The Namesake is a novel that primarily follows Gogol as the protagonist, with moments of focus on other characters like Ashima. Gogol’s arc details his strongest desire: to create a unique identity for himself separate from that of his family, and specifically his Indian background. His quest for self-discovery is often viewed through the lens of his two names, Gogol and Nikhil, and the difficulties they present. Meanwhile, other characters grapple with their own desires and agendas. Ashima, Gogol’s mother, seeks to keep her family connected to not only each other but also their heritage, whereas Ashoke, Gogol’s father, attempts to reconcile a past tragedy with his hopes for his and his family’s futures. 

The inciting incident, and the earliest moment to which the reader can trace Gogol’s struggles, is Ashoke’s near-death train crash while he is still living in India. Ashoke credits his survival to Nikolai Gogol, the author of the book Ashoke was reading at the time of the crash. This experience puts into perspective the importance and fleeting nature of life for Ashoke, and he dedicates himself to seizing the many opportunities life presents, which he felt he was not doing previously. This revelation leads to Ashoke and Ashima’s marriage, their eventual move to America, and the birth of their son, whom they name Gogol after Ashoke’s favorite author. 

The novel then begins to mostly follow Gogol’s experiences as he grows older and struggles with his identity. Much of the conflict and rising action can be attributed to Gogol’s difficulty feeling connected to his name. This struggle, however, is largely a stand-in for Gogol’s overall lack of identity. Gogol wishes to fit in, to be seen as a true American child, yet feels this is made complicated by the connection he has to his family and his Indian background.

The novel’s conflict manifests in a number of incidents. Ashima and Ashoke insist that Gogol be referred to as Nikhil as he enters school. Gogol’s teachers, however, continue to call him by his informal name. As Gogol ages, he becomes acutely aware of the embarrassment he feels regarding his name and its uncommon nature. Ashoke gifts Gogol the book written by Nikolai Gogol as a tribute to his namesake with the intention of telling Gogol about his experience on the train. However, when Gogol accepts the gift apathetically, Ashoke retreats without offering the explanation. Another incident portrays Gogol’s internal humiliation as his high school English class studies the same book and the author’s tragic life. 

These experiences prompt Gogol’s decision to legally change his name to Nikhil before he moves away for college at Yale. Gogol views college as an opportunity to reinvent himself without the baggage of his family and hometown. Gogol gains many new experiences under the umbrella of his new name, including dating his first girlfriend Ruth, graduating college, moving to New York, and eventually moving in with his second girlfriend, Maxine. As Gogol moves further from his family, seeing them less frequently, and becomes a fixture in the traditionally American lives of Maxine and her family, he feels more and more established as an American individual. 

Gogol’s progress of identity meets its largest obstacle in the form of the novel’s climax. One day, while Ashoke is temporarily living in Ohio for work, he suffers a fatal heart attack. The death of his father throws Gogol back into the throes of familial obligation, as he must now help his sister, Sonia, take care of their grieving mother. The strain Ashoke’s death puts on Gogol and Maxine’s relationship is too extreme, and they eventually break up as a result. 

The falling action of the novel sees Gogol trying to reclaim the progress he made towards his own identity in the wake of his father’s death and the end of his relationship. Eventually, this quest leads Gogol to Moushumi, the daughter of Gogol’s parents’ Bengali friends. While neither Gogol nor Moushumi intended to fall in love with someone of the same background, they both find comfort in their common experiences and overall lack of romantic direction. Before long, Gogol and Moushumi are married and living together. Despite a successful courtship, Gogol and Moushumi’s friends and family are not convinced the two are right for each other. Reinforcing this opinion, the marriage eventually stales, and Moushumi finds herself beginning an affair with an old colleague. Both Moushumi’s affair and the conclusion of their marriage further complicate Gogol’s search for identity.

The novel’s resolution comes during the Gangulis’ final holiday celebration in their long-time home on Pemberton Square. Ashima is preparing to move out in the wake of her husband’s death, as she has decided to spend six months a year in India and six months in America. While in his childhood bedroom trying to escape the holiday chaos, Gogol finds the Nikolai Gogol novel his father gifted him long ago. He opens the book for the first time and reads a touching inscription his father left him to find. In this moment, Gogol discovers the revelation on identity he was searching for. His history, which includes his Indian background, his family, and his namesake, is just as important to his identity as the decisions he’s made and the experiences he’s had independent of those things. Gogol ends the novel with a promise: to read the book his father gave him.