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0 4 GOGOL S NAMESAKE IDENTITY AND RELATIONSHIPS, in a mobile society like modern America unfortunately the relation. ships 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 mate. rial 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 com. mon with the bright handsome conforming Gogol Ganguli of Lahiri s. novel or this fantastic grotesque and very Russian nineteenth cen. tury short story with the seemingly realistic novel about a twentieth. century Indian American s search for an identity in American society. Nevertheless The Overcoat is about identity among other things. The protagonist s name Akaky Akakyevitch suggests a contradictory. identity in itself being a saint s name and yet sounding like a Russian. baby talk word for feces and of course the name is also simply a. repetition of his father s name Akaky is a non entity A scrivener he. delights in copying out other people s writing and yet is strangely. unable and unwilling to try to write anything of his own or even to. change a word in the original text when he is specifically asked to As. a text he isn t anyone he is simply copies of what is written by others. But this copying is bliss His very lack of identity is the source of his. happiness This changes when is obliged to buy a new overcoat a. costly overcoat and becomes another person Or rather he becomes. his overcoat He and his new overcoat are even invited to a party in its. honor by the assistant head clerk of his department He becomes a. new man noticing women for instance when before he would forget. where he was while crossing the street As he is coming back from. this uncharacteristic outing his overcoat is stolen When he reports. the loss to a local dignitary on his co workers advice no idea is his. own he is bullied and insulted for his temerity in approaching such. an important person Tellingly the Very Important Person demands. Do you realize sir who you are talking to Gogol 263 as if he. didn t know who he was himself without its being reconfirmed by. other s fear of him Exposed to the cold once again the overcoatless. Akaky then catches a fever and dies but this is not the end of the. story Shortly after Akaky s death a living corpse who looks like. Akaky begins haunting the same square in which Akaky was robbed. but this time as a stealer of overcoats rather than as a victim One of. ATENEA Vol XXVll Num 1 junio 2007,JUDITH CAESAR 105. this Akaky s victims is the same Very Important Person who bullied. him who had been mildly regretting his harshness and who is now. frightened into real repentance The last we hear of Akaky and his. ghost is when a policeman sees a burly man whom he takes to be. the ghostly overcoat thief accosts him and finds instead a man who. is clearly not Akaky but may be the original thief who robbed him. It s a strange story suggesting very non American ideas about. identity and the undesirability of having a fixed identity The overcoat. that Akaky buys at such cost seems to be both the material self and. the social self both of which he previously lacked and which he. then mistakes for who he is Vladimir Nabokov even suggests that. for Akaky the coat is like a mistress or a wife some one thing that. defines him as a normal member of society and yet paradoxically. causes him to lose his essential self One can read the story as a. kind of parable about identity theft and shifting identities in which. Akaky goes from being no one to being an overcoat to being a. ghost and finally to being perhaps a version of the very person. who robbed him or at least into something that can be mistaken for. him Charles Bernheimer has suggested that the story reflects Nikolai. Gogol s own horror of having a fixed identity One of the reasons. that Gogol was unable to finish Dead Souis Bernheimer says was. that for Gogol to write The Book would be equivalent to a fixing of. his personality an act of definition that would subject his secret soul. to understanding to penetration and violation by the other 54. Richard Moore suggests as well that Akaky s copying is parallel to. Gogol s own writing in which he assumes a series of voices There. is a way in which Akaky then is a version of his creator Moreover. the ending is deliberately ambiguous so as not to impose a meaning. an identity on the story itself The true protection seems to lie in not. being known not being knowable and yet some kind of outward. identity is necessary too, The Overcoat is a meditation on identity and loss but exactly. what it is saying about these abstractions is ambiguous because. the story is clothed in language and structured to evoke meanings. and evade them at the same time The meaning of the story is not. just in the plot in fact Vladimir Nabokov suggests that to the extent. that the story has a meaning the style not the plot conveys it The. story combines voices and tones and levels of reality Nabokov says. Gogol s art discloses that parallel lines not only meet but they can. wiggle and get most extravagantly entangled just as two pillars re. flected in water in the most wobbly contortions if the necessary ripple. is there 58 Multiple contradictory realities and identities exist as. once Like a Zen paradox the story does not have a fixed meaning. Vol XXVII Num 1 junio 2007 ATENEA,106 GOGOL S NAMESAKE IDENTITY AND RELATIONSHIPS. but serves rather to create a space in which the reader can experience. his own private epiphany, It is this ambiguity that draws Ashoke Ganguli Gogol Ganguli s.
