What is meant by the word "namesake" in "The Namesake"?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The idea of the concept of "namesake" is to convey a shared connection between names.  For Gogol, understanding and coming to accept his own name is of central importance to the novel.  The fact that Gogol hated his name for so long, his own namesake, is essential in the development of his character.  Although he knows the story behind his naming, he fails to embrace it.  It is only through his father's death that he has a firmer grasp of the implications of his identity.  The recognition of the name is something that comes at the end of the narrative when Gogol is alone and understands that the only thing he possesses that no one else can take from him is his name.  The affinity he has for his "namesake" comes at the end of the novel, when he starts reading work by Gogol, indicating a penchant for the writer like his father.  In the end, "the namesake" is within Gogol and in what he embraces and how he demonstrates character development and growth.

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teachsuccess | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In Jhumpa Lahiri's book, the word "namesake" references the human search for meaning. The word essentially encompasses Gogol/ Nikhil's struggle for identity.

The story begins with an explanation of how Gogol came by his name. Accordingly, Gogol's father, Ashoke, had been reading a collection of short stories by Nikolai Gogol when his train derailed from the lines. It was a tragic accident and one that left few survivors. Ashoke had found himself lodged partway through a window, and he had little ability to move. Fortuitously, he was still clutching a page from Gogol's story "The Overcoat." First responders noticed that he was alive when he dropped the page from his hands. Ashoke credits Gogol for saving his life that day.

When his son was born, Ashoke named him after the Russian author, due to the lack of a Bengali "good name" or bhalonam. Traditionally, all Bengalis give their children pet names or daknam, and they are usually sentimental or affectionate in nature. Pet names remind everyone that "one is not all things to all people." Conversely, good names signify prestige and respectability. Because of the importance of good names, Bengalis usually take their time to name their children.

Often, a respected patriarch or matriarch of the family is called upon to name the newborn. In Ashoke's case, his wife's grandmother had been given this privilege. However, the naming convention hits a snag when the letter from Ashima's grandmother fails to arrive in time. Mr. Wilcox, the compiler of hospital birth certificates, warns Ashoke and his wife, Ashima, that the baby will not be allowed to leave without a formal name on his birth certificate.

Cornered, Ashoke names his son Gogol. Ashoke's rational for his son's name stems from his predilection for absurdist fiction and philosophy. Absurdist fiction for its part deals with the irrational; it questions the relevance and existence of abstract principles such as truth and justice. The philosophy of absurdism rests on the hypothesis that life is devoid of meaning and that God (if He exists at all) is largely a detached, reclusive figure.

In the story, Ashoke knows that he was fortunate to survive the devastating train crash. He credits Gogol for saving his life, noting that his Marxist beliefs do not give him the liberty of crediting a divine being for his miraculous recovery. So, the word "namesake" in the novel represents a few things.

First, it represents Lahiri's acknowledgement of Gogol's absurdist philosophy. Ashoke finds little evidence to suggest that he was chosen to live. All he knows is that he survived a horrific accident against all odds. The word "namesake" is a metaphor that approaches the problem of fate from a secular, absurdist standpoint. Does life hold any meaning whatsoever? Is there a reason Ashoke lived while countless others died? Interestingly, the story Ashoke was reading before the train crash explores these questions.

In The Overcoat, Akaky's new coat is stolen from him, and he is confounded in all his efforts to retrieve it from the thieves. Unhappy Akaky must navigate his way gingerly through the Russian bureaucratic morass. Even after he finds a Person of Consequence (a recently promoted general) to take his case, Akaky receives little help in his mission to retrieve his coat. In the end, Akaky dies before he sees any results from his interview with the general. The story ends with a surprising supernatural twist, however. Akaky returns from the dead to haunt the Russian official and to snatch his overcoat. Interestingly, Akaky's ghost is never heard from again after his supernatural revenge.

The story suggests that human beings are powerless against the forces of fate and that life is devoid of meaning. It also suggests that every human being should rebel against the constraints of such a life. This rebellion is the only way to secure meaning in a chaotic world. This is exactly what Akaky does when he comes back to haunt the general.

Lahiri's Gogol/Nikhil comes to a similar conclusion. He initially struggles to make sense of his name and his double consciousness; he struggles to make sense of how he fits into an Indian-American cultural construct. In the end, he embraces his double identity and the challenges that come with it. The story ends with him choosing to explore his namesake's absurdist stories. His actions suggest that he will rebel against the fears that previously constrained him.

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