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The Namesake Suggested Essays

by Jhumpa Lahiri

Suggested Essay Questions

  1. Explain how the relationship between Ashoke, Ashima, and Gogol develops throughout the novel.

    The theme of the relationship between parents and children becomes prominent, as Gogol grows old enough to interact with his parents as a child. During his young adulthood, Gogol is impatient with his parents and they, likewise, feel unable to relate to their American children. Gogol begins to feel tender toward his father after his death. He now understands the guilt and uselessness his parents had felt when their parents had passed away across the world, in Calcutta. When Ashima decides to spend half the year in Calcutta, Gogol considers what it took for his parents to live in the United States, so far from their own parents, and how he has always remained close to home; they bore it "with a stamina he fears he does not possess himself." He does not think he can bear being so far away from his mother for so long.

  2. How is Gogol's name tied to his identity?

    Gogol is not bothered by the unusual nature of his name until he is eleven and realizes, on a class trip to a cemetery, that his name is unique. He makes rubbings of the other gravestones with names he has never heard before because he relates to them. By his fourteenth birthday, Gogol has come to hate his name and resents being asked about it.

    As far as Gogol's identity is linked to that of his father, Ashoke understands Gogol as representing the life that followed the horrible train accident he suffered in 1961. His name represents the life-saving book that Ashoke was clutching when he was rescued. Gogol does not understand that part of his identity fully until after his father's death.

    Moushumi knows Gogol as "Gogol," and is surprised when he introduces himself as Nikhil at the bar. It is "the first time he's been out with a woman who'd once known him by that other name." He comes to like the sense of familiarity it creates between them. She still calls him Nikhil like everyone else in his life, but she knows the first name he ever had, and that seems like a secret bond between them. While Astrid, Donald, and the guests at the dinner party discuss what to name Astrid's baby, Moushumi reveals to the guests nonchalantly that Nikhil was not always named Nikhil. This offends him because it feels like a betrayal of an intimate detail only she knew to people he doesn't like.

  3. How does the language barrier affect the Gangulis?

    The language barrier that is to be the source of much struggle for Ashima and Ashoke is evident when they arrive at the hospital for Gogol's birth. After she has been given a bed, Ashima looks for her husband, but he has stepped behind the curtain around her bed. He says, "I'll be back" in Bengali, a language neither the nurses nor the doctor speaks. The curtain is a physical barrier, but it represents the symbolic barrier created by speaking Bengali in the United States.

    Ashima and Ashoke send Sonia and Gogol to Bengali language and culture classes every other Saturday, but "it never fails to unsettle them, that their children sound just like Americans, expertly conversing in a language that still at times confounds them, in accents they are accustomed not to trust." In Chapter 8, after his date with Moushumi, Gogol makes the decision to speak to his taxi driver in Bengali. He feels the impulse to connect with another Indian after having embraced his childhood memories with Moushumi.

  4. Discuss Ashima's feeling of alienation in the United States.

    The theme of alienation, of being a stranger in a foreign land, is prominent throughout the novel. Throughout her pregnancy, which was difficult, Ashima was afraid about raising a child in "a country where she is related to no one, where she knows so little, where life seems so tentative and spare." Her son, Gogol, will feel at home in the United States in a way that she never does. When Gogol is born, Ashima mourns the fact that he is not surrounded by her close family. It means that his birth, "like most everything else in America, feels somehow haphazard, only half true." When she arrives home from the hospital, Ashima says to Ashoke in a moment of angst, "I don't want to raise Gogol alone in this country. It's not right. I want to go back."

    Ashima feels alienated in the suburbs; this alienation of being a foreigner is compared to "a sort of lifelong pregnancy," because it is "a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts... something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect."

    When Ashima is living alone in the house on Pemberton Road and she does not like it at all. She "feels too old to learn such a skill. She hates returning in the evenings to a dark, empty house, going to sleep on one side of the bed and waking up on another."

    Ashima feels alienated and alone after showering before the last Christmas party she throws at the house on Pemberton Road. She "feels lonely suddenly, horribly, permanently alone, and briefly, turned away from the mirror, she sobs for her husband." She feels "both impatience and indifference for all the days she still must live." She does not feel motivated to be in Calcutta with the family she left over thirty years before, nor does she feel excited about being in the United States with her children and potential grandchildren. She just feels exhausted and overwhelmed without her husband.

  5. Besides Ashima, which characters are marked by alienation? How do they experience it?

    Gogol also feels alienated, especially when he realizes that "no one he knows in the world, in Russia or India or America or anywhere, shares his name. Not even the source of his namesake." Gogol also feels alienated sometimes in his marriage to Moushumi. When he finds remnants of her life with Graham around the apartment they now share together, he wonders if "he represents some sort of capitulation or defeat." When they go to Paris together, he wishes it were her first time there, too, so he didn't feel so out of place while she feels so obviously comfortable.

