Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake (2003) — Novel 

Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake (2003)

Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake (2003) is a multicultural novel that tells the story of two generations of a fictional Indian/Bengali family that settled successfully in the United States in New England. Written by an ethnically Indian/Bengali woman who grew up in and lives in the United States, the novel provides a distinctly Indian/Bengali perspective on the migrant experience that can be seen as specifically representing the Indian/Bengali migrant experience or it can be generalised to represent the migrant experience of many people from diverse ethnic backgrounds who settle in an English-speaking Western country where they are not of the same race or ethnicity as the mainstream population.

In addition, the novel celebrates the migrants for their courage in forging a new life in a foreign land.  In this context, the novel presents a migrant perspective on the way migrants negotiate ethnic and cultural differences between their original culture and that of the host nation.

The novel features a close examination of the differences between first and second-generation migrants, noting that first-generation migrants seek to preserve as much of their original ethnic culture as possible yet gradually make some compromises, partly due to inescapable pressures coming from the institutions with which they have to deal (like a hospital or school bureaucracy), but mostly due to the influence of their American-born children.  Meanwhile, the second-generation migrants feel more at home in the country of their birth than their parents do and they naturally adopt many dimensions of the American culture as their own and they may even rebel against some of the ethnic cultural traits of their parents by adopting different American ways of living and closer relationships with Americans who are not of their own race or ethnicity.

The process of acculturation or assimilation is closely studied and change, or a lack of change, is noted in five areas: adopting tastes in American/Western food or maintaining ethnic food; adopting American styles of dress and hair or maintaining ethnic styles; acquiring an American accent and using English to speak both at home and elsewhere or continuing to speak English with an accent and speak Bengali at home; adopting American etiquette and cultural practices or maintaining ethnic standards of behaviour and cultural practices; making friends and romantic relationships with Americans and mixing widely with people from many backgrounds or preferring the company of people from your own ethnic group and preserving romance or marriage exclusively for people from one’s own ethnic group.

Meanwhile, while examining the processes of acculturation and assimilation, shifts in the conceptualisation of one’s identity, and internal conflicts about identity, are given considerable attention.  The first-generation migrants acculturate slowly and feel comfortable maintaining their Indian/Bengali identity with a few compromises. Nevertheless, they may feel lonely and isolated because of their different identity and culture if they have no fellow nationals with whom to associate.   However the novel has much more to say about the internal conflicts regarding identity of the second-generation migrants, notably the central character Gogol, who is profoundly conflicted about who he is and he vacillates between rebelling against his Indian/Bengali identity and heritage and embracing it.

The title, The Namesake, refers to Gogol’s problems regarding his unusual and much disliked name, which are entangled with his problems in determining his identity as a second-generation migrant.  His predicament stems both from the problems of migrants negotiating cultural differences and the differences between first and second-generation migrants, so his issues regarding his name are integral to the major concerns of this multicultural novel

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.)

Subject: The Namesake meaning, The Namesake themes, The Namesake analysis, The Namesake notes

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Dr Mark Lopez, English Tutor, Melbourne, Australia

Melbourne private tutoring business.