The Namesake Summary

In The Namesake, a Bengalese couple name their son after the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. The name frustrates Gogol, just as his parents' traditional values embarrass him. After his father dies, Gogol becomes more interested in his family's heritage and marries a Bengalese woman named Moushumi. In the end, they divorce, and Gogol takes comfort in memories of his father.

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

  • After Ashoke died, Gogol finally takes an interest in his heritage. He marries Moushumi, a Bengalese woman, but their marriage crumbles after Moushumi has an affair.

  • In the end, Gogol takes comfort in a book of Nikolai Gogol's stories. He knows now that Ashoke was reading Gogol before he got caught in a train accident, and that the page he tore out during the crash alerted medics to his presence in the midst of the wreckage.

Introduction

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.

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

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...

(The entire section is 1023 words.)