    When Maxine comes to stay with the Gangulis at the end of the mourning period for Ashoke, Gogol can tell "she feels useless, a bit excluded in this house full of Bengalis." It's the way he is used to feeling around her extended family and friends in New Hampshire.

    The theme of alienation appears in Moushumi's life, as she describes to Gogol how she rejected all the Indian suitors with which her parents tried to set her up. She tells him, "She was convinced in her bones that there would be no one at all. Sometimes she wondered if it was her horror of being married to someone she didn't love that had caused her, subconsciously, to shut herself off." She went to Paris so she could reinvent herself without the confusion of where she fit in.

  6. In what ways is the tension between the United States and Calcutta prominent?

    As the Ganguli children grow up as Americans, their parents give in to certain American traditions. For his fourteenth birthday, Gogol has two celebrations: one that is typically American and one that is Bengali. The parents of Moushumi and Gogol plan their children's entire wedding, inviting people neither of them has met and engaging in rituals neither of them understands. They don't have the type of intimate, personal wedding their American friends would have planned.

    The difference between Bengali and American approaches to marriage is clear in Ashima's evaluation of Gogol's divorce from Moushumi. She thinks, "Fortunately they have not considered it their duty to stay married, as the Bengalis of Ashoke and Ashima's generation do." In her view, the pressure to settle for less than "their ideal of happiness" has given way to "American common sense." Surprisingly, Ashima is pleased with this outcome, as opposed to an unhappy but dutiful marriage for her son.

  7. How is the tension between life and death important in the relationship between Ashoke and Gogol?

    Ashoke decides not to tell Gogol about his near-death experience on his son's fourteenth birthday because he realizes that Gogol is not able to understand it yet. This decision points to the tension between life and death: "Today, his son's birthday, is a day to honor life, not brushes with death. And so, for now, Ashoke decides to keep the explanation of his son's name to himself." As Gogol deals with the death of Ashoke, his father, he thinks about how he and Maxine "were already drunk from the book party, lazily sipping their beers, their cold cups of jasmine tea. All that time, his father was in the hospital, already dead." As Gogol takes the train from Boston back to his life in New York, he thinks of the train accident his father had been a victim in so long ago. The tension of life versus death is apparent to Gogol as he gets ready for his wedding. "Their shared giddiness, the excitement of the preparations, saddens him, all of it reminding him that his father is dead." His father's absence is apparent in contrast to the celebration of his new life with Moushumi.

  8. What role does nostalgia play in Gogol's experience of the world?

    Gogol feels nostalgic when his mother and Sonia come to the train station to see him off. He remembers that the whole family would see him off every time he returned to Yale as a college student; "his father would always stand on the platform until the train was out of sight." Gogol begins to feel more and more nostalgic as his marriage with Moushumi progresses. In Paris, he wishes he could stay in bed with Moushumi for hours like they used to, rather than having to sightsee by himself while she prepares for her presentation. During the dinner party at the home of Astrid and Donald, Gogol becomes nostalgic for when he and Moushumi were first dating and spent an entire afternoon designing their ideal house. As Sonia, Ben, Gogol, and Ashima assemble the fake Christmas tree together, Gogol remembers decorating the first plastic tree his parents had bought at his insistence.

  9. What do the different women in Gogol's life represent to him?

    Kim is the first woman Gogol kisses as a junior in high school. He tells her his name is Nikhil, because he feels that he could never seduce a woman as Gogol; this realization is one of the factors that contribute to his legal name change. Ruth is his first real girlfriend at Yale, and they grow apart when she is across the world studying at Oxford. The loss of this relationship represents the difficulty of maintaining a sense of closeness from across the world. He uses Maxine, with whom he lives in New York, as an escape from his parents and the world they represent. Bridget, a married woman with whom Gogol has an affair as he studies for his architecture exam, foreshadows the disintegration of his marriage to Moushumi because of an affair she will have. His wife, Moushumi, is exciting and new to him at first but she also represents a kind of settling for the life that both their parents want for them.

  10. What is achieved by Lahiri's use of varying protagonists?

    Although an omniscient third-person narrator narrates the whole novel, the protagonists vary from chapter to chapter. This allows Lahiri to paint a broad picture of the experiences of an entire family, developing the characters from the point of view of the other characters as well as from their own points of view. Rather than maintaining a single protagonist and characterizing the other characters only as they relate to that person, Lahiri creates layered characters with the use of varying points of view. Especially with regard to Moushumi and her affair with Dimitri, this technique makes the characters' actions more sympathetic, so the reader can relate to them.

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