Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Scenes of naming crop up repeatedly in The Namesake. In Chapter 1, Ashima and Ashoke decide to name their son “Gogol,” as they wait for his “official” name from Ashima’s grandmother. When that name is lost in the mail, the “pet name” Gogol sticks. This, until Gogol decides to change it, toward the end of high school. Gogol goes on to college with a new name, and does not learn the significance of the name “Gogol” until his father breaks the news to him after a delayed train ride.
Unlike her brother, Sonia has only one name, that is both “official” and “pet” name. Lahiri’s narrator notes that many Bengali-American families, having lived in the US for some time, have adopted the American custom of one name with nicknames, rather than special family names, as in Calcutta. Thus naming patterns begin to follow the norms of American, rather than Indian, culture. Even after Ashoke’s death, Ashima rarely refers to her husband by that name, instead using mostly pronouns, like “he” and “him.” This is, in part, a recognition of the specialness of that name, and of Ashima’s intimacy with her husband. Since they are rarely apart, she infrequently has to refer to him in front of someone else.
Train rides form an important part of the novel. Ashoke is nearly killed on a train in India, prompting his move to the United States and his career as an engineer. And Gogol, as the story progresses, becomes the primary train-rider, taking the Amtrak back and forth between New Haven, where he attends college, Boston, and New York, to which he moves for architecture school.
The train represents the proximity between Gogol’s mature life and the Bengali-American context in which he was raised. Although his life with Moushumi in New York broadens, and includes people from different cultural circles, the train always connects him to Boston, and to his childhood home on Pemberton Road.
The Namesake is also a novel of reading. Many characters in the book themselves read novels. Ashoke, in India, falls in love with fiction, especially that of the Russians. Ashima is enamored of English poets. Ashoke’s father is an avid reader, too. In America, Gogol reads with less avidity, but his father nevertheless gives him Nikolai Gogol’s works, which go on to have an important symbolic value for him.
Moushumi uses reading as a form of escape, and she studies literature professionally as a doctoral student at NYU. It is through a book given her by Dimitri that she rekindles her romance with him and ends her marriage. And, of course, the novel ends with a scene of Gogol leaving the party, and reading the Gogol stories his father had given him long ago.