The very title of the novel “The Namesake” by Jhumpa Lahiri immediately makes us realize that the name of the protagonist will have special significance to his life and to the plot of the story.
Gogol was called after an outstanding Russian writer due to a sequence of accidents. They started with the loss of his great-grandmother’s letter containing the actual name that should have been given to him. It made his parents register their son under a pet name instead of a good name, although this practice was unheard of for Bengali. Nikolai Gogol was chosen as a namesake not only because he was Ashoke’s favorite writer, but also because the protagonist’s father thought the book of this author had saved his life in the train accident. This was a very peculiar name as it was neither Indian, nor American, and not even Russian, because in Russian Gogol is actually a surname.
The protagonist has a very difficult relationship with his name. In his early childhood, he cherishes it, refusing to be called by a new good name at school and standing up to his parents to protect the pet name. He proudly signs “Gogol G.” on all his works. But later, as a teenager, he becomes ashamed of his name and starts detesting it. Gogol thinks that this name is too weird and makes him stand out too much. He dislikes the attention it always attracts and the fact people ask him what the name means in Bengali. On one hand, his attitude towards his name at this stage represents the typical worries of a teenager: the fear not to fit in and the opposition toward parents’ authority, values, and their way of life. On the other hand, there is a special circumstance of being an Indian in Gogol’s case, so his worry that he might not fit in American society is not groundless. As the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that the protagonist’s attitude towards his name represents his coming of age and his acceptance of his Indian roots. In high school Gogol uses the nickname Nikhil that was supposed to be his good name when he attends parties, drinks alcohol or becomes romantically involved with girls. The new name can be considered a mask behind which he hides to feel more confident. But at the same time it may be his way of saying that he enters an adult life now and is no longer a person he used to be. When in college, Gogol decides to officially change his name to Nikhil. This determination symbolizes his newly acquired independence, but also his wish to distance himself from his family and his Indian roots. No wonder he chooses the name Nikhil that can be shortened to a very American name Nick. For quite some time Gogol continues to reject his origins and to act aloof towards his family. But as he grows older and wiser, he changes his attitude and starts appreciating his past, all the special people in his life, and both cultures that shaped his identity. This change of mind reflects on his attitude towards his name as well. In the end of the novel Gogol feels partially ashamed that he rejected the name his father gave him. He is also sad because he understands he will rarely hear the name Gogol in future as few people are left to know him by this name.
In the acknowledgements to the novel, Jhumpa Lahiri thanks Vladimir Nabokov and Henri Troyat who wrote biographies of Nikolai Gogol, so it becomes obvious that she studied the life of this writer before giving the protagonist such a name, and we can see that there really are certain similarities in the lives of the Russian writer and Gogol from “The Namesake”. Both men changed their names. Their fathers died when they were young. Both Nikolai Gogol and Gogol Ganghuli were creative and troubled, desperately trying to fit in. But unlike the very depressive end of the Russian writer’s biography, the story of Gogol gives us hope that one can find piece with him/herself, even if it takes a lot of time.