[(essay date June 2007) In the following essay, Caesar scrutinizes the significance of the numerous allusions to the writer Nikolai V. Gogol in The Namesake.]
Allusions to Nikolai V. Gogol and his short story "The Overcoat" permeate Jhumpa Lahiri's novel The Namesake, beginning with Gogol's being the name the protagonist is called through most of the book. Yet few of the reviewers of the novel mentioned Nikolai Gogol at all in their discussions of the novel, except to describe the protagonist Gogol's loathing of his name, or to quote without comment or explanation Dostoevski's famous line, "We all came out of Gogol's Overcoat." So far, no one has looked beyond the surfaces to examine the significance of the allusions to Gogol that are so much a part of the fabric of Lahiri's novel.
Without the references to Nikolai Gogol, it is easy to read the novel as simply another account of the difficulties of a first-generation American trying to "find himself," nicely written, but not particularly thought-provoking. It may seem merely unexamined documentation of the confusion of its main character, a confusion which itself has become a bit of a cliché. The conventional wisdom about first generation Asian Americans is that an awareness of two cultures is a kind of curse which makes them unable to understand who they "really" are, as if identity were nothing more than cultural identification. Read with an understanding of the significance of the Gogol story, however, the novel is much more clearly an elucidation of the causes and meaning of that confusion, which comes not only from having a multiple cultural identity, but from some of the ways in which people in modern American society tend to view identity. In particular, the allusions to Gogol, along with the motif of naming and Lahiri's own unique literary style, seem to suggest that some of the characters' unnecessary unhappiness arises from the tendency to identify oneself with the aspects of selfhood that William James called the material self, one's surroundings, clothing, food, and possessions, and the social self, the loves and friendships that surround us. Furthermore, in a mobile society like modern America, unfortunately, the relationships of the social self are apt to be transitory, which seems to be part of the protagonist's problems in The Namesake. In addition, although James includes the immediate family as part of the material self, the protagonist does not seem to realize the extent to which this is true until too late, which is also not uncommon. In any case, what is often left underdeveloped is the essential self, the organizing consciousness that strives to understand the meaning and patterns of the events of one's life in this world, that searches for continuity, or that seeks a way to make peace with the irrational.
At first it seems that neither the hapless Akaky Akakyvitch of Gogol's story nor his eccentric creator can have anything in common with the bright, handsome, conforming Gogol Ganguli of Lahiri's novel, or this fantastic, grotesque,...