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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Lahiri tracks, through The Namesake, the changes that occur to the Ganguli family. But she does not do so to argue that life is entirely change. Instead, Lahiri carefully orchestrates a sequence of recurring activities, parties, meals, and social events throughout Ashima, Ashoke, and Gogol’s life. This shows that, although the family’s circumstances shift as the years go by, certain truths remain apparent for each of them. In fact, it is through change that characters learn who they are, and what parts of themselves remain constant.
Ashoke’s life is uprooted entirely after the train-wreck in India, which nearly kills him. He decides, afterward, to leave for the United States, and when he returns to Calcutta to find a bride, he marries Ashima. This changes both their lives, and their initial transition to marriage in Cambridge isn’t always an easy one. But Ashima begins to feel, over the course of many years, that Cambridge is her home.
The Gangulis are a family unit that grows and matures over time. Although Ashima occasionally longs for life in Calcutta, she realizes she has made a new life, a new home for herself and her family in the United States. In a sense, her own desires, for love and fulfillment and companionship, never change. But the context, and the location, in which these desires are fulfilled does.
At first, it appears that The Namesake is a novel “about” the Bengali-American experience. Of course, Ashima and Ashoke feel out of place when they move to Cambridge. And Ashima feels again out of place when the family relocates to the suburbs of Boston, just as Ashima was becoming accustomed to her Cambridge neighborhood. But, by the end of the novel, it becomes clear that Lahiri’s point is much larger. It is not that Bengalis experience a feeling of “outsider-ness” when they come to America. It is that America is a country of “being outside,” of different groups and communities, some overlapping, others quite removed from one another.
This theme is born out in Gogol’s different romantic relationships. With Maxine, Gogol feels that the Ratliff family is fundamentally different from his own, that he does not understand their “city” lifestyle. This causes Gogol to enjoy it, to cherish it, especially the time they spend in the woods of New Hampshire. This, in contrast to Moushumi, with whom Gogol shares a great many cultural ties. But Moushumi longs for a foreign life that does not, ultimately, include Gogol. Despite their Bengali-American heritage, Moushumi grow apart, become foreign to one another, because Moushumi longs for a different set of experiences, and for a different kind of relationship.
As its title indicates, The Namesake is a novel of identities. Gogol grows up perplexed by his pet name. He feels it is not his own, and it is not until college, after he has legally changed it to Nikhil, that his father tells him the story that lies behind it. Gogol realizes that it is one thing to change one’s name officially, but another thing to become a different person. Gogol tries on different identities at different stages of his life: in college, with Ruth, after college, with Maxine, and in his marriage to Moushumi.
Read more about immigrant identity in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club.
Moushumi, too, is wrapped up in an identity that is “French,” continental, and intellectual. The identity she forms with Gogol, that of husband and wife, chafes with her, and she seeks to abandon it. In contrast, Ashima and Ashoke grow closer together as time goes on. It is only when Ashoke dies suddenly that Ashima begins to learn a new identity, that of a widow, albeit one surrounded by a loving and supportive family.