by Jhumpa Lahiri
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
The main character in the novel is named after Nikolai Gogol, a nineteenth-century Russian novelist perhaps best known for his short story "The Overcoat" and his novel Dead Souls. We'll get to Dead Souls in a minute (or you can skip ahead to "The Circle of Life"). But for now, let's have a chat about this overcoat.
To put it briefly, Gogol's "The Overcoat" is about a humble clerk who goes mad when he loses his fabulous new overcoat (you can read the full text here). The story is known for its absurdity, and, for teaching us that we can't exist without a public personality. For the man in the overcoat, his overcoat is who he is, and without the fabulous overcoat, he disappears – he's nobody. The rough equivalent today might be the way people feel about their varsity jackets or their sports jerseys. A star football player without a varsity jacket is just a guy who throws a ball made of pigskin. Nothing to write home about.
This idea – that if you don't have a public personality, you do not exist at all – is played out in the characters' attitudes toward clothes. Ashima meets Ashoke's shoes before she meets Ashoke the man. You might even say that she decides to marry him as soon as she tries on his shoes. The Indian and Indian American characters are always wrapping themselves up against the Northeast winters, as if the climate were a hostile antagonist. The first gift Moushumi gives to Gogol is a warm hat, and when Gogol goes to clear out his father's apartment, he gets a coat to protect himself from the cold when he takes a walk. One of the last things Ashima does as she prepares the house for her farewell Christmas party is to wear a bathrobe, a gift from her husband that was picked out by her children.
The list goes on. We wouldn't go so far as to call it a symbol, though. Clothing in The Namesake serves as imagery that helps set the tone and clues you into these characters' personalities. From what they wear, we understand their values.