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This is a very interesting question! Usually in criticism of novels, external conflict is directly plot oriented; while internal conflicts within characters may or may not affect the plot. It is one of the subtleties of the "The Namesake," that here internal and external conflicts overlap in interesting ways.
An obvious external conflict is the conflict between the two generations -- the parents' and the children's. It's a conflict that those of us who have brought up children in the US have experienced in more or less the same way as Gogol's parents: Ashoke and Ashima.
Throughout the novel, the parents try to "make" their children Bengali while the brother and the sister, Gogol and Sonia, insist that they are Americans. The conflicts have to do with everything from giving the children their names, to whether or not they should make periodic visits to India.
Symbolically, this external conflict of the generations is brought about by the direct conflict between Ashoke, the father and Gogol, the son. The son systematically refuses everything his father represents, including not attending the same university as his father! The naming of the son became a real issue between the two. To Ashoke, it was the torn page of a book by his favorite author, the Russian Gogol, that had saved his life in the aftermath of a severe train accident. However, its significance is completely lost on the son. He resents such a "quirky" name, neither Indian nor American. There are numerous such points of conflict that ultimately made Gogol live away from his parents. This is external conflict.
It is to Jhumpa Lahiri's credit that she subtly brings the external conflict bear internally in Gogol, by making Ashoke die suddenly while he was teaching in a university in Ohio. Gogol is naturally shocked and has to go to Ohio to identify the body. As the body is slid out on the tray in the morgue, Gogol is stunned. Later, alone in his father's room he begins to realize how much he had denied his father. This internal conflict, felt deeply as guilt, begins to gnaw at him, slowly bringing him to realization how much like his father he is, and, by deduction, how Indian he is!
Hereafter his life begins to change: he terminates the relationship with his American girlfriend, marries the Bengali daughter of a family friend although the marriage does not last. Most importantly, he comes emotionally close to his mother, Ashima, almost as a way of making up with his father.
In the end, though, Ashima returns to India to live, Gogol has had some sort of a resolution, a reconciliation with his Indian and American side. He is able to live in relative peace.
"The Namesake" is in many ways a quintessential immigrant novel, written lyrically with a great deal of sensitivity for both the parents' generation and the children's, toward both Americans and Indians. The internal and external conflicts represent generically the typical phases of an immigrant novel: desire, control, displacement and integration. The first two, desire and control, are mostly expressed through the internal conflicts Gogol experiences. The second two, displacement and integration, by the external conflicts the parents experience as they first settle down in America, and then later try to integrate and are partially successful in doing so. The four phases just mentioned are not as neatly divided as is shown here. Still, they may be of help in our study of the novel's internal and external conflicts.
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