The Namesake

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Themes and Colors
The Indian Immigrant Experience Theme Icon
Family, Tradition, and Ritual Theme Icon
Independence, Rebellion, and Growing Up Theme Icon
Identity and Naming Theme Icon
Love and Marriage Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Namesake, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Identity and Naming Theme Icon

As its title suggests, at its core The Namesake tackles the question of forming one’s own identity, and explores the power that a name can carry.

Gogol’s decision to change his name to Nikhil before leaving home for college demonstrates his desire to take control over his own identity. The name Gogol, which “Nikhil” finds so distasteful, is a direct result of the literal identity confusion at his birth, when the letter sent from India that contained his “true name” was lost in the mail. “Gogol” is also a name that holds deep meaning for Ashoke, since it was a book of short stories by Gogol, the Russian author, that saved his life during a fateful train crash —but this meaning is not conveyed to Gogol/Nikhil during his childhood.

As the other theme outlines make clear, the main tension that drives Gogol/Nikhil’s identity confusion is the divide between his family’s Indian heritage and his own desire for an independent, modern American lifestyle.

The episodes in Gogol/Nikhil’s development on display in the novel reveal a constant striving for a clear identity, a struggle which is made difficult by the divided world in which he grows up. Many of the choices that he makes seem motivated by a desire to live life as a “normal” American, and to escape the influence of his family. Gogol’s relationship to Maxine, for example, an upper class New Yorker who lives at home with her stylish and modern parents, evolves to the point of offering Gogol an alternative home. He vacations with Maxine’s family instead of returning home to visit his own, and embeds himself in their rituals. The identity that she and her family represent is clearly a very seductive one.

However, there are also moments—like after the death of his father, or when he decides to marry Moushumi—that Gogol seems to be reaching back toward his roots. Although his marriage to Moushumi ends in divorce, the book’s conclusion, as Gogol sits down to finally read the book of his namesake’s short stories that his father had given him long ago, suggests a new acceptance of his past, and a willingness to allow his background to become a part of his identity.

Naming, and nicknames, are also a symbol of the bonds shared by different characters throughout the novel, and they carry weight as markers of those bonds. When Ashoke and Ashima return to Calcutta on family vacations, they become “Mithu” and “Monu,” and are transformed into more confident versions of themselves. Sonia calls Gogol “Goggles,” Maxine is “Max” to Gogol—whom she knows as Nikhil—and to Dimitri, Moushumi is known as “Mouse.” This abundance of names is also a sign of the various worlds that the main characters of Lahiri’s novel inhabit simultaneously—often in a way that causes internal division, but which can also provide a form of comfort.

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Identity and Naming ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Identity and Naming appears in each chapter of The Namesake. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Identity and Naming Quotes in The Namesake

Below you will find the important quotes in The Namesake related to the theme of Identity and Naming.
Chapter 1 Quotes

When she calls out to Ashoke, she doesn’t say his name. Ashima never thinks of her husband’s name when she thinks of her husband, even though she knows perfectly well what it is. She has adopted his surname but refuses, for propriety’s sake, to utter his first. It’s not the type of thing Bengali wives do. Like a kiss or caress in a Hindi movie, a husband’s name is something intimate and therefore unspoken, cleverly patched over. And so … she utters the interrogative that has come to replace it, which translates roughly as “Are you listening to me?”

Related Characters: Ashima Ganguli (Monu) (speaker), Ashoke Ganguli (Mithu)
Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Ashima and Ashoke are still awaiting the arrival of their firstborn son, and the reader is given a glimpse into their relationship when Ashima calls to her husband without using his name. This is a product of tradition, since the name is considered an intimate aspect of a romantic relationship—the novel's first hint of the importance of naming in Indian culture. Ashima is devoted to tradition, and to "propriety," wary of the customs of the country that she has entered into, where first names are used indiscriminately. There is a gentle, humble quality to the phrase she uses in place of Ashoke's name, but it is still a strikingly formal phrase, from an American standpoint.

