Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake tells the story of the Gangulis, a Bengali American family grappling with love, loss, and identity in the final thirty years of the 20th Century.
When Ashoke Ganguli survives a catastrophic train accident in India thanks to a book of short stories written by Nikolai Gogol, he decides to move to America. Shortly after the move, he enters an arranged marriage with Ashima, and they give birth to a son. A twist of fate keeps them from naming the boy according to Bengali traditions, so they give him the name “Gogol” instead. As he grows, Gogol comes to hate his name and decides to change it, hoping to leave both his former name and his Bengali heritage behind. Now as “Nikhil,” he begins dating a woman named Maxine, living with her family and adopting their culture while ignoring his own. However, Gogol is pulled back to his Bengali heritage after his father dies of a heart attack. Gogol then marries a fellow Bengali American named Moushumi. Their marriage lasts only a few years before Moushumi, also rebelling against her Bengali heritage, has an affair with a white man. This final loss forces Gogol to come to grips not only with his multiple names but also with his multiple identities.
Written by: Jhumpa Lahiri
Type of Work: Fiction
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
First Published: 2004
Setting (primary): Boston, Massachusetts
Settings (secondary): New York City; Calcutta, India; New Haven, Connecticut
Main Characters: Ashima (Bhaduri) Ganguli; Ashoke Ganguli; Gogol/Nikhil Ganguli; Sonali “Sonia” Ganguli; Moushumi Mazoomdar; Maxine Ratliff
Major Thematic Topics: cultural identity; the power of names and naming; the immigrant experience; love and commitment; memory
Major Symbols: trains; Christmas traditions; Indian foods made with American ingredients; The Short Stories of Nikolai Gogol
Movie Version: The Namesake (2006)
The three most important aspects of The Namesake: The first important aspect of The Namesake is its exploration of Bengali American identity. Each Ganguli family member struggles to understand how to reconcile life in America with Bengali culture and heritage. This struggle is most obvious in Gogol, who tries to escape his Bengali heritage while in college and later, especially by dating women who seem “American” to him. In his relationship with Maxine, he functionally exchanges his own Bengali family for Maxine’s stereotypically white American family. He tries to bury his memories of the past, believing that his Bengali heritage keeps him from being the kind of American he wishes to be. Only Ashoke’s death is powerful enough to pull Gogol back to his Bengali roots, forcing him to negotiate an identity that is both American and Bengali rather than seeing the two cultures as irreconcilable. Ashima struggles in the opposite way: Her dedication to her past in India makes her resistant to becoming “too American.” For her, Ashoke’s death becomes a reminder of all the precious memories they have shared in America, and she, too, begins to think of herself simultaneously Bengali and American. Her resolution to spend six months of each year in Calcutta and six months in America symbolizes the joint identity at which she finally arrives.
The second important aspect of The Namesake is much like the first: the relationship between names and identities. As the novel’s title implies, the matter of Gogol’s name and his namesake is central to the story. The name “Gogol” complicates Gogol’s childhood identity because it is neither American nor Bengali. Gogol’s rejecting his childhood name in favor of the name “Nikhil” coincides with his attempt to flee everything about his childhood as well. When he calls himself “Nikhil,” Gogol feels like a different person, and he prefers being this other person. Still, the rich history of the name “Gogol” is also part of the heritage Gogol receives from his father—and in the end of the novel, Gogol’s choice to be at peace with his own past is also a choice to begin reading about the original Gogol who changed his father’s life.
A third key aspect of The Namesake is its examination of love and obligation. Ashoke and Ashima have a relationship that begins with obligation and has no love at first. But by the time of Ashoke’s death, Ashima knows that she has loved Ashoke deeply. Their journey of romance is far different from their children’s journeys. Gogol’s relationship with Maxine seems based on love without obligation; Gogol enjoys being in a relationship that violates the Bengali patterns of obligation his parents followed. But this lack of obligation also leads to a lack of depth: Gogol realizes that he has never truly allowed Maxine to know him deeply. Moushumi’s marriage with Gogol seems to be a combination of both attraction and obligation; over time, however, as the relationship begins to remind her more and more of her parents’ obligation-based Bengali marriage, she falls out of love with Gogol. The novel offers no easy answers about romance, only a discussion of the possible outcomes of each approach.