by Jhumpa Lahiri
Well with a title like The Namesake, it's no surprise that names are hugely significant in this novel. In Bengali culture, people have two names: a daknam, or a pet name for family and friends, and a bhalonam, a formal name for legal and professional uses (2.20-21). That tradition presents a bit of a problem for our protagonist, who's one name, Gogol, is neither a pet name, nor a formal one. It's just plain weird. We might think of Gogol as his pet name, except that until he goes to college, everyone calls him that – not just his family. Then, he changes his name to Nikhil, which we might think of as a formal name, except even his girlfriends, with whom he shares intimate relationships call him by that name. Things are a bit topsy-turvy.
Names tell us a lot about other characters, too. "Ashima" means "she who is limitless, without borders," which is fitting for a woman who ends up spending time jetting back and forth between India and the U.S (2.21). "Ashoke" means "he who transcends grief," fitting for a man who survived a devastating accident and appreciates both his survival and the birth of his son as miracles (2.21). "Nikhil" is a bit ironic, since it means "he who is entire, who encompasses all," and Nikhil only pertains to one aspect of Gogol's personality (3.18). Plus, it sounds an awful lot like Nikolai, which was the Russian writer Gogol's first name. It seems that Gogol's attempt to distance himself from his namesake only brings him closer.
Race and Class
The Bengali Gangulis work themselves up from relatively humble beginnings in a cramped apartment to a nice middle-class existence in the suburbs.
The Caucasian Ratliffs enjoy a high-class existence with the fines wines, finest clothes, finest homes, and finest company.
Gogol flits between the two, hoping to get an in with the hoity-toity Ratliffs, all the while feeling guilty for betraying his more humble roots.
The Namesake explores how race and class affect a person's individual development, and what that has to do with people's relationships, and it does so through Gogol's unique story. But he's not the only one for whom race and class are important. For every character in the book that has a speaking part, the novel tracks how their cultural heritage and their social class affect their character. The starkest difference is probably between the Bengali and the Anglo-American characters, but we also see how the experience of being Indian-American can be different for men and women: there's a contrast between the experiences of Gogol and Moushumi, and that contrast contributes to their marriage's falling apart.
Sex and Love
There are all different types of romantic relationships in The Namesake, from the sweet and steadfast marriage of Ashoke and Ashima, to the passionate but doomed relationship between Gogol and Maxine, to the short-lived, loveless marriage between Gogol and Moushumi.
It's interesting to see how what Gogol finds attractive changes over the course of the novel, from Ruth and Maxine to Moushumi. It's as if his taste in women is dictated by his identity crisis, so when he begins to get to know himself at the end of the novel, we wonder what type of woman he'll choose next. We can bet, though, that he'll hold up his parent's marriage as an awesome example of love and respect, despite their aversion to PDA.
Doubles and Alter Egos
One minute he's Gogol. Then suddenly he's Nikhil. Oh wait, he's Gogol. Nope, not so fast – Nikhil. Split between his Gogol and Nikhil personae, Gogol often feels as if he were living the lives of two different people. To his parents, he'll always be their son Gogol. But to the women he loves (or at least tries to) he's Nikhil.
Keep an eye out for other pairings in the novel. We can come to truly understand characters by comparing them to others. Compare Gogol and Sonia, or Gogol and Ashoke, or Gogol and Moushumi, or even Gogol and Dimitri. Many characters in the novel represent paths that Gogol didn't take, and give us an inkling of what he would have been like if he had. For example, Sonia grows up in the same household as Gogol, but she is more accepting of her Indian-American identity than he is and is a lot more at ease with herself. These people hold up a mirror to Gogol, and help him come to understand himself, whether through good or bad example.