Ashima and Ashoke had an arranged marriage, and at this point they are still growing comfortable with one another, so much of what holds them together is a shared culture and a devotion to tradition, rather than a specific affection—although that love will come, and is already growing. Ashima, especially, has a reverence for this formal, respectful relationship, which might be considered unromantic from a modern American perspective. Later in the novel, she will be scandalized by the open affection that her children show for their own romantic partners. 


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Ashima had never heard of Boston, or of fiber optics. She was asked whether she was willing to fly on a plane and then if she was capable of living in a city characterized by severe, snowy winters, alone. “Won’t he be there?” she’d asked, pointing to the man whose shoes she’d briefly occupied, but who had yet to say a word to her.

Related Characters: Ashima Ganguli (Monu) (speaker), Ashoke Ganguli (Mithu)
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrative perspective flashes back to the first time that Ashima met Ashoke, when he visited her house as a potential suitor for a marriage arranged by their parents. Asked to undertake a massive journey across the world, Ashima's courageous response shows a deep trust, and also a naivete regarding relationships and the world at large. The two have never met before, never spoken, but will soon embark on a lifetime together, in sometimes difficult, lonely circumstances. From her question, which does not even address Ashoke, it is clear that Ashima does not even know her future husband's name—and yet she is willing to stake her future on their pending marriage. This vision of love, in which individual choice is not an important factor, will seem impossible to understand to the pair's future children, who grow up in America with Western ideas of love and romance. 

A moment before this meeting, Ashima put her feet in Ashoke's shoes, seemingly entranced by their foreignness, their connection to this man who might become her husband. This moment of girlish excitement is a glimpse of the sentimental, young Ashima who will become a stern matriarch later in the novel. 

Chapter 3 Quotes

But Gogol is attached to them. For reasons he cannot explain or necessarily understand, these ancient Puritan spirits, these very first immigrants to America, these bearers of unthinkable, obsolete names, have spoken to him, so much so that in spite of his mother’s disgust he refuses to throw them away.

Related Characters: Gogol/Nikhil Ganguli (speaker), Ashima Ganguli (Monu)
Related Symbols: Graves and Graveyards
Page Number: 71
Explanation and Analysis:

Gogol has just returned from a class field trip to a Puritan graveyard, which was full of the odd names of early immigrants to America. Gogol took rubbings of these graves, much to the dismay of his mother, Ashima, who sees this act as disrespectful and has told him to throw them away. However, in an act of rebellion—one of his first—Gogol decides to keep the grave rubbings spite of his mother's wishes. 

Gogol identifies with the dead Puritans on two levels: first, as immigrants to America, a reminder that almost everyone here arrived from somewhere else, and second as the bearers of strange, now-unheard-of names like his own. Already Gogol is looking for a "namesake," and he finds an odd sense of kinship with these dead Puritans and their ancient names.

Chapter 4 Quotes

Ashima, now Monu, weeps with relief, and Ashoke, now Mithu, kisses his brothers on both cheeks, holds their heads in his hands. Gogol and Sonia know these people, but they do not feel close to them as their parents do. Within minutes, before their eyes Ashoke and Ashima slip into bolder, less complicated versions of themselves, their voices louder, their smiles wider, revealing a confidence that Gogol and Sonia never see on Pemberton Road. “I’m scared, Goggles,” Sonia whispers to her brother in English, seeking his hand and refusing to let go.

Related Characters: Sonali (Sonia) Ganguli (speaker), Ashoke Ganguli (Mithu), Ashima Ganguli (Monu), Gogol/Nikhil Ganguli
Page Number: 81-82
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote describes the scene as the Ganguli family arrives in India for an extended visit. Here, the divide between the two immigrant generations within the family is clearly illustrated. For Ashima and Ashoke, who grew up in India, this is an intensely emotional, joyous homecoming that signals a return to the identity with which they feel most comfortable. The parents are transformed, shedding the worry and insecurity that comes with life as an immigrant in the United States, and embracing their extended family. This transformation is signaled in part by the recovery of their old pet names, Monu and Mithu, traditional Indian pet names that signal their close relationship to these family members, from whom they have been separated for so long, divorced from their former identities.

