Literary Analysis on The Namesake

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Victoria Eastman
Professor Day
HN LCS 121
19 October 2015
Subtle Reinvention
Through main character, Gogol, Lahiri presents that reinvention is not possible, however,
subtle metamorphosis is inevitable. Despite his attempt to, Gogol can never shed his birth name,
nor can he create the person he aspires to be from scratch. Each of Gogol’s relationships reflects
what he seeks in life, who he wishes to be, and with the abrupt ending of each intimacy, who he
is at the core of his being. Gogol’s identity lies somewhere in between--in between his birth
name and his chosen name, in between Bengali and American culture, in between acceptance
and desperately seeking escape. Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake demonstrates that our identity is
found within the limits of our child selves, our natural born characteristics under the influence of
our parents and culture, and our aspirations.
Gogol meets Ruth shortly after he decides to change his name and identity. His name is
something tangible to represent the beginning of a different kind of life for Gogol, one where
everything is unexplored and stimulating. As he begins college, he feels he must more closely
resemble an adult, someone who makes their own decisions and who is not held to any kind of
expectations. Lahiri reflects on Gogol’s feelings of independence: “Now that he’s Nikhil it’s
easier to ignore his parents, to tune out their concerns and pleas. With relief, he types his name at
the tops of his freshman is as Nikhil that he loses his virginity at a party...there is only
one complication: he doesn’t feel like Nikhil. Not yet” (Lahiri 105). His relationship with Ruth
falls effortlessly into such a life because although it is not his first time being intimate with a
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woman, it is the first time he has given so much of himself to someone.“This time he is aware of
everything...he feels inept, clumsy, as he tastes and smells her there, and yet he hears her
whispering his name, telling him it feels wonderful,” Lahiri writes of their first time together
(Lahiri 115). Gogol integrates Ruth into the new life he created for himself, but is unable to show
her the part of him he’d have liked to leave in the past. At this point in Gogol’s life, he refuses to
accept that despite his greatest efforts, his time as Gogol--the little confused Bengali boy--has
shaped his current self. He thinks of himself in her life, and him in hers,
“he imagines himself in the farmhouse she’s described to him, waking up to eggs frying
in a skillet, walking with her through snowy, abandoned fields. But such a trip would
require telling his parents about Ruth, something he has no desire to do...As much as he
longs to see her, he cannot picture her at the kitchen table on Pemberton Road, in her
jeans and her bulky sweater, politely eating his mother’s food. He cannot imagine being
with her in the house where he is still Gogol” (Lahiri 115).
This segment exposes Gogol’s relationship with his youthful self and with his family. Having
just begun trying to be Nikhil, he is not comfortable enough with his new life to accept that his
old one continues to have a significant impact on him. The initial excitement of trying on a new
life and falling in love with a girl wears off, leaving Gogol in the same place he was before--lost.
The more time Gogol spends away from the influence of his culture, the more he finds
himself desperate for a life intensely different from that his parents live. He finds refuge in the
luxurious American lifestyle of Maxine. The differences in their culture are apparent when he
joins the Ratliff’s for dinner. Lahiri describes the event:
“They eat appreciatively, commenting on the tenderness of the meat, the freshness of the
beans. His own mother would have kept her eyes trained on Maxine’s plate, insisting she
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have seconds and even thirds...but Lydia pays no attention to Gogol’s plate...The Ratliffs
are vociferous at the table, opinionated about things his own parents are indifferent to:
movies, exhibits at museums, good restaurants, the design of everyday things. They speak
of New York, of stores and neighborhoods and buildings they either despise or love, with
an intimacy and ease that make Gogol feel as if he barely knew the city” (Lahiri 133).
