The Reality of Romance (The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri Book Review)
Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake, follows the protagonist, Gogol, through the peaks and valleys of his life. Throughout the story, Lahiri examines the nature of love and marriage by providing an intimate view into Gogol’s romantic relationships, which are seen alongside the enduring, arranged marriage of his parents. The Namesake asserts that one cannot depend on love to fix themselves or their problems.
Gogol’s romantic life and initial identity is grounded in the marriage of his parents, Ashima and Ashoke, whose conception of love is established due to their shared past in India. Their marriage is defined by gender roles and less displayed affection, but also a deep sense of loyalty and companionship, this relationship can be contrasted with Gogol’s romantic experiences. While Gogol has intense, influential, and sexual relationships with three different women over the course of the novel—outside of, and then, briefly, within a marriage—Ashima and Ashoke are one another’s sole romantic partners in life, as evidenced by the first meeting between them, which was arranged by Ashima’s family.
This comparison of the two generations reflects a difference between the two about the concept of married life. Gogol uses love as another means of rebelling against his past and trying to form his own identity, and the women he is drawn to at different points in his life match his attitude toward that past. For him, love is something to be found independently. For Ashima and Ashoke, marriage was not an exercise in independence or forming identity, but was instead another step in the traditional path of their culture, and one that led toward companionship and the growth of a family.
Although there is a traditional separation between Ashima and Ashoke that may appear as distance to an American reader—as in the moment of Gogol’s birth, when Ashoke waits outside the room while Ashima delivers his son—the intimacy between the two of them is clear from the respect and care they take with one another.
In Gogol’s first relationship with Ruth, he seeks to break away from his family’s cultural and romantic expectations of him. He is excited by the prospect of his newfound independence to explore the exhilaration of exploring his sexuality and being with someone who has a polar opposite background from him. However, Ruth and Gogol’s relationship ceases to progress due to Gogol’s inability to be vulnerable with her outside of their sexual relationship. He never “[had the desire to tell his parents about her]. [Nikhil had] no patience for their surprise, their nervousness, their quiet disappointment, their questions about what Ruth’s parents did and whether or not their relationship was serious. As much as [Nikhil] long[ed] to see her, he cannot picture her at the kitchen table on Pemberton Road in her jeans and a bulky sweater politely eating his mother’s food. He cannot imagine being with her in a house where he is still Gogol”(115).
The relationship between Moushumi and Gogol is driven by Moushumi’s desire to conform to a certain image of a modern American. Their need for independence is greater than their sense of loyalty or commitment to a family identity. Their love could not flourish because they were not growing in synchronization.
Gogol’s marriage to Moushumi is a critical turning point for Gogol’s character development because he begins to come to the realization that a relationship will not magically lead him to cultivate security in his identity and individualism. Moushumi and Gogol’s relationship is comfortable at first because of the childhood familiarity of each other. Their relationship goes wrong when reality sets in and Moushumi struggles to effectively communicate her unhappiness within the marriage. The couple begin to truly notice one another’s flaws and the excitement and freshness of the relationship begins to fade. The childhood comfort that initially drew Moushumi and Gogol together once connected the couple, yet Moushumi’s devotion to creating a whole new life breaks that connection. Moushumi strays from her relationship with Gogol because of her dissatisfaction with her own life.
Each woman in Gogol’s romantic life signifies a stage in Gogol’s development. Lahiri is careful in her writing to give her female characters emotional depth of their own. Unlike Gogol, Maxine “has never wished she were anyone other than herself, raised in any other place, in any other way. This in his opinion, is the biggest difference between them”(138). This passage shows that even though Maxine leads an upper class life and Gogol comes from a working class family, he does not believe their difference in wealth is their greatest difference.
Gogol seemingly fails to recognize that Maxine truly loves him, and wishes to know his family’s practices in detail. By contrast, Moushumi, who shares Gogol’s background, wants constantly to leave that make a new, more intellectually “rich” life for herself among her cosmopolitan New York friends. Even in the prime of Moushumi and Gogol’s marriage, Gogol still feels awkward and out of place, signaling a divide between the couple. Through these romantic relationships, Gogol tests out different identities, different ways of relating to himself and his family, over time.
The Namesake forces the reader to truly ponder how one cultivates a healthy, long-lasting marriage, especially in the age of technology and “swiping-right.” In his relationships, we can see Gogol struggles to grapple with the fact that intimacy isn't just sexual; it's emotional as well. It's a mental and physical closeness that allows each of you to let your barriers down, something you may not be able to do with another living soul.
When both partners in a relationship succumb to the rat race and chase after numerous demands of their time on a daily basis, intimacy can easily be lost. Ultimately, Lahiri tries to convey that it is important that one feels capable of defining one’s identity independently, because love pursued as a means of finding stability or escape seemingly fails.