The Symbols Present in Lahiri's the Namesake

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The Symbols Present In Lahiri’s The Namesake

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In Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake, it shows the story of an Indian couple who move to the United States and begin a life to achieve the american dream. After that the story focuses on their first born Gogol who struggles to find his identity with the internal conflict between his American and Bengali life. The author uses many symbols throughout the story to portray this such as books, trains, and names to portray the journey through life, hope, and one’s true identity.

In the beginning of the novel we are introduced to Gogol’s dad, Ashoke, who has a fascination with books. He specifically loves “The Overcoat” by Nikolai Gogol which we find out ended up saving his life in a train crash. During the year he was recovering he spent that time reading books which educated him and gave him the opportunity to attend MIT. The books in this scenario provided hope for Ashoke because had it not been for him reading on the train he would have been dead. He got a second chance at life because of “The Overcoat”. Also, while he was in recovery he used books to better himself and start a brand new life in America and this provides hope that the american dream is still alive. “He was born twice in India and then a third time in America” (Lahiri 21). Later on in the story Gogol is gifted “The Overcoat” by his father on his 14th birthday and at that time Gogol doesn’t understand the book’s purpose nor does he know that the author’s name inspired his dad to name him Nikhil Gogol. However, after following the death of his dad and divorce from his wife Gogol returns home to his room to find the book. “For Gogol Ganguli it says… the letters rising gradually, optimistically” (Lahiri 288). We can tell by the way the letters are described that it gives Gogol a new sense of hope especially since he found something that was meaningful to his dad. These books gave hope to both the Ganguli men by starting a new life for Ashoke and gave Gogol the hope he needed to pick himself back up and pursue his own american dream. In most stories books are representative of knowledge. However, in The Namesake the only time a character gains knowledge is when Ashoke uses it to educate himself and attends MIT. Even then one could argue that it was still the hope that he found from being saved in the train crash that led him to the opportunity of gaining knowledge and moving to America.

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One of the biggest symbols in this story are the multiple trains that show up. These trains represent the journey that each character goes through and shows the character’s development throughout the story. The first major event that took place on the train was Ashoke’s train crash. What would have been a tragic day turned into a lesson for Ashoke. By the end of that train ride he realized that life is too short and he should take the risk to venture off to America. “Ashoke began to envision another sort of future” (Lahiri 20). Ashoke’s character changed just within one train ride and this changed the whole way he lived his life. For Ashima we also see her character change also from one train ride. Since she arrived in Cambridge, she didn't like America. But, her perception changed when she left her shopping bags on the train one day and a passenger called out to her and reminded her. She realizes that in Calcutta this never would have happened and someone would have just stolen her bags. “Somehow this small miracle causes Ashima to feel connected to Cambridge in a way she has not previously thought possible” (Lahiri 43). This changed her previous perspective on americans and helped her adapt more to her foreign environment. Ashima and Ashoke both had train rides that changed their outlook on a new life and the trains symbolize this because trains only go forwards and both Ashima and Ashoke are moving forward in embracing a new life. This particular symbol aligns with the way trains are normally symbolized in novels and Lahiri probably meant for this to happen because a lot of life changing events happen for Gogol on trains. The first instance of this is when Gogol encounters Ruth for the first time. The relationship between him and Ruth is the first sign of Gogol rebelling and furthering himself from his culture. It was this first relationship that set off Gogol’s chain of relationships with American women and eventually he learns that he can’t escape his cultural roots. The following dramatic event on the train occurs when Gogol was coming home for Thanksgiving but the train was delayed because of a suicide. Gogol tells his father about it and his dad tells him about his near death experience on a train and why he named him Gogol. At this moment Gogol feels a sense of understanding with his father which made him regretful for changing his name to Nikhil. Lahiri describes him as, “feeling awkward and oddly ashamed” (Lahiri 124). This event finally helped Gogol start to piece his identity. Near the end of the novel we learn that Gogol learned of Moushumi’s affair on a train as well. This experience helps Gogol realize what he doesn’t want in a relationship or a partner. In Gogol’s case the train rides seem to symbolize his journey through life. People entered and left his life just as people get on and off different stops on a train. But by the end of one’s train ride you reach your destination and it’s fair to say that Gogol has come to peace with his identity and has figured what he wants in a relationship.

The last symbol that shows up a lot in this novel is the names of the characters. In The Namesake, a name is one’s identity; it reveals a character’s true colors. For example, Maxine’s name means the greatest or maximum. Maxine herself represents the epitome of an American woman: smart, sophisticated, and sexually carefree. Her name correlates perfectly with her identity. This applies for Moushumi as well because her name means “a damp south westerly breeze” (Lahiri 240). The meaning of her name conveys a feeling of a humid day and then a nice breeze rolls through. This name also identifies with Moushumi because she tends to breeze in an out of relationships as she desires. She became engaged and then broke it off. Then she started to see a lot of men and became the girl she never imagined she would become. “She allowed the men to buy her drinks, dinners, later to take her in taxis to their apartments” (Lahiri 215). Then she breezes into a marriage after knowing Gogol for one year and then breezes into another relationship while she’s still married. It seems that her name is highly representative of her inability to stay in a committed relationship. Names in novels typically symbolize the personality of the character and this is true with both Moushumi and Maxine’s name. However with Gogol’s name this isn’t the case. In the short story “The Overcoat” the main character Akaky is content with his life when he begins to question his identity. In order to better himself he saves up money to buy a fancy new overcoat and this gets him a whole lot of attention. Gogol is the same way between his 2 names. When he enters kindergarten he is satisfied with the name Gogol. Then he becomes unhappy with the name and as soon as he is old enough he changes his name to Nikhil. Nikhil is Gogol’s new overcoat. He uses it to make himself “better” which in his mind means more American. The Gogol “overcoat” became a burden to him because it prevented him from matching his expectations and from becoming the version of himself that he wanted to be. His new name Nikhil however means encompassing all; he who is entire. This shows that with this name Nikhil can be the American he dreamed of without his name holding him back. His names specifically symbolize his transition into adulthood because he’s leaving his childhood name behind which is usually the opposite of what names symbolize. Names represent who you are as a person at your core, but I think Lahiri made a point in Gogol changing his names because it symbolizes that he does not know his true identity yet and he still has growing to do as an individual.

This book proves that the main characters have gone through significant changes and have struggled to find things like their identity, who and what they are comfortable with, and dealing with loss and homesickness.

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