The novel examines the nature of love and marriage by providing an intimate view into a series of Gogol’s romantic relationships, which are seen alongside the enduring, arranged marriage of his parents.
Gogol’s story is grounded in the marriage of his parents, Ashoke and Ashima, whose conception of love is founded in their shared past in India. Characterized by clearly defined gender roles and less openly displayed affection, but also a deep sense of loyalty and companionship, this relationship can be contrasted with Gogol’s romantic experiences. While Gogol has intense, influential, and openly sexual relationships with three different women over the course of the novel—outside of, and then, briefly, within a marriage—Ashima and Ashoke are one another’s sole romantic partners in life, as evidenced by the first meeting between them, which was arranged by Ashima’s family.
This reflects a difference between the two generations about the concept of married life. Gogol uses love as another means of rebelling against his past and trying to form his own identity, and the women he is drawn to at different points in the novel match his attitude toward that past. For him, love is something to be found independently. For Ashima and Ashoke, marriage was not an exercise in independence or forming identity, but was instead another step in the traditional Indian path in life, and one that led toward companionship and the growth of a family.
Although there is a traditional separation between Ashima and Ashoke that may appear as distance to an American reader—as in the moment of Gogol’s birth, when Ashoke waits outside the room while Ashima delivers his son—the intimacy between the two of them is clear from the respect and care they take with one another. By contrast, the relationship between Moushumi and Gogol is driven by Moushumi’s desire—which is greater even than Gogol’s own—to conform to a certain image of a modern American. She and Gogol never seem to relax into the idea that they might find their identity in one another, and dinner parties with her friends in Brooklyn, where Gogol feels awkward and out of place, signal a divide between them. Moushomi’s dissatisfaction with the marriage eventually leads to infidelity, and the two are divorced. Their need for independence is greater than their sense of loyalty or commitment to a family identity.
Ultimately, Lahiri seems to support a balance of these two drives when it comes to love and marriage. It is important that one feel capable of defining one’s identity independently, because love pursued as a means of finding stability or escape seems to fail, but it is equally important, and requires a different kind of courage, to attach oneself to a world created in collaboration with another person.
Love and Marriage ThemeTracker
Love and Marriage 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.
This is the house Ashoke had brought Ashima to eighteen months ago, late one February night after her arrival at Logan Airport. In the dark, through the windows of the taxi, wide awake from jet lag, she could barely make out a thing, apart from heaps of broken snow glowing like shattered, bluish white bricks on the ground. It wasn’t until morning, stepping briefly outside wearing a pair of Ashoke’s socks under her thin-soled slippers, the frigid New England chill piercing her inner ears and jaw, that she’d had her first real glimpse of America: Leafless trees with ice-covered branches. Dog urine and excrement embedded in the snow banks. Not a soul on the street.
At times… he is conscious of the fact that his immersion in Maxine’s family is a betrayal of his own. It isn’t simply the fact that his parents don’t know about Maxine… it is his knowledge that apart from their affluence, Gerald and Lydia are secure in a way his parents will never be. He cannot imagine his parents sitting at Lydia and Gerald’s table, enjoying Lydia’s cooking, appreciating Gerald’s selection of wine. He cannot imagine them contributing to one of their dinner party conversations. And yet here he is, night after night, a welcome addition to the Ratliff’s universe, doing just that.
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.
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.
She believed that he would be incapable of hurting her as Graham had. After years of clandestine relationships, it felt refreshing to court in a fishbowl, to have the support of her parents from the very start, the inevitability of an unquestioned future, of marriage, drawing them along. And yet the familiarity that had once drawn her to him has begun to keep her at bay. Though she knows it’s not his fault, she can’t help but associate him, at times, with a sense of resignation, with the very life she has resisted, has struggled so mightily to leave behind.
She wonders if she is the only woman in her family ever to have betrayed her husband, to have been unfaithful. This is what upsets her most to admit: that the affair causes her to feel strangely at peace, the complication of it calming her, structuring her day.
Ashima feels lonely suddenly, horribly, permanently alone, and briefly, turned away from the mirror, she sobs for her husband. She feels overwhelmed by the thought of the move she is about to make, to the city that was once home and is now in its own way foreign. She feels both impatience and indifference for all the days she still must live, for something tells her she will not go quickly as her husband did.
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.