Sunday, June 7, 2009

All Roads Lead to Identity

William Shakespeare once wrote, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; each man in his time plays many parts." Indeed, the lives we lead seem to mirror those of actors upon a stage. Bound to a script of space and time, though the pages are not that which we read but that which we compose and direct from from cradle to grave, we live and die, making our entrance at birth, inexperienced and untrained in the ways of the world, and following nature's cue, we exit in death as connoisseurs of countless roles. We are not, however, mere puppets on a string, willed by an omnipotent force. To deny our hand in the creation of what we once were, what we have become, and what we will be, whether one is a student of religion or that of science, is to refute all advancement in the philosophy of modern psychology and to relinquish all responsibility for our actions.

Of course, it is not solely the choices of an individual that determines his or her identity. In the course of a lifetime, one will undoubtedly face hardships as well as successes that continually shape the evolution of that person. This goes to say that our experiences and the relationships we form with those around us are crucial in defining a concept of self. Human beings are creatures of purpose. Unlike our animal cousins we do not simply rely upon instinct to direct us. On the contrary, we feel it is necessary to construct a reason for existence. The formation of identity is what lends us this sense of purpose and direction. Over time, as we continue to grow and evolve both physically and mentally, as we are increasingly immersed deeper into all that life has to offer, our concept of self is subject to change.

Since the emergence of literature in early agrarian societies, the formation of identity has been the central subject of exploration in countless literary works. One such work entitled, The Namesake, written by Indian-American author, Jhumpa Lahiri, grapples with the formation of identity as experience through the eyes of an immigrant couple and their American-born son. On the heels of an arranged marriage, Calcutta natives, Ashima and Ashoke, depart from their Indian homeland and embark upon a new life in America. Settling in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Ashoke studies towards a doctoral degree in engineering at MIT, Ashima and Ashoke struggle with a sense of divided loyalties that is inherent within the imigrant experience. Though they possess a longing to assimilate into American culture, the desire to honor tradition still pulls at their heartstrings.

The birth of their first child, a son to whom his father Ashoke has bestowed the name Gogol, results in both the joy that new life brings and the uncertainty that understandbly comes with the prospect of raising a child in a foreign land virtually unknown to the parents and in the absence of the love and support of their families. The name these novice parents give to their infant son possesses great meaning for Ashoke, but as Gogol grows older, his name becomes a perpetual source of embarrassment throughout his adolescence and into early adulthood. Gogol views his name as being obscure and absurd for it is neither American nor Indian, but of all things, Russian. Before entering college, Gogol decides to legally change his name and it is not until years later that his father reveals to Gogol the true significance of his name.

The story is, in large part, centered upon Gogol's life and his search for identity, though hardly marginalized are the stories of his parents and their own struggles in defining a concept of self. Lahiri not only speaks to the formation of identity as it pertains to the immigrant experience but to the formation of identity as it pertains to the human experience as a whole. By calling upon the power of symbolism, metaphor and plot structure, Lahiri paints an eloquent portrayal of the death of former identities and the birth of new identities as they pertain to both the immigrant experience and the human experience.

Lahiri's use of symbolism to portray the death of former identities and the birth of new identities is revealed to readers in several forms throughout the novel. Trains, typically regarded simply as being means of transportation from one physical place to the next, become vehicles of change as they usher characters between different cultures and into new stages of life. As a teenager, on route to visit his