The Namesake Analysis
by Jhumpa Lahiri

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The Namesake

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The Namesake portrays both the immigrant experience in America, and the complexity of family loyalties that underlies all human experience. Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli, after an arranged marriage in India, emigrate to America where Ashoke achieves his dream of an engineering degree and a tenured position in a New England college. Their son Gogol, named for the Russian writer, rejects both his unique name and his Bengali heritage.

In a scene central to the novel’s theme, Ashoke gives his son a volume of Nikolai Gogol’s short stories for his fourteenth birthday, hoping to explain the book’s significance in his own life. Gogol, a thoroughly Americanized teenager, is indifferent, preoccupied with his favorite Beatles recording. Such quietly revealing moments give the narrative its emotional power. The loneliness of lives lived in exile is most poignantly revealed in the late night family telephone calls from India, always an announcement of illness or death.

Gogol earns his degree in architecture, but happiness in love eludes him. An intense love affair with Maxine draws him into a wealthy American family, revealing the extreme contrasts between American and Indian family values. Gogol’s marriage to Moushumi, who shares his Indian heritage, ends in divorce.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s conclusion achieves a fine balance. Ashima, now a widow, sells the family home and will divide her time between America and Calcutta. Gogol, at thirty-two, discovers in his father’s gift of Gogol’s short stories a temporary reconciliation with his name and the heritage he has rejected.

Critics praise Lahiri’s luminous, graceful style and her keenly observed details of daily life, particularly the mythic significance of food and ethnic customs. The Namesake, her first novel, fulfills the promise of her collection of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies (1999), that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000.

Review Sources

Booklist 99, nos. 19/20 (June 1, 2003): 1710.

Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 11 (June 1, 2003): 773.

Library Journal 128, no. 12 (July 15, 2003): 123.

The Nation 277, no. 13 (October 27, 2003): 36-38.

New Leader 86, no. 5 (September/October, 2003): 31-32.

The New York Times Book Review, September 28, 2003, p. 11.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 27 (July 7, 2003): 48-49.

San Francisco Chronicle, September 14, p. M1.

Time 162, no. 12 (September 22, 2003): 76.

The Washington Post, September 14, 2003, p. BW10.

The Namesake

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Gogol Ganguli, the protagonist of Jhumpa Lahiri’s first novel, is on a quest: He is compelled to reinvent himself, to achieve a sense of dignity that will overcome the embarrassment of his name. Born in the United States, he is the son of Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli, who were married in India in the traditional way, by parental arrangement. They strive to preserve their Bengali culture while freeing their children to become successful Americans. Unlike immigrants of earlier generations who turned their backs on the old country, knowing they could never return, the Ganguli family travels frequently and with fluid ease between the United States and India, fully at home in neither place.

Gogol’s name is a bizarre accident of fate. Ashoke, as a young man in India, survives a terrible train accident and is saved only because the rescuers notice the crumpled page of a book falling from his hand. This book is the collected short stories of Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. This accident marks Ashoke physically with a lifelong limp and emotionally with a sense of mystery about his survival when all others in the same railroad car perished.

When his son is born in Boston, Ashoke must name the child on the birth certificate before the infant is released from the hospital. Indian children are given a pet name for the family, with the formal or “good” name chosen later, when the child’s personality has been formed. The grandmother in India has been chosen to name the boy, but her letter has not yet arrived. Ashoke names his son for the author whose book saved his life.

This name is, for...

(The entire section is 2,912 words.)