In Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake, Indian parents bestow a Russian name to their first born baby boy; the name is Gogol Ganguli which is after the famous Russian writer, Nikolai V. Gogol. In Lahiri’s novel, the main character fights an identity crisis because of his highly unusual name. Gogol carries uncertainty about himself throughout the novel because of his name, “He hates his name . . . that is has nothing to do with who he is, that it is neither Indian nor American but of all things Russian” (Lahiri 76).
He constantly thinks the name Gogol does not correlate with his own personality. However, upon exploration of his namesake, a person finds the name Gogol to be the ideal name for him based on the main character Akaky Akakyvitch in Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat; Gogol Ganguli and Akaky Akakyvitch match perfectly because each display a similar identity crisis that originates from their names. At first, it seems that the main character in The Overcoat Akaky Akakyvitch has nothing in common with the bright and handsome Gogol Ganguli of Lahiri’s novel. One character is set in a Russian nineteenth century short story while the other is a realistic novel about a twentieth century Indian-American family,” that searches for identity in America (Caesar 103). However, The Overcoat, like the novel, pertains to an identity crisis involving names. In The Overcoat “The protagonist name, Akaky Akakyvitch, suggests a contradictory identity itself being a saint’s name and yet sounding like a Russian . . . word for feces,” (Caesar 104).
Akaky’s namesake forces him to face an identity crisis; Akaky does not know where he belongs in the Russian world with a name that signifies a saint yet sounds like feces. This contradictory name is similar to Gogol who “hates having constantly to explain [his name]. He hates having to tell people it means nothing in Indian” (Lahiri 76). Both Gogol and Akaky struggle with an identity crisis based on their names because the names oppose themselves and their cultures; one is a contradicting Russian name and the other is a Russian name that means nothing to one Indian-American boy.
Thus making Gogol’s namesake perfect for him as a character in Lahiri’s novel because the writer he is named after creates a character that also develops an identity crisis with his name. Another example explaining why Gogol is the perfect namesake for Lahiri’s main character originates from the reasons behind both Gogol Ganguli and Akaky Akakyvitch names. Both are given names based on fate and the person who gives them life. In The Namesake, Gogol receives his name, on the surface, because his grandmother’s letter containing his rightful names gets lost in the mail.
But is this a misplacement of Gogol’s names or destiny? His father Ashoke thinks Gogol’s name is fate, “with a slight quiver of recognition, as if he’s known it all along, the perfect pet name for his son occurs to Ashoke . . . ‘Hello, Gogol,’ he whispers,” (Lahiri 34). The lost letter containing Gogol’s names was not an accident but fate. What other name could be more perfect than the name that saved his father’s life; the name that allows Gogol life, and in the words of Nikolai Gogol, “and that to give him any other name was out of the question,” (178).
The name Gogol is destiny because it grants his father life and allows Gogol a chance to be born. The idea that Gogol’s name is destiny is set in concrete once given the background behind Nikolai Gogol’s character; the beginnings of Akaky’s name contain similarities to Lahiri’s character. The mother of Akaky, also, possesses a difficult time finding her child the proper name; everyone explores several names, yet nothing fits, “Since that is how it is [nothing fits], he had better be called after his father . . . ince that is fate,” (Gogol 172). Akaky’s mother names him after his father, the giver of life. The notion that Gogol is the idyllic namesake for Gogol Ganguli becomes apparent by the fact that Akaky’s mother could not find a name for him as well. Both characters search for a name and are lost; then, each parent decides to bestow upon their child the name that gives them life. In the short story, Akaky’s mother names him after his father because “to give him any other name was out of the question,” (Gogol178).
Also, his father is the one who gives Akaky life. And in the novel, Ashoke gives Gogol his namesake because the short story of The Overcoat allows him a chance to live, become a father, and give life to his son; the similar concepts of having a difficult time naming the child and giving the child the name that gives him life, ties the characters of Akaky and Gogol closely together; and re-iterates that Gogol is the perfect namesake for Lahiri’s character based upon Nikolai Gogol’s character in The Overcoat.
Another aspect of Akaky that further identifies Gogol as an ideal name for Lahiri’s protagonist derives from one simple fact: each of the main characters changed their names or persona in order to escape their contradictory names. For instance, in the novel The Namesake, Gogol’s identity crisis consumes him to the point where he creates a new name for himself, “He wonders if this is how it feels for an obese person to become thin, for a prisoner to walk free. ‘I’m Nikhil,’ [he says]” (Lahiri 102).
However, the name change in The Namesake is not the significant point that brings Gogol and Akaky together like identical twins; it is the attitude each character displays once they form a new identity. For Gogol, the new identity occurs when he first identifies himself as Nikhil and possesses the confidence to kiss a girl for the first time, “It wasn’t me, he nearly says. But he doesn’t tell them it hadn’t been Gogol who’d kissed Kim. That Gogol had nothing to do with it. But Nikhil did,” (Lahiri 96).
