Gogol finds that he cannot be comfortable as an individual with a stable and acceptable identity while living “in between” cultures, with a Russian first name, with a Bengali family outside of Boston, and with a sense of always being an outsider. He makes great efforts to define and redefine himself, changing his name and moving away from home.
He resists the pressures to conform to many expectations his parents place on him, making a home for himself in New York, where he entertains ideas of living a sophisticated life, buffered from the awkward transitory instabilities of his identity issues.
His sense of home changes with his girlfriends, in large part, as these relationships are an accurate reflection of the degree to which Gogol accepts or rejects an identity defined by his family history.
He is not at home with his name and so seeks a new home in a new name. Ultimately, despite his various efforts, Gogol grows into a point of view that recognizes his family as the root of his identity. This recognition is bittersweet and bought at a cost. It does not function as a suggestion of failure and does not serve to paint Gogol’s quest as a quixotic folly. Instead, Gogol’s mature identity is shown to require all the costs he pays, because home for him is essentially definitive of his personhood. The home he finally claims is roughly equivalent to an answer to the question of what it means to be a person in the world.
Lahiri’s novel is very much a book about redefinitions of home. Undertaking a huge change, Gogol’s parents leave their home in Calcutta to move to the United States. Their position as outsiders is keenly felt by their children, especially Gogol.
"The mother and father are traditional Bengalese from Calcutta, and they are not particularly interested in assimilating into the United States, their adopted home. Gogol, their son, however, was born in the United States and is somewhat embarrassed by his parents' Bengalese practices" (eNotes).
For Gogol, as for his parents, the idea of home becomes closely associated with the idea of belonging. Gogol goes to great lengths to find a solid sense of belonging (because he cannot find it in his parents' home).
Growing up, Gogol feels too much in between cultures. When the family visits India, Gogol and his sister feel like Americans. In America, Gogol feels like an outsider. Even within the ex-patriot Bengalese community, Gogol feels that he is not fully a part of things.
"Gogol wants to fit in with the culture around him and fears that if he embraces Indian culture, Americans will reject him. In his mind, in order to be considered fully American, he has to cut his ties with his family" (eNotes).
His name bothers him. It comes from a Russian writer. When he is ready to start college, Gogol chooses to change his name and attend Yale, leaving Massachusetts to go to Connecticut.
He begins to assert himself as a self-defined individual at Yale and tries to leave “Gogol” behind.
“It is as Nikhil, that first semester, that he grows a goatee, starts smoking Camel Lights at parties and writing papers and before exams, discovers Brian Eno and Elvis Costello and Charlie Parker. It is as Nikhil that he takes the metro into Manhattan one weekend with Jonathan and gets himself a fake ID that allows him to be served liquor in New Haven bars.”
For a long time, Gogol makes an identity for himself that is cut off from his parents' cultural identity. He moves to New York and becomes comfortable with Maxine and her family in a cultural niche perhaps best described as an elite level of insulated privilege.
His home for a time is not New York, per se, but Maxine. When his father dies and Gogol drifts back to his family, he begins to embrace his family’s specific cultural identity in America—reluctantly at first. Soon, with Moushumi, he lets go of his reluctance and the two of them marry. His definition of home is shifted to include a vision of a domestic life, socially connected to ambitious young New Yorkers living cosmopolitan and intellectual lives.
When the marriage ends, Gogol is faced with the idea that he is now only connected to his family. His home is again defined by that family.
Late in the novel, Gogol recalls a conversation with his father.
“Remember that you and I made this journey, that we went together to a place where there was nowhere left to go.”