date someone his mother has suggested, a Bengali American woman he has known since his childhood.

Gogol returns to his cultural identity with a sense of relief at being understood by another child of Bengali immigrants when he marries Moushumi. But Moushumi resists her own culture by studying French literature, wanting to live in Paris, and surrounding herself with white friends. Gogol feels uncomfortable in Moushumi's world because it isn't familiar to him and he has nothing in common with her friends. Moushumi rejects her culture again when she has an affair with Dimitri, whereas Gogol returns to his identity as a child of Bengali immigrants. He also embraces his identity as Gogol by finally reading the story that saved his father's life.

Starting Over

All of the main characters in The Namesake have, in various ways, had to start their lives over in significant ways. Ashoke begins his life again after he recovers from a terrible train crash that kills his seatmate, Ghosh, and maims Ashoke himself for life, giving him a slight limp and a constant pressure on his ribs. This accident also gives him gratitude when he starts his life over in the United States as a newly married man and then as a father to Gogol. Ashoke marks this new birth—Gogol's and his own as a parent—by naming Gogol for his favorite author, Nikolai Gogol.

Ashima also starts over, several times, in the novel. First, she marries quickly in an arranged marriage to Ashoke, starting her life over not only as a married woman, Ashima Ganguli, but as a resident of Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is a huge adjustment for her. Even though she has studied English as her main subject in India, she discovers her English in daily life in the United States is not as good as she had hoped. She has to cope with harsh winters and people who are far more exposed visually, seeming to express themselves freely and openly in public, but reserved emotionally in ways she doesn't understand. There is also a cultural wall between her and her neighbors because she met her husband, chosen by her parents, two weeks before she married him, and Bengali spouses do not treat each other in the same visibly intimate ways that American couples do. Ashima starts over once she gives birth to Gogol, as well, interacting with her environment in a way she hasn't done before and giving every moment to her son. Ashima also has to start over as a woman living mostly alone when Ashoke takes a fellowship in Ohio. Then she has to start over again as a widow when he dies. At the end of the novel, she starts her life again by moving from the marital home, deciding to alternate living in Boston and Calcutta.

Gogol starts over with a new identity when he takes the name Nikhil at a party, and he cements that new identity when he officially changes his name in court. He sheds the identity of Gogol, the name of an author with whom Gogol has no connection and that he feels his father has imposed on him. Gogol also has to start over when he and his first girlfriend Ruth drift apart and when he moves in with Maxine Ratliff and takes on the role of a Ratliff family member. In that role he has to shed much of his identity as a child of immigrants. The impossibility of that loss comes back to him when he loses his father. Then he starts his life over again, keeping Maxine separate from his life with his family and shutting her out because she has no place in his traditions. Gogol starts his life over again when he agrees to go on a date with Moushumi at his mother's suggestion and then marries Moushumi, making the relationship an almost arranged marriage but with the added benefit of falling in love first. When Gogol discovers Moushumi is having an affair, he has to start over again, as a single man, and only then is he able to return to the memory of his father in a meaningful way. Only then does he understand the bond they had.

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