Gogol and Sonia, on the other hand, who were born in America, are frightened by what to them is a strange and foreign land, populated with strange people whose customs are not their own. They too share pet names that signal their closeness to one another—not the traditional Indian ones of their parents, but Americanized nicknames like “Goggles.” Already, within one generation, the children have become foreigners in the land of their parents.

Chapter 5 Quotes

There is only one complication: he doesn’t feel like Nikhil. Not yet. Part of the problem is that the people who now know him as Nikhil have no idea that he used to be Gogol. They know him only in the present, not at all in the past. But after eighteen years of Gogol, two months of Nikhil feel scant, inconsequential. At times he feels as if he’s cast himself in a play, acting the part of twins, indistinguishable to the naked eye yet fundamentally different.

Related Characters: Gogol/Nikhil Ganguli
Page Number: 105
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote comes as Gogol—now Nikhil—begins to adapt to the new identity he has created for himself at Yale, rejecting the name he grew to despise as a teenager. Legally, his name is no longer Gogol, since he went through the process of changing it in court, rebelling against his parents’ wishes. What he is beginning to realize here, though, is that while he has changed his name, the parts of his identity that he wished to rebel against still haunt him. Changing his name was an attempt to form a new identity, but ultimately a superficial one. This new identity is further undermined by the fact that it is a sort of lie—he alone knows he has made this change, since his university friends have only known him as Nikhil. He feels like an impostor as a result of this secrecy, unable to reveal what had been a major part of his identity before arriving in this new community. Of course, the only person aware of this inner conflict is Nikhil himself.

This sense that Nikhil has that he is acting in a play as twins who are “indistinguishable to the naked eye yet fundamentally different” underlines how uncomfortable he feels "performing" what to him is a new and strange identity. It also suggests he is beginning to understand that there is something about identity that transcends name and appearance, and is recognizing that experience and tradition can be key components of one’s identity as well.

Chapter 6 Quotes

The family seems to possess every piece of the landscape, not only the house itself but every tree and blade of grass. Nothing is locked, not the main house, or the cabin that he and Maxine sleep in. Anyone could walk in. He thinks of the alarm system that now is installed in his parents’ house, wonders why they cannot relax about their physical surroundings in the same way. The Ratliffs 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. The idea of returning year after year to a single place appeals to Gogol deeply.

Related Characters: Ashoke Ganguli (Mithu), Ashima Ganguli (Monu), Gogol/Nikhil Ganguli, Maxine Ratliff, Lydia Ratliff, Gerald Ratliff
Page Number: 154
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Gogol describes the Ratliff’s summer home, which strikes him as a sort of paradise on earth. What attracts Gogol so intensely to this place is its sense of permanence and security, the all-pervading certainty that comes, in his mind, with an ancestral home like this one and the wealth and class of the family that inhabits it. Gogol has never felt so entirely at home, since he has always been torn between two identities—the Indian heritage of his parents and the American culture he has grown up in. The Ratliff family’s identity is monolithic, by contrast, linked to this place by an ancient family burying ground that anchors them physically to the American landscape, within which they have thrived. It is the startling sense of ownership that comes with this security, so in contrast to his parents’ own petty worrying, that gives Gogol the impression that the entire forest belongs to the Ratliffs: they are at home here. Never having had a home like this, Gogol is entranced by what he sees, and the identity that this place represents is a major part of what motivates his romantic interest in Maxine. His choice to be here is a rebellion against his parents, and everything they represent.

He returns to bed, squeezing in beside Maxine’s warm, sleeping body, and drapes his arm around her narrow waist, fits his knees behind hers. Through the window he sees that dawn is creeping into the sky, only a handful of stars still visible, the shapes of the surrounding pines and cabins growing distinct. A bird begins to call. And then he remembers that his parents can’t possibly reach him: he has not given them the number, and the Ratliffs are unlisted. That here at Maxine’s side, in this cloistered wilderness, he is free.

