The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, addresses problems attached to the character’s name and identity. It’s about a teenage boy named Gogol who feels hatred toward his name as he grows up. The name is given by his father who’s a big fan of a nineteenth century Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol. Gogol wasn’t disturbed at first by his odd name until he was eleven years old, when on a class trip to a cemetery; he realizes that his name was totally strange. He observes the gravestones with many different names because he could connect to it. Gogol starts to feel a humiliation by the peculiarity of his name. By the age of fourteen, he disliked being asked about his unusual name.
Finally, when he goes off to attend college at Yale, he feels relieved to be away from home and the Bengali customs. On the contrary, his mother Ashima is all about Bengali traditions. She maintains the norms of her culture and performs rituals of her native land. Ashima always asks his children and husband to accompany her in the ceremonies. She is the most traditional member of the family and sticks the family together. Ashima feels homesick due to the surrounding by unfamiliar faces in Cambridge and being exposed to learning new things. Ashima struggles setting her life in the new place and she doesn’t think she fits in anywhere. There’s a feeling of culture shock as she continuously refers back to her homeland and families she left behind.
Gogol, on the other hand, tries to completely change his lifestyle as he makes American friends in his university. At one of his college party, when Gogol meets a girl named Kim, he feels hesitant to introduce himself. He imagines how she would react to his odd name. Therefore, he makes up a name and calls himself Nikhil. Shortly after he feels courageous enough to kiss her. Later when his friends asks him, he claims, “It wasn’t me. It hadn’t been Gogol who had kissed Kim. Gogol had nothing to do with it” (Lahiri 96). Along with this new name “Nikhil”, he found a form of power and self-reliance. Though at first, he was afraid to be Nikhil, someone he didn’t know and who didn’t know him. Then he makes up his mind to grasp the American culture along with his new name, perhaps new identity. As a result, he formally changes his name from Gogol to Nikhil. He felt that he could change his identity by changing his name and he would be a completely different person. By the time he graduates from Yale and Columbia and lands a great job in an architecture firm, his lifestyle was entirely changed.
Gogol starts to date American girls then he gets into a serious relationship with a girl named Maxine. At one point, he moves in with her and her family. He goes on vacation with them at the Ratliff’s lake house where he meets Maxine’s grandparents and even celebrates his birthday there. While he tries to adopt Maxine’s lifestyle, he becomes alienated from his own style of living. And he liked the feeling of being secluded from his old life. Therefore, he visited his parents much less since they reminded him of his Indian Identity. Sometimes he compared his own parents with Maxine’s parents in many ways. He felt his parents didn’t have a love life because he never witnessed them sharing an affectionate moment with each other whereas he always saw Maxine’s parents kissing and cuddling freely.
During this time of negligence, a tragedy occurs in which Gogol’s father passes away that leaves our main character completely shocked and turned. Gogol is then tormented with guilt and breaks up with Maxine shortly after his father’s death. He spends much more time with his family than he ever did. Later, he reunites with a childhood friend Moushumi, following his mother’s advice. She was a graduate from NYU. After meeting her, Gogol finally feels comfortable with his Indian-American identity since they’re from the same culture. Even though they get married but it doesn’t last long since she had a relationship with another man named Dimitri. Later, they get a divorce; however, the story doesn’t end here. Gogol celebrates his mother’s last Christmas Eve since she was going back to Calcutta. While helping his mom pack, Gogol finds the book of Nikolai Gogol that his father gave him on his 14th birthday and he begins to read it. In the end, he feels empowered after holding the book that was once gifted by his father.
It was obvious that Gogol was having a major identity crisis since he was split between Bengali roots and American culture where he grew up in. It’s essentially the same struggle his parents face as immigrants. Ashima continuously misses her homeland because she left her families behind. Gogol couldn’t understand her feelings because he didn’t have to leave his family anywhere and also because he was born in U.S. and it was his homeland. Therefore, he was going through a stage of confusion about whether or not to assimilate to the American culture. Both characters have to deal with the disappointment caused by the differences between their dreams and reality. For Ashima, the frustration in her life comes from nostalgia as she frequently compares her life in Cambridge to her life in Calcutta. She fails to understand that it wouldn’t be the same regardless of how much she wants it to be.
For Gogol, the disappointment comes from not being able to fit in. He feels stuck between two cultures; he can’t be fully Indian or neither American. That’s why he felt the necessity to change his name since he didn’t want to be identified with his Bengali heritage. He fails to accept his Indian-American identity as it is and when he tried to change himself completely that’s when things went wrong. Nearly, all the characters in the story encounters problem with their identity due to the division of cultures and traditions which led them to the feeling of alienation. Though, Gogol knows that he betrayed his roots by ignoring his family for a while, no wonder he feel so horrible after his father died. But, the most important thing is that he realizes there was nothing to be ashamed of rather he should have been proud of his unique name, identity and his own culture. By the end of the book, our confused character becomes a matured person because he gains a well understanding of his identity and embraces his inner self.
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