The Namesake Summary

The Namesake is a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri in which young Gogol struggles to reconcile his beliefs with those of his traditional, Bengalese parents. 

  • Ashoke, an engineering student at MIT, consents to an arranged marriage with Ashumi. He names their son Gogol after the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. Gogol hates his name and disavows his Bengalese heritage for most of his adolescence.

  • After Ashoke dies, Gogol takes an interest in his heritage. He marries Moushumi, a Bengalese woman, but they ultimately divorce after Moushumi has an affair.

  • After the divorce, Gogol takes comfort in his father's memory and finally accepts his name.

Introduction

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 339

The Ganguli family in Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake has a problem. 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. Gogol is also uncomfortable with his name. It is neither a Bengalese nor an American name. No one he knows has a name like his. In school, kids make fun of it. But the conflict goes deeper than that.

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Gogol's father tries to explain why he gave that name to his first-born child, but Gogol could not care less. Gogol, in his attempts to get out from under the Bengali culture, even tries to completely disassociate himself from his family. But when his father dies, Gogol is surprised by how much he misses him. Slowly he turns back to his mother and sister. His new closeness makes Gogol's American girlfriend question why he is acting so differently. The strain breaks down their relationship.

Later, when Gogol's mother suggests that Gogol call the Bengalese daughter of her friend, Gogol resists, for a little while. Then he gives in, somewhat curious about dating a Bengalese woman.

As Gogol slowly realizes the importance of his family and his culture, he falls in love with Moushumi, the Bengalese woman. The story appears to have finally come to a happy conclusion. Gogol and Moushumi are married. But this is not a romantic happily-ever-after tale. Moushumi, who was a quiet and shy young teen, has tasted freedom in her twenties, a freedom from her parents and their strict Bengali ways. Now Moushumi feels confined in her marriage, no matter how well Gogol treats her. She turns away from him in the only way she knows how: she has an affair.

The Namesake takes readers behind the closed doors of people who have immigrated to the United States to find a better life and the challenges they unexpectedly discover in the process.

Extended Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1023

As The Namesake opens, Ashima Ganguli is a young bride who is about to deliver her first child in a hospital in Massachusetts. Her husband, Ashoke, is an engineering student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Ashoke had traveled back to Calcutta to find a wife. Ashima, who comes from a traditional Bengali/Indian family, had little choice in the matter. As she prepares to give birth, she realizes how isolated she has become. If she were still in Calcutta, she would have her baby at home, surrounded by all the women in her family who would administer all the proper Bengali ceremonies and would tell her what to expect. In the United States, Ashima struggles through language and cultural barriers as well as her own fears as she delivers her first child.

The baby boy is healthy and the new parents are prepared to take their son home. But Ashima and Ashoke are stunned to learn that they cannot leave the hospital before they give their son a legal name. The traditional naming process in their families is to have an elder give the new baby a name. They have chosen Ashima's grandmother for this honor. The grandmother writes down the name on a piece of paper and mails it to them. But the letter never arrives and soon after, the grandmother dies. In the meantime, Ashoke suggests the name of Gogol. He chooses this name for two reasons. First, it is the name of his favorite author, the famous Russian author. The second reason is that Ashoke, before he was married, had been in a very serious accident. The train he was riding in had derailed. Many people died. Ashoke had broken his back and could not move. He had been reading Gogol just before the accident. He had a page of that book clutched in his hand. The paper caught the attention of the medics who had come to rescue him. If it were not for the page, acting as a flag in the darkness, Ashoke could have died.

Gogol grows up hating his name. His father tries once to explain the significance of it, but he senses that Gogol is not old enough to understand. His parents decide to give him a more public name, which is part of the Bengali tradition—having a private name that only family and friends use and a public name for everything else. They chose Nikhil. When Gogol goes off to college, he uses his public name.

This change in name and Gogol's going to Yale, rather than following his father’s footsteps to MIT, sets up the barriers between Gogol and his family. The distance, both geographically and emotionally, between Gogol and his parents continues to increase. He wants to be American not Bengalese. He goes home less frequently, dates American girls, and becomes angry when anyone calls him Gogol. He lives in a very small apartment in New York City, where he has landed a job in an established architectural office. He is rather stiff personality-wise, perpetually angry or else always on the lookout for someone to make a stereotypical comment about his background.

At a party, Gogol meets a very attractive and rather socially aggressive woman named Maxine. Gogol becomes completely wrapped up in her and her family. Maxine's parents are financially well off and live in a four-story house in New York City. Maxine has one floor to herself and invites Gogol to move in. Gogol becomes a member of the family, helping with the cooking and shopping. Maxine's parents appear to have accepted him as a son. When Maxine's parents leave the city for the summer, they invite Maxine and Gogol to join them for a couple of weeks. They are staying in the mountains in New Hampshire, where Maxine's grandparents live. For a while, Gogol is entrenched in this very American family.

Gogol introduces Maxine to his parents. Ashima dismisses Maxine as something that Gogol will eventually get over. Shortly after this meeting, Gogol's father dies of a heart attack while he is working on a temporary project in Ohio. Gogol travels to Ohio to gather his father's belonging and his father's ashes. Something inside of Gogol changes. He slowly withdraws from Maxine as he tries to sort out his emotions. Maxine tries to pressure him to open up to her. Gogol breaks off the relationship and begins to spend more time with his mother and sister, Sonia.

Ashima, after some time has gone by, suggests that Gogol contact the daughter of one of her friends. Gogol knows of the woman from his own childhood. Her name is Moushumi, and she has had the unfortunate experience of having planned a wedding only to have her intended groom change his mind at the last minute. Gogol is reluctant to meet with Moushumi for two reasons. She is Bengalese, and she is recovering from having been shamed. But he meets her anyway, to please his mother.

Moushumi and Gogol are attracted to one another and eventually are married. However, by the end of their first year of marriage, Moushumi becomes restless. She feels tied down by marriage and begins to regret what she has done. Gogol suspects something is wrong and often feels like a poor substitute for Moushumi's ex-fiance, Graham, who abandoned Moushumi. One day, Moushumi comes across the name of a man she knew when she was a senior in high school. She contacts him, and they begin an affair. Gogol finds out. Moushumi and Gogol divorce.

The story ends with Ashima selling the family home so she can live in India with her siblings for half of the year. Sonia is preparing to marry to an American man named Ben. Gogol is once again alone. But he feels comforted by one thing: before his father died, he finally told his son why he had chosen that name for him. By the end of the novel, Gogol has come to accept his name and picks up a collection of the Russian author's stories that his father had given him as a birthday present many years ago.

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