This passage brings significance because it conveys Gogol’s alter persona of Nikhil; he creates another person, another personality by renaming himself; the new name allows him to be an individual who maintains confidence and speak to girls, a notion that as Gogol he lacks, “But he cannot imagine saying, ‘Hi, it’s Gogol’ under potentially romantic circumstances,” (Lahiri 76). The new persona of Gogol’s is significant within the context of Akaky in The Overcoat. Akaky too creates a new identity by possessing a new overcoat, “[The new overcoat] creates spiritual nourishment . . His whole existence, in a sense had become fuller, as though he had married, as though some other person had become present in him,” (Gogol 212). The new overcoat tailored by Petrovitch gives Akaky a new lease on life; the overcoat allows him to create a new identity that lacks the crisis aspect. Akaky’s new personality can be seen through the “new gleam in his eye,” (Gogol 212). Akaky no longer travels through life merely copying pieces of literature or taking a backseat to life because of his indecision.
Instead, “all of the hesitating and vague characteristics vanished from his face and his manners” (Gogol 212). Akaky is even “invited to a party . . . [and] becomes a new man and starts noticing women,” (Caesar 104). The notion that Akaky and his overcoat notice women ties a knot further in the idea that Gogol is the idyllic name for Lahiri’s main character because both Gogol and Akaky do not begin to notice women until after they assume their new identities, until Gogol is Nikhil and Akaky wears his overcoat.
The notion that both characters, Gogol and Akaky, assume different identities spotlights the hypothesis that Gogol’s name in The Namesake is perfect for him as a character despite being an American-Indian with a Russian name; the reason Gogol is an ideal name for Lahiri’s protagonist centers around the fact that both Gogol and Akaky try to create a new identity; both characters search for and create a new identity that they see fitting to their personality, and this notion is why Gogol becomes a preeminent namesake for Gogol Ganguli.
Another endeavor that conveys Gogol as the perfect name lies in the contradictory endings with an underlining of similarity in both the novel and the short story. The Namesake concludes with Gogol finally sitting down and reading the novel The Overcoat that his father gives him for his thirteenth birthday. The Overcoat’s ending is vastly different; Akaky dies of a fever after losing his beloved coat, his beloved identity, and becomes a ghost.
The reason the two contradictory endings are significant lies within their one similarity: the recovery of their names; in Lahiri’s novel, Gogol Ganguli realizes that his namesake will soon die and become a ghost, “no matter how long he himself lives, Gogol Ganguli will, once and for all, vanish from the lips of loved ones,” (Lahiri 289). Gogol notes that every person who knows him as his namesake will soon fade from life and “in that case Nikhil will live on, publicly celebrated, unlike Gogol, purposely hidden, legally diminished . . [until] lost,” (Lahiri 290). However, Gogol regains his identity, at least to himself, by reading the short story that his father gives to him, “Until moments ago it was destined to disappear from his life altogether, but he has salvaged it by chance. . . [and] for now, he starts to read,” (Lahiri 290-291). Gogol recovers his namesake by reading his book. Akaky accomplishes the same recovery of name, or in his case identity, when he becomes a ghost, “a ghost in the shape of a Government clerk had begun appearing,” (Gogol 266).
Akaky as a ghost tries to gain back his overcoat; he accomplishes his endeavor of regaining his overcoat. However, it is not the possession of the overcoat that ties Akaky with Gogol in the novel. It is the notion that “he is a ghost who has resorted to his former self . . . a nameless name that only lurks in the shadows and speaks to no one,” (Proffitt 40-41). Akaky as a ghost resorts back to his original identify before the overcoat, “that no one had ever noticed him . . and from that time forth they let him go on copying without a word . . . he became a shadow,” (Proffitt 36). The idea that both Gogol and Akaky resort back to their original identities in some form spotlights Gogol as the perfect namesake for Lahiri’s character; Gogol saves his namesake by reading the present his father bestows to him, and Akaky reverts back to his original identity by symbolically becoming a ghost where “no one had ever noticed him,” (Proffitt 36).
This similarity in a contradictory ending showcases Gogol as the perfect namesake for the Indian-American within the context of Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat. In conclusion, the namesake of Gogol Ganguli is idyllic when in context to The Overcoat’s main character Akaky Akakyvitch for several reasons; “both characters endow names both contradictory and perfect . . . one expresses sainthood and defecation . . . [the name] is a Russian name entrusted towards an Indian-American,” (Caesar 112-113).
Also, each character creates an “identity separate of the curses given by their parents,” (Shariff 462). And finally each character, in the end, recovers their “identity to which he struggled to erase,” (Proffitt 42). All of these examples set into concrete that despite Gogol Ganguli’s identity crisis throughout the entire novel, his parents grant him the perfect name because his namesake’s character deals with the same issues as Gogol in context to identity crisis, and in the end, “We all came out of Gogol’s overcoat,” (Lahiri 79).
Caesar, Judith. “Gogol’s Namesake: Identity and Relationships in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake.” Atenea 27.1 (2007): 103-119. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 7 May 2010. Gogol, Nikolai. The Overcoat and Other Tales of Good and Evil. Tr. David Magarshack New York: Norton, 1965. Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003. Proffittt, Edward. “Gogol’s Perfectly True Tale: The Overcoat and its Mode of Closure.” Studies in Short Fiction 14.1 (1977): 35-42. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web 10 May 2010. Shariff, Farha. “Straddling the Cultural Divide: Second Generation South Asian Identity and The Namesake.” Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education. 15.4 (2008): 457-466. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 10 May 2010.