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The Namesake Themes

by Jhumpa Lahiri

Major Themes

Relationships between Parents and Children

The theme of the relationship between parents and children becomes prominent, as Gogol grows old enough to interact with his parents as a child. While Ashima is pregnant with Sonia, Gogol and Ashoke eat dinner alone together and Ashoke scolds Gogol for playing with his food. He says, "At your age I ate tin," to draw attention to how grateful Gogol should be for having the food to eat. The relationship between Ashima and Ashoke and their own parents is also mentioned when they find out that their parents have died; Ashoke's parents both die of cancer, and Ashima's mother dies of kidney disease. They learn about these deaths by phone calls.

As Ashima addresses Christmas cards in Chapter 7, she is wistful that Sonia and Gogol did not come home to celebrate Thanksgiving with her. Their need for independence is contrary to the need she felt at their age to be near her family. Gogol begins to feel tender toward his father after his death, when his attitude toward him while he was alive was generally impatient. As Gogol drives Ashoke's rental car to the rental office of his apartment building, he wonders if a man outside the building mistakes him for his father. The thought is comforting to him. He now understands the guilt and uselessness his parents had felt when their own parents had passed away across the world, in Calcutta.

The relationships between parents and children are introduced in Chapter 8 with regard to Moushumi and her parents, who are Bengali like the Gangulis. Because she is a woman, they had been presenting her with Bengali suitors throughout her teenage years, none of whom she was interested in. This experience alienated her from her parents, since she did not want to take their advice about whom she should marry, and since she resented them for trying to control her destiny in that way.

The relationship between parents and children is prominent as a theme in Chapter 12. 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.

Name and Identity

The important theme of name and identity is introduced at the very beginning of Chapter 1, when Ashima calls out for her husband from the bathroom. She doesn't use his name when she calls for him, since "it's not the type of thing Bengali wives do." Their husbands' names are considered too intimate to be used. In Chapter 2, the Bengali tradition of pet names, or daknam and "good" names, or bhalonam, is explained. Only close family uses the pet name in the privacy of the home, while the "good" name is used in formal situations like work. Ashima and Ashoke have to give their son a pet name as they wait for the "good" name suggestions to arrive from Ashima's grandmother, but the letter from Calcutta never comes.

The theme of name and identity is important in Chapter 3, when Gogol starts kindergarten. His parents intend for him to go by "Nikhil" at school and "Gogol" at home, but Gogol is confused and doesn't want a new name: "He is afraid to be Nikhil, someone he doesn't know. Who doesn't know him." As a child, he associates a new name with a new 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. There are many different names for Gogol and Sonia to remember for their relatives in Calcutta, "to signify whether they are related on their mother's or their father's side, by marriage or by blood." At the college party, Gogol is reluctant to introduce himself to Kim as "Gogol," so he says his name is Nikhil. It gives him the confidence to kiss her: "It hadn't been Gogol who had kissed Kim... Gogol had nothing to do with it."

Ashima has never uttered Ashoke's name in his presence; the reader is reminded of this fact as she signs his name to their Christmas cards. It creates a rift between Ashoke's name and his identity, at least his identity to his wife. Even after Ashoke dies, as Ashima explains to their friends what happened to him, she refuses, "even in death, to utter her husband's name." She does not understand his identity as linked to his name.

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.

Moushumi and Gogol bond over their Bengali identities and how they are a source of confusion for Americans. "They talk about how they are both routinely assumed to be Greek, Egyptian, Mexican - even in this misrendering they are joined." Neither of them thought they would date another Bengali seriously, since it was something both their parents wanted for them so badly. They know that their relationship will appeal to their Bengali parents, and they find this both comforting and surprising; they never thought they would please their parents in that way.

The theme of name and identity emerges in Chapter 9 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.

Language Barrier

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.

The words the American husbands at the hospital speak to their wives demonstrate the culture barrier between India and the United States. They say that they love their wives and comfort them with intimate words, while Ashima knows that she and Ashoke will not exchange those types of words since "this is not how they are."

The language barrier arises as an issue as Gogol and Sonia grow older. Ashima and Ashoke send them 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.

Alienation

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 her close family does not surround him. 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." 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."

The theme of alienation is tied to loneliness in Chapter 7, with regard to Ashima. She 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." 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 whom her parents tried to match 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.

Gogol 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.

Ashima feels alienated and alone after showering before the party. 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.

United States vs. India

The tension between the way things are in the United States and the way things are in India is apparent in the character of Mrs. Jones, the elderly secretary whom Ashoke shares with the other members of his department at the university. She lives alone and sees her children and grandchildren rarely; this is "a life that Ashoke's mother would find humiliating." 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 theme of the United States vs. India is apparent during the wedding between Moushumi and Gogol. Their parents plan the entire thing, 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.

Tension between Life and Death

Ashoke decides not to tell Gogol about his near-death experience 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."

The tension between life and death is prominent in this chapter, especially as Gogol deals with the death of Ashoke, his father. He thinks about how "they 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.

Nostalgia

As the novel progresses, the characters begin to feel more and more nostalgic about earlier times in their lives. 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, the way 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 they spent an entire afternoon designing their ideal house.

Nostalgia is prevalent in Chapter 12, as Ashima prepares for the last Christmas party she will ever host at the house on Pemberton Road. She remembers when Gogol and Sonia were little, helping her prepare the food for these parties: "Gogol's hand wrapped around the can of crumbs, Sonia always wanting to eat the croquettes before they'd been breaded and fried." 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.

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