Related Characters: Ashoke Ganguli (Mithu), Ashima Ganguli (Monu), Gogol/Nikhil Ganguli, Maxine Ratliff
Page Number: 158
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, we see Gogol at the peak of his sense of security with Maxine—a sense that will not last long, since a fateful phone call announcing his father’s death is on its way, despite Gogol's belief that here, at last, he is unreachable. The image of Gogol pressing his body into Maxine’s for comfort is a useful illustration of the way that he uses romantic love as a means of chasing security and a stable identity. The idyllic, peaceful imagery of nature gives a sense of serene beauty, in strict contrast to the angst and insecurity that Gogol has felt for much of his life. His coming here, and creating for himself a new life and a new home with Maxine, is a rebellion against the home that he grew up in. Here, at last, there is no way that that old life can reach him—or so he thinks—and no one who can remind him of his former identity as "Gogol"; to everyone in this "cloistered wilderness" he is finally only Nikhil. 

Chapter 7 Quotes

She passes over two pages filled only with the addresses of her daughter, and then her son. She has given birth to vagabonds. She is the keeper of all these names and numbers now, numbers she once knew by heart, numbers and addresses her children no longer remember.

Related Characters: Ashima Ganguli (Monu), Gogol/Nikhil Ganguli, Sonali (Sonia) Ganguli
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, the novel returns to following Ashima’s perspective, as she writes out Christmas cards on behalf of the scattered members of her family, scanning through her address book and reflecting on her children’s nomadic lifestyles. Ashima is living alone for the first time in her life, separated from Ashoke, who received a fellowship to teach in Cleveland. Lonely at home, she is amazed at how comfortable her children have become—from her perspectiv— with their lack of any permanent home. There is a sense that Ashima feels that her children are strangers to her, insofar as this strange nation they grew up in gave them habits, sensibilities, and customs that she finds entirely foreign.

Nonetheless, Ashima has remained the reliable center point for her wandering children, serving as a beacon of tradition and family life, endeavoring to keep the family connected to its heritage and to one another. Her children take this service for granted at this point in their lives, but that won't remain the case forever. In a few moments Ashima will receive the fateful call, telling her that Ashoke has died, and then she will truly be the only keeper of the memories of her children, who will feel a new need to rediscover their first home as they mourn their father. 

Now, sitting together at the kitchen table at six-thirty every evening, the hour feeling more like midnight through the window, his father’s chair empty, this meatless meal is the only thing that makes sense. There is no question of skipping this meal; on the contrary, for ten evenings the three of them are strangely hungry, eager to taste the blandness on their plates.

Related Characters: Ashima Ganguli (Monu), Gogol/Nikhil Ganguli, Sonali (Sonia) Ganguli
Page Number: 180
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, we see the Ganguli family learning to live together without Ashoke, who has recently died. The remaining family members are eating their nightly meal, a traditional meatless and bland dish consumed after the death of a loved one. Gogol’s perspective leads the narrative again here, as the mourning protagonist notices a significant shift in his own attitude toward the Indian traditions he has scorned and discarded for so long. He now welcomes the comfort that this ritual provides, the connection that it gives him to his family, and to his father’s heritage. 

The family's mourning for Ashoke is intense, leading to days that feel immensely long (so that six-thirty is more like midnight) and empty. Their ritualized togetherness is a comfortable relief, an automatic exercise that links them together, when they have recently been scattered.

Chapter 8 Quotes

It strikes him that there is no term for what they once were to each other. Their parents were friends, not they. She is a family acquaintance but she is not family. Their contact until tonight has been artificial, imposed, something like his relationship to his cousins in India but lacking even the justification of blood ties. Until they’d met tonight, he had never seen her outside the context of her family, or she his. He decides that it is her very familiarity that makes him curious about her, and as he begins to walk west, to the subway, he wonders when he might see her again.

