by Jhumpa Lahiri
Cultural Capital: Books, Art, and Décor
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
In The Namesake, objects say a lot about the social status of the characters (check out "Society and Class" under "Themes" if you need a refresher). Artistic objects such as paintings, books, or photographs carry particular meaning. Gogol and Moushumi both choose professions that are not in medicine, engineering, or the sciences, as their parents would prefer. Instead, one is an architect and the other is a graduate student in French literature. Their choices of artistic, less lucrative professions mark a shift from their parents' values. They appreciate art and have friends who do, too.
The meaningfulness of objects also varies by character. While Moushumi, Gogol, and their friends generally see books as status symbols and art as décor, Gogol's parents, particularly his father, see books and photographs as incredibly significant objects, perhaps because of their Indian childhoods. Growing up in India, which became independent from British colonial rule in 1947, Ashoke and Ashima attended schools still influenced by British colonial heritage. Knowing the English language and English culture was an important way for them to succeed in a world where familiarity with English was a ticket to success.
These practical reasons aside, books are personally meaningful to them, and their taste for books tends toward the great European classics. Ashoke associates books with his grandfather, and his book of Nikolai Gogol's short stories quite literally saves his life. When Ashoke dies, one of his last possessions, Gogol notices, is a copy of Graham Greene's The Comedians, a political novel set in Haiti. Even Ashima, who works as an English tutor while in college, recites a William Wordsworth poem, "Daffodils," to impress her future husband.
We can't help but notice that these artistic things seem to carry real meaning for Ashoke and Ashima. They associate them with very specific memories and moments, which makes us wonder if Gerald and Lydia, who seem to collect cultural objects like dolls, find the same amount of value in their art objects.