Their relationship is a fantasy, a departure from reality that he so desperately seeks, a life that
requires nothing from him, not memorized Bengali etiquette, nor the pursuit of a wife. Gogol
remarks of the dreamlike quality of the Ratliff’s life,
“The family seems to possess every piece of the landscape, not only the house itself but
every tree and blade of grass...The Ratliff’s own the moon that floats over the lake, and
the sun and the clouds. It is a place that has been good to them, as much a part of them as
a member of the family...He feels no nostalgia for the vacations he’s spent with his
family, and he realizes now that they were never really true vacations at all” (Lahiri 154).
Maxine herself has everything Gogol wished to have his entire childhood: acceptance. He thinks
of this gift, fondly, “as he comes to know her, he realizes that she has never wished she were
anyone other than herself raised in any other place, in any other way. This, in his opinion, is the
biggest difference between them, a thing far more foreign to him than the beautiful house she’d
grown up in...There is none of the exasperation he feels with his own parents” (Lahiri 138).
Maxine strongly represented a highfalutin way of life. He gravitates toward her and her lifestyle
as an act of rebellion against his own upbringing and culture. The death of his father suddenly
causes Gogol to regret his distance from his family, and therefore, making his relationship with
Maxine insignificant.
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After his father’s death, the culture he had always repressed, beckoned him, promising
comfort that the life his family never shared, couldn’t provide. Moushumi represented the
Bengali culture which gave him solace, she knew and accepted the part of him that was Gogol
before she accepted Nikhil, something he, himself, had not been able to do until this point in his
life. Lahiri writes of his initial reaction that“it had annoyed him, when he’d called her, that she
hadn’t recognized him as Nikhil. This is the first time he’s been out with a woman who’d once
known him by that other name” (Lahiri 193). She is the first woman who knew the side of him
he tried to hide all the years since he changed his name, allowing the part of him that is still
Gogol to come through. But he is not, could not be, and never wanted to be, entirely immersed in
that culture. They married out of fear and without thinking, it was simply expected. It was
expected that they marry and that if they liked one another, that they would marry each other. He
thought that was what he wanted.
“And then he returned to New York, to the apartment they’d inhabited together that was
now all his. A year later, the shock had worn off, but a sense of failure and shame
persists, deep and abiding. There are nights he still falls asleep on the sofa, without
deliberation, waking up at three A.M. with the television still on. It is as if a building he’d
been responsible for designing had collapsed for all to see. And yet he can’t really blame
her. They had both acted on the same impulse, that was their mistake. They had both
sought comfort in each other, and in their shared world, perhaps for the sake of novelty,
or out of fear that the world was slowly dying” (Lahiri 283).
It is after their marriage falls apart that Gogol finally realizes that he cannot be one person or the
other, Gogol or Nikhil, he is everything he ever was and everything he aspired to be. Lahiri
makes a statement about his transformation: “His time with her [Moushumi] seems like a
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permanent part of him that no longer has any relevance, or currency. As if that time were a name
he’d ceased to use” (Lahiri 284). Although both his relationship with Moushumi and the name
“Gogol” expired, he is unable to separate his current self from the ways in which these people
affected him. He tried to correct the error his parents made in naming him, of forcing him to live
the life of someone he is not, “and yet it had not been possible to reinvent himself fully, to break
from that mismatched name” (Lahiri 287).
Feeling that his name never fit him and he never quite fit in his culture, Gogol attempts to
change his identity, and in doing so, loses himself. His state of emotional distress is reflected in
each of his relationships. A committed relationship with Ruth defied his parent’s expectations
and allowed Gogol to explore what kind of man he wanted to be. Maxine represented a life of
luxury, of comfort in one’s own skin, and of ease, things Gogol always desired and suddenly felt
could be possible if he created a great enough distance between Nikhil and Gogol. Finally, after
the shock of his father’s death, Moushumi provided comfort because she knew both sides of him
and allowed him to accept Bengali into his life. Each love affair proved that his happiness did not
come from the ideal relationship, but of the acceptance that Gogol would always be a part of
him, but would never define him.
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Works Cited
Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. New York: Mariner Books, 2004. Print.
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