Related Characters: Gogol/Nikhil Ganguli, Moushumi Mazoomdar
Page Number: 199
Explanation and Analysis:

Here we see the beginning of Gogol’s newest romantic interest after an early encounter with Moushumi. Gogol is now swinging in the opposite direction of his previous relationships, still searching for identity in his romantic life but now looking to connect again with his roots, rather than cut himself off from them as he had with Maxine. This new instinct seems to be a reaction to the death of his father, which was accompanied by a newfound interest in the traditions of his family and an anxiety that he was throwing away a major part of his identity by essentially abandoning his family for Maxine. 

Now, Gogol has done what would have been unthinkable for him at nearly any other point in his life—gone on a blind date arranged by his mother. This arrangement echoes the Indian tradition, and suggests that Gogol is ready now to listen to Ashima, whom he has been so embarrassed of since his teenage years. Moushumi and Gogol are linked by their Indian heritage (and their parents' friendships), but also by their shared heritage as first-generation Americans, who grew up with the same half-executed traditions and the same desire to escape from these remnants of their family's customs. 

Chapter 9 Quotes

“I had it engraved,” she says, and when he turns the flask over he sees the letters NG. He remembers poking his head into Sonia’s room years ago, telling her about his decision to change his name to Nikhil. She’d been thirteen or so, doing her homework on her bed. “You can’t do that,” she’d told him then, shaking her head, and when he’d asked her why not she’d simply said, “Because you can’t. Because you’re Gogol.”

Related Characters: Sonali (Sonia) Ganguli (speaker), Gogol/Nikhil Ganguli
Page Number: 221
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Sonia offers Gogol a wedding gift before his wedding to Moushumi: an engraved flask with his (chosen) initials, NG. This moment of togetherness demonstrates the extent to which Sonia has also grown over the years, coming to understand and empathize with her brother's struggle to form an identity. The idea that he could take control of his name, establishing his own identity, had seemed impossible to her as a young teen, but now Sonia is expressing her support for Google's decision to change his name to Nikhil all those years ago.

The flask is a distinctly American gift, too, given that both of the Ganguli siblings' parents abstain from alcohol. This illustrates the kinship in rebellion that connects Sonia and Gogol/Nikhil, a connection that reflects the strength and importance of family for the siblings even outside of the traditional Indian system, where Ashima and Ashoke's families lived together in a single home and were inseparable for life.  

He’d confessed to her that he still felt guilty at times for changing his name, more so now that his father was dead. And she’d assured him that it was understandable, that anyone in his place would have done the same. But now it’s become a joke to her. Suddenly he regrets having ever told Moushumi; he wonders whether she’ll proclaim the story of his father’s accident to the table as well. By morning, half the people in the room will have forgotten. It will be a tiny, odd fact about him, an anecdote, perhaps, for a future dinner party. This is what upsets him most.

Related Characters: Ashoke Ganguli (Mithu), Gogol/Nikhil Ganguli, Moushumi Mazoomdar
Page Number: 244
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, a rift grows between Gogol and Moushumi after she tells the story of his name change (from Gogol to Nikhil) to the room at a dinner party with a set of intellectual friends of hers that he despises. This is an emotional betrayal, from Gogol's perspective, since the story was an intensely private one, with a huge amount of significance for Gogol. Moushumi treats it like a funny aside to her friends, which leaves Gogol with the unshakeable feeling that she misunderstood its importance, or is belittling something that, for him, is a major part of his identity. He had believed that this conflicted relationship to his past and identity confusion was something that Moushumi, as a fellow first-generation American from similar circumstances, would understand. The disappointment and regret that Gogol feels in this moment might extend to his decision to marry Moushumi—it seems clear now that the two of them are different in many ways, and that his reasons for marrying her, in search of a part of his identity he thought he had lost, may not have been sufficient to keep them together.  

