Lahiri's the Namesake
Anna Mantzaris English 1B 08 March 2013 Gogol Versus Nikhil Gogol grapples with his name throughout the majority of the novel, yet this tension was in the makings even before his birth - Lahiri's the Namesake introduction. Ashoke and Ashima being immigrants set Gogol up to live in two different cultures, American and Bengali. Many children of immigrants may feel like Gogol, having one foot in each world. Gogol framed his struggle with cultural identity through something tangible, his name. In Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake, Gogol’s struggle with cultural identity is exposed most greatly by the name others call him and his reaction to it.
On Gogol’s first day of school, he gets his first taste of the cultural tension that his name and “good name” generate in typical American setting. Mrs. Lapidus, the principal, demonstrates her confusion to the Bengali tradition of a good name as she “frowns” (58) and “presses her lips together” (59) at Ashoke’s explanations. Lapidus’ expressed confusion and insistence for calling him “Gogol” lets Gogol know that having a separate good name will make him stand out in America. Gogol gets pressure from his father and from Mrs.
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Lapidus to choose a name to go by, and in essence to choose a side, American or Bengali. The opposing forces of Ashoke and the principal represent the two directions in which Gogol will continue to be pulled. On his first day of kindergarten, Gogol’s reaction to this choice is to go with the name he knows. In doing so, Gogol goes against his father’s wishes and Bengali tradition, a trend that continues to grow as Gogol does. In high school, Gogol has an experience that solidifies how intensely he is affected by his name, which in inextricably tied to his cultural identity.
His English teacher, Mr. Lawson, gives Gogol one of the first positive experiences he has had with his name. “He [Mr. Lawson] called out the name in a perfectly reasonable way, without pause, without doubt, without a suppressed smile, just as he had called out Brian and Erica and Tom,” (89). Lahiri’s description of this event lets us into Gogol’s mind and how he perceives his name to be in the world outside his home. The reader is convinced that Gogol has had many experiences of his name being said with hesitation and lack of ease that normal American names are pronounced with.
Gogol must often compare himself to his peers via how teachers and other authorities handle his unique name. Furthermore, Gogol himself is consumed with doubt in regards to his name, what it means, and how it ties him to his heritage in a way he in unsure how to accept. However pleased Gogol may have been with Mr. Lawson’s approach, everything changes when the class reads “The Overcoat” by Nikolai Gogol. “With growing dread and a feeling of slight nausea, he watches as Mr. Lawson distributes the books… the sight of it [“Gogol”] printed in capital letters on the crinkly page upsets him viscerally” (89).
Gogol wants nothing to do with his name at this point, even the book it is printed in is “particularly battered, the corner blunted, the cover spotted as if by a whitish mold,” (89). The confusion Gogol associates with his own name infects him and things around him, just like the “warmth [that] spreads from the back of Gogol’s neck to his cheeks and his ears,” (91). The rest of his classmates, “begin to moan in unison,” (92), and Gogol “feels betrayed,” (91). Gogol takes the class’s negative reaction to the Russian author’s biographical information as a personal assault.
It reinforces his rejection to his own name as “each time the name is uttered, he quietly winces,” (91). Gogol has a negative physical reaction to the exposition of his namesake, and therefore his name. This vital experience in adolescence sets in stone Gogol’s mental repulsion to his name. Gogol deeply associates his name with his family and heritage, and as he rejects “Gogol”, he is rejecting any means of accepting his parents’ culture in the way they would like him to. Gogol’s rejection of his first name