by Jhumpa Lahiri
Analysis: What's Up With the Title?
Who's Gogol's namesake? Nineteenth century Russian author Nikolai Gogol, that's who. Never heard of him? No matter. What's really relevant here is what he means to our Gogol, and that's a big fat not much.
Let's back up a bit, first. In the novel, a series of coincidences leads up to Gogol's naming. First, his father is reading Nikolai Gogol's short stories when he is injured in a train accident outside Calcutta; he credits the book with saving his life when his rescuers notice the pages of the book moving. Next, his parents end up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they are forced to pick a formal name for him in order to be released from the hospital. However, Ashima's grandmother has failed to send a letter with the name she has chosen, so the new parents are left to their own devices. Their choice? Gogol, of course.
Gogol ends up with a name that is neither Bengali nor American, a pet name that masquerades as a formal name for a child whose "real" formal name has gotten lost, or perhaps never existed in the first place. Plus the first name isn't even a first name to begin with – it's the last name of a man whose first name is Nikolai. Phew. Is your head spinning? Ours sure is.
No wonder Gogol is conflicted about his name. But of course, it's not just his name that has him emotionally confused. This is about so much more than his name, which is merely a stand-in for Gogol's own conflicted relationship with his Indian-American identity. He feels caught between two cultures, neither of which he entirely belongs to. Gogol only comes to terms with his Indian-American identity at the end of the novel, when he finally decides to read the stories of his namesake.