father to the story in the first place As he reads the story on the al. most fatal train ride that becomes a turning point in his life Ashoke. thinks Just as Akaky s ghost haunted the final pages so did it haunt. a place deep in Ashoke s soul shedding light on all that was irrational. that was inevitable about the world Lahiri 14 Lahiri does not tell us. any more than this about what exactly it is that he understands about. the irrational and the inevitable because she like Gogol is working. to evoke meanings rather than convey them But perhaps one thing. that Ashoke responds to in the story is the sense that both reality. and identity are multiple existing on many planes at the same time. Life is not a simple rational sequential experience Ashoke gains. some unarticulated knowledge from the story that enables him to. be many people at once and accept the contradictions of his life He. himself is both the dutiful son who returns to India every year to see. his extended family and the man who left this hurt and bewildered. family behind to begin a life in another country both a Bengali and the. father of two Americans both the respected Professor Ganguli and. the patronized foreigner both Ashoke his good name and Mithu his. pet name His world is not just India and America but the Europe of. the authors he reads his time both the twentieth and the nineteenth. centuries A person is many people just as Akaky is all of the docu. ments he copies and no one in himself For Gogol Ganguli however. the several identities that he takes on in the course of the novel are a. source of pain perhaps in part because he passively accepts them. one after the other often conjoined to a relationship with a woman. apparently confusing a series of material and social selves for who he. is Moreover because these outer selves are sequential rather than. simultaneous they provide him with no sense of continuity which. is part of their function in the lives of more contented and secure. And as in Nikolai Gogol s short story the meaning of Lahiri s novel. seems to lie not so much in the plotline as in the style It is a type of. realism that assumes that to show reality one must abandoned the. tight causal plot of realism to show the randomness and irrationality. of the events that define the characters lives In addition the present. tense prose which at first may seem to be merely trendy and irritating. also creates the effect of suppressing the shared past that connects. writer and reader as Ursula Le Guin has observed with some asperity. about present tense prose in general 74 In this novel however the. effect seems deliberate as the characters are indeed cut off from their. ATENEA Vol XXVll Num 1 junio 2007,JUDITH CAESAR 0 7. pasts by physical distance in the case of Ashoke and Ashima or. by the inability to understand the significance of the past in the case. of Gogol Ganguli and his wife Moushimi Thus it seems appropriate. that the readers are cut off from this past as well. Lahiri s dispassionate elusive style is one of the many items to. come out of Gogol s overcoat From him through Vladimir Nabokov. and the modernists she has taken the idea that the style is the mean. ing not merely the means of conveying it The way in which she writes. also comes through a tradition of American writers as well particularly. Hemingway and Raymond Carver who acutely observe the details of. physical reality as a way of implying the characters inner struggles. Big Two Hearted River and Cathedral for example Yet this style. is blended with Gogol to create a hybrid entity Russian American. and Indian through which Lahiri creates vivid characters whose. identities are nonetheless unknowable, Lahiri layers on detail after detail until we can see the last eyelet in. Ashoke s shoes But something essential is always left out We learn. the names of all the people who attend Ashima s parties We don t. know what Ashima or Ashoke like about these friends or what makes. them more than names We know that the first girl Gogol has sex with. was wearing a plaid woolen skirt and combat boots and mustard. tights 105 but we don t know her name or what she looked liked. or even the details of her body that a man would be more likely to. remember than the girl s clothing We know what Gogol reads as a. boy and the names of his boyhood friends but we don t know what. he thinks about these books or likes about these friends We know. what Gogol and his wife Moushumi say when they are chattering at. yuppie dinner parties but not what they say to each other when they. are arguing or when they are expressing their love for each other We. sometimes learn what the characters feel although more often we. are given a catalog of the details of their surroundings which they are. noticing while they are having the feeling And we almost never know. what the characters are thinking about who they are to themselves. as they experience the rush of sounds and sensations that are their. lives Introspection even if it were presented as interior monologue. would suggest that this voice was who the character really was. The effect is both eerie and deliberate and perhaps suggests the. ways in which essential identity the self as a continuous organizing. consciousness is beyond the power of words to describe We can. only know the surface A sense of what lies beyond the surface can. only be evoked and illuminated, The novel is told through the sensibilities of four different char. acters Gogol Ganguli his mother Ashima his father Ashoke and. Vol XXVll Num 1 junio 2007 ATENEA,108 GOGOL S NAMESAKE IDENTITY AND REUVTIONSHIPS. his wife Moushumi all of whom reveal different aspects of the mate. rial world and the personal relationships which are a part of each. character s outer identity Of these people Ashoke alone seems to. have found the balance among the various aspects of self that en. able him to live comfortably in a foreign country which his children. will experience differently than he does He has his family back in. India a network of Bengali friends whom he has known since com. ing to America a house that he has lived in for years and familiar. Indian customs blended with American ones until the blending itself. becomes familiar all of which provide an outer protection for an. inner self The material world of America seems to be a source of. unhappiness to Ashima it is her consciousness not Ashoke s that. frequently notices American habits with distaste Thus throughout. the book she struggles to recover the material and social selves of. her life in India and yet somehow adapt herself to life in the country. to which she has come For both Gogol and Moushumi the process. of finding a way to live comfortably with what seems to them a double. identity two very different outer worlds is even more complex since. like other young Americans they tend to confuse the outer identity. with who they are In part they do this because modern consumer. culture tends to encourage people to view themselves as their mate. rial selves which makes finding a sense of self even more challeng. ing for a person raised among different cultures and subcultures. especially if he concentrates on the question Which am I rather. than realizing that he is both all and none of them. GOGOL S NAMESAKE IDENTITY AND RELATIONSHIPS IN JHUMPA LAHIRI S THE NAMESAKE Judith Caesar 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

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