Chapter 12 Quotes

And then the house will be occupied by strangers, and there will be no trace that they were ever there, no house to enter, no name in the telephone directory. Nothing to signify the years his family has lived here, no evidence of the effort, the achievement it had been. It’s hard to believe that his mother is really going, that for months she will be so far. He wonders how his parents had done it, leaving their respective families behind, seeing them so seldom, dwelling unconnected, in a perpetual state of expectation, of longing.

Related Characters: Ashoke Ganguli (Mithu), Ashima Ganguli (Monu), Gogol/Nikhil Ganguli
Page Number: 281
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Gogol imagines the house he grew up in being passed along to a new family, now that his mother has made the decision to move back to India for six months of each year. The anchor that his father’s photograph had been in this place will be removed, and the house—such a major part of his past and present identity—will be transferred away as if it had never belonged to the Gangulis, with no remnant of their name to mark its history. Gogol now has a new appreciation for his parents’ struggle, as immigrants, to turn this house into a home, and a different kind of respect for them accompanies it. Now that he is losing his childhood home, he can finally understand how difficult it must have been for them to leave theirs and come here to America, sacrificing stability and comfort to live in the isolation of this new country. Gogol finally sees how important family and a family home are in life, forming the roots of a stable identity—and, ironically, it is in this moment that his roots are being removed. Still, his greater self-awareness about the importance of his roots and increasing reconciliation with his heritage suggests hope for his continued search for a meaningful identity.  

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, in their shared world, perhaps for the sake of novelty, or out of fear that that world was slowly dying. Still, he wonders how he’s arrived at all this… His time with her seems like a permanent part of him that no longer has any relevance, or currency. As if that time were a name he’d ceased to use.

Related Characters: Gogol/Nikhil Ganguli, Moushumi Mazoomdar
Page Number: 284
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Gogol reflects on the end of his marriage to Moushumi. Their relationship collapses finally after he discovers her affair with Dimitri, and ends in a way that is deeply embarrassing for him, since their union had been celebrated so publicly by friends and family. He diagnoses the reasons behind the failure of their marriage here, recognizing that their reasons for marrying were fundamentally flawed; both of them sought stability and identity in the other, without having formed a stable identity for themselves first. It was a relationship built out of fear, nostalgia, and curiosity, rather than true love. Now that part of his life feels strangely and inexplicably distant from Gogol.

By describing this time as if it “were a name he’d ceased to use,” Gogol again underlines the significance of names—the various names that reflect a variety of distinct identities, formed in cooperation with the people who use them. Monu and Mithu, for instance, the Indian familial pet names of Ashoke and Ashima, only exist in the context of those characters' relationships to their families back home. Now that the context of Gogol's relationship to Moushumi has evaporated, their time together has no more meaning, since what meaning it had for him was formed in cooperation with her.

Without people in the world to call him Gogol, no matter how long he himself lives, Gogol Ganguli will, once and for all, vanish from the lips of loved ones, and so, cease to exist. Yet the thought of this eventual demise provides no sense of victory, no solace. It provides no solace at all.

Related Characters: Gogol/Nikhil Ganguli
Page Number: 289
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final moments of Lahiri’s novel, Gogol reflects on the new phase of life that he is about to enter. In many ways, he has worked for years to reach this point; finally his hated first name, Gogol, will vanish from existence, since no one who still clings to its significance will remain in his life. The fact that Gogol—now Nikhil—links this ending of his name to the lips of his lost loved ones underlines the extent to which he now understands that names, and identities, are formed and take meaning not on their own but in cooperation with a community of people.

What would have been a victorious moment for the young Gogol, so desperate to escape his name, takes on a tragic character here. Gogol has gained a renewed appreciation for the different communities that he wished for so long to flee, and especially for his childhood, the traces of which are disappearing now that his father has died, his mother is leaving the country, and their home is being sold. The sadness that Gogol/Nikhil feels is a sign that he has grown up, so that rebellion is not the chief aim in his life. He then decides to read the book of Gogol’s stories that his father, Ashoke, gave him so long ago, finally making an effort to connect with a part of his identity that he had previously ignored.