Jenna received her BA in English from Iowa State University in 2015, and she has taught at the secondary level for three years.
Coming to America
At the start of The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, we are introduced to Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli. The couple recently immigrated to Massachusetts from Calcutta, India, and they are now expecting their first child. While Ashima is in the kitchen one day, she goes into labor. At the nearby hospital, the new parents welcome a baby boy. The only problem is they don't know what to name him! Ashima's grandmother is supposed to send a letter with the baby's name, but the letter never arrives. Ashoke then comes up with the idea to name his son Gogol as a pet name after Nikolai Gogol, the famous Russian author.
In the first chapter, we learn that Ashoke had been in a terrible train accident a few years ago. He survived because a rescuer noticed a page from Nikolai Gogol's short story blowing in the wind, which is what he had been reading on the train. This is why he decides to name his son Gogol.
Growing Up As Gogol
The rest of the novel focuses on Gogol and his experiences growing up in America. When he's young, his parents move to a suburban home near Boston. Sonia, his sister, is born when Gogol is about five years old. Around this time, Gogol starts going to school. His parents want him to start using the name Nikhil, which is his formal name. However, Gogol doesn't want to do this, so he tells everyone at school that his name is Gogol.
As time goes on, Gogol starts to feel more self-conscious about his name. The other kids make fun of him. Gogol himself doesn't even fully understand the significance of his name as his father hasn't yet told him about the train accident. Later, on Gogol's 14th birthday, Ashoke tries to tell Gogol about his namesake by giving him a copy of The Short Stories of Nikolai Gogol. Instead of looking at the book and asking his father more about the gift, Gogol simply tosses the book aside to be left untouched for years.
A couple of years later, Gogol and his family go on an eight-month trip to Calcutta to visit family. Both Gogol and Sonia feel foreign here, even though their family came from India. This is sort of how Gogol feels in America – a little out of place.
Gogol Becomes Nikhil
Gogol is now preparing for his freshman year at Yale, and there is just one thing he wants to do before he starts this new chapter of his life. He goes to the courthouse one day and legally changes his name from Gogol to Nikhil. This change marks his decision to distance himself from his family and his heritage. He avoids friendships and relationships with other Bengalis, and he only dates white women.
After he graduates college with a degree in architecture, Gogol gets a job with a firm in New York. He moves into an apartment in the city and starts dating a woman named Maxine. He becomes enamored with Maxine's lavish lifestyle and her wealthy parents. Gogol is also drawn to her because she is the opposite of who his parents would want him to date. While Gogol dates Maxine, he spends the majority of his free time with her and her family, and he becomes more distant from his own family.
During this time, Gogol is struck with the sudden news that Ashoke has passed away from a heart attack. This news devastates Gogol, Ashima, and Sonia, and it greatly affects Gogol's relationship with Maxine. They break up after Gogol decides to make his family his number one priority.
Gogol continues to work in New York, but he comes home most weekends to be with his mother and sister. He eventually starts to see other women, including a married architect named Bridget. This relationship doesn't last long, and after some prompting from Ashima, he agrees to go on a blind date with a family friend.
This family friend is named Moushumi, and we briefly met her earlier in the book at Gogol's 14th birthday party. Gogol doesn't remember a lot about her, but she seems to remember quite a bit about him.
They bond over their shared experiences. Moushumi is also Bengali and has had many of the same identity issues that Gogol has had. Like Gogol, she has also attempted to dissociate herself from her Indian heritage. We learn that Moushumi had once been engaged to an American banker named Graham. However, a few weeks before the wedding, Moushumi and Graham had a terrible fight and called off the engagement.
Back in the present time, Moushumi and Gogol decide to get married, and they make their parents happy by agreeing to a traditional Bengali wedding. For a while, Moushumi and Gogol are happy together, but as time goes on, Gogol starts to think that she has settled by marrying him and that she would have been happier with Graham. Moushumi starts to act even more disconnected, and shortly after she starts her new teaching job at NYU, she begins an affair with Dimitri Desjardins, an ex-boyfriend. Months go by, and Gogol has no idea that his wife is cheating on him. Gogol does find out eventually, and he and Moushumi get a divorce.
Accepting the Past
About a year after Gogol found out about Moushumi's affair, he goes back home to Boston for Christmas. This is going to be Ashima's last Christmas at the family house near Boston. She is planning on selling the house and splitting her time between family in India and family and friends in America.
While Gogol is at the Christmas party, he wanders into his old bedroom and finds his copy of The Short Stories of Nikolai Gogol, which his father had given to him many years ago.
He sits down and reads the book, and readers get the sense that Gogol has come to terms with his past. He has finally become more comfortable with his identity, and we get the feeling that Gogol will soon experience a positive change in his life.
Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake tells the story of the Ganguli family, which includes Ashima, Ashoke, Gogol, and Sonia. Most of the novel centers on Gogol and his life as he tries to come to terms with his identity. For most of his childhood and adolescence, he struggles with accepting his name. Before college, he decides to change his name to Nikhil. This decision shows that he wants to detach himself from his past and his Indian roots.
After Ashoke's death, Gogol chooses to reconnect with his family and his heritage. He marries Moushumi, another Bengali. Unfortunately, the marriage doesn't last, and the book ends with Gogol thinking about both his past and his future.
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