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.
Identity and Naming ThemeTracker
Identity and Naming Quotes in The Namesake
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.