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The Namesake

Further Study Study Questions
Further Study Study Questions

Agree or disagree with the following statement, and explain your answer: Gogol doesn’t always recognize the feelings of those closest to him.

Gogol frequently does a poor job of understanding the feelings, motivations, and concerns of those around him. This is not to say that Gogol is an insensitive person, that he is selfish or careless with other people’s feelings. But, like his father, Gogol is an inward person. He keeps largely to himself, and though he is socially skilled, he seems to prefer being alone, or with one other person, to being in crowds. Especially in his romantic relationships, Gogol has trouble predicting his partner’s emotional responses, especially when he himself is worked up or stressed out. For example, after his father’s death, Gogol does not seem to realize that Maxine, despite her lack of knowledge of Bengali custom, wishes to help and support Gogol. Rather than allowing her to do so, he subtly pushes her away, and implies that she wouldn’t “get” what is happening within his family.

This response hurts Maxine, and contributes to their break-up. Although the narrator presents these events even-handedly, without arguing that Gogol has been callous with Maxine’s feelings, it becomes clear, on re-reading, that this is more or less what Gogol has done. Another moment of Gogol’s emotional insensitivity occurs in his marriage to Moushumi. On their first anniversary, Moushumi wears a dress she thinks Gogol might remember, from earlier in the courtship. But Gogol has no recollection of it at all. This response is upsetting to Moushumi, who nevertheless does not show it, not wanting to hurt his feelings in turn.

One might contrast Gogol’s emotional engagement, here, with his father’s response, on learning, years before, that Ashima’s father has passed away. Ashoke similarly wishes to keep this information to himself. But when he finally breaks down, he begins to cry, telling Ashima that he is deeply sorry for her loss. It is a moment of revealed intimacy for Ashoke, one the reader might not have expected in the earlier chapters of the novel.

Describe the influence of New England on the novel. In what way is this a novel of life in that particular region?

Although The Namesake takes up the lives of Bengali-Americans, and is deeply concerned with Bengali customs, religion, and other traditions, it is also a novel of America, and of the Northeast in particular. Lahiri goes to great lengths to describe the region in detail. Parts of Cambridge and the Boston metro area are explained to the reader, as is the Yale campus. Different neighborhoods in New York City also get their due. These are the locations where Lahiri’s characters reside, and she does her part to make these worlds seem real and alive for her readers.

Lahiri’s work therefore takes up identity in different forms. Some of that identity is racial and geographic, and is grounded in Calcutta, where Ashima and Ashoke are from. Some of that identity, however, is based on the “transplanted” life of immigrants to America, on the surroundings in which Ashima and Ashoke decide to raise their family. Lahiri’s point, therefore, is that the Gangulis’ America is every bit as authentic an America as that of their non-Indian neighbors down the street. This is true in Boston, in New Haven, and in New York. It is true when Gogol is dating Maxine, a young woman who feels especially “of the city.” And it is true when Gogol is with Moushumi, who is a product of the American (and European) educational systems. Lahiri demonstrates throughout the novel that place is important—and not always the places we might think. While Ashima, for example, orients her early life in America toward India, she grows far more comfortable in her adoptive home, America.

In what ways is the novel “nostalgic”? Do characters long for the past? If so, which ones, and how?

The Namesake is, in some ways, a novel of nostalgia, inasmuch as it is concerned with issues of memory, remembering, forgetting, and loss. But it uses these memories not so much to stay in the past as to move through it, into the present and the future. Thus, nostalgia becomes, for Lahiri, a means of approaching events that are yet to come.

Gogol, for example, thinks a great deal about his life as a younger man, especially once he embarks on his relationship with Moushumi. He recalls the times they were in the same room, at the same parties. He remembers her British accent and her love of reading. But Gogol does not wish to “remain” in this past, and he understands that Moushumi, now, is far different from what she was as a girl. He recognizes that he, too, has changed, grown up, matured. He has even changed his name, although Moushumi still remembers him as Gogol, at least in the beginning. But for Gogol, his shared history with Moushumi is at least part of their initial attraction.

Ashima, too, is drawn to the past. For years in Massachusetts, she thinks longingly of her family in Calcutta. She reads old letters from her parents, and during their visits to India, the family makes sure to meet up with scattered relatives and to pay obeisance to pictures of lost loved ones. But as Ashima ages, she realizes that a good deal of her “past,” some three decades, have taken place in the Boston area. That is a past from which she, too, can draw. Thus her nostalgia moves from an “India-centric” kind to a more inclusive, multicultural one.