The Quest for Identity: Symbolic Intricacies

January 18, 2021 by Essay Writer

In the novel, The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri uses symbolism to explore the quest for identity, specifically through the protagonist: Gogol Ganguli. One of the first instances Lahiri uses symbolism to explore Gogol’s identity is when she writes about Gogol’s six-month-old rice ceremony, the first external thrust toward his inherited culture. The ceremony itself is meant to be symbolic in that, in the Bengali tradition, it might indicate which traditional career path the child might pursue – perhaps “a landowner, scholar, or businessman.” However, this particular scene in the novel is also literarily symbolic. When prompted with the tray of objects, each symbolizing one of the aforementioned careers, “Gogol frowns,” as he is “forced at six months to confront his destiny,” and “begins to cry.” Such phrases might symbolize Gogol’s dissatisfaction, even from the very infancy of his life, with conforming to a predestined, Bengali future while simultaneously revealing, suggesting, and foreshadowing the internal struggle with identity Gogol will have all throughout the novel as he ventures to find himself.

Another way Lahiri uses symbolism to explore Gogol’s quest for identity is through the revealing account of Gogol’s school trip to a cemetery. Upon Gogol exploring the cemetery, Lahiri makes the point to convey the discrepancies between Gogol and the other children, describing them “looking for their own names,” among the gravestones while Gogol knows “there is no Ganguli here.” This comparison between Gogol and the other children seems to symbolize the idea that Gogol is accepting of the fact that he is not like most children, honing in on his understanding of his identity.

Lahiri also uses the antithetical perspectives of Gogol and his mother to symbolize the shift in self-identity that Gogol undergoes at this particular stage in the novel. Although Gogol is cognizant of his uniqueness, this seems to be a climatic moment of his attitude toward his name. Lahiri describes Gogol taking notice of peculiar names such as “Abijah Craven,” “Anguish Mather,” and “Peregrine Wotton,” and how “he likes these names, likes their oddness, their flamboyance,” thus symbolizing the positive acceptance and appreciation Gogol has for his name. Upon leaving the cemetery, Lahiri depicts Gogol as seemingly dignified with his rubbings, and thus himself, through the description of “his rubbings rolled up carefully like parchment in his lap.”

“At home, his mother is horrified,” by the rubbings Gogol presents to her, perhaps symbolizing the act of Gogol proclaiming to his mother his self-acceptance, and despite her negative comments, Gogol “refuses to throw the rubbings away,” because he “is attached to them.” Ashima’s stubbornness and Gogol’s defiance creates an inability for their mentalities to harmonize and is the moment a rift is torn between Gogol and Ashima: the moment his mother becomes his biggest antagonist. The rupture in Gogol and Ashima’s relationship paves the pathway for Gogol to spiral and stray far from his origins, and is thus symbolic as it represents the impetus for Nikhil’s birth as he slowly cracks out of the shell of Gogol.

The entities of Nikhil and Gogol are a heavy thread of symbolism themselves. Most of the novel is shaped around the symbolism of the two names that the protagonist takes on – one representing the identity he has inherited, Gogol, the other representing an identity he has created all on his own, Nikhil. Through Lahiri’s choice of narrator, the reader is granted access into the stream of consciousness of Gogol, thus allowing the reader to grasp the internal discrepancies between Gogol and Nikhil despite their physical uniformity. Prior to Nikhil’s existence, the narrator depicts the hatred Gogol has of his name, and furthermore himself, as “his name is both absurd and obscure, it has nothing to do with who he is, that is neither Indian nor American.” This single quote epitomizes the struggle Gogol faces the duration of the novel.

The narrator also provides the reader keen insight of Gogol’s internal thoughts when describing the toll “his name, an entity shapeless and weightless,” takes on him as it “manages nevertheless to distress him physically, like the scratchy tag of a shirt he has been forced permanently to wear.” By vividly depicting the name in such a way, Lahiri reveals how symbolic the name is by conveying the tangible power an intangible object has. Similarly, Lahiri conveys the contrasting effects that the name Nikhil has on Gogol describing his thoughts as “he wonders if this is how it feels for an obese person to become thin, for a prisoner to walk free.” This description of Gogol’s thoughts again hones in on the idea of the symbolic nature of a name, as the new name of Nikhil causes Gogol to feel like a new person, free from the confinements of his past that have encaged him all of his life. Both descriptions explore how a name has the authority to destroy or empower an individual, and thus the symbolic power each name envelopes.

The various symbolic elements that Lahiri implores throughout The Namesake enliven the pursuit of Gogol’s quest for identity. Whether it a full-fledged account of symbolism such as the scenes of the ceremony and the cemetery or a thread of symbolism such as the names Gogol and Nikhil, each provides an intricate and potent effect to the overall plot of the novel. These symbolic elements illustrate vividly both the apexes and troughs of Gogol’s lifelong sinusoidal quest to seek an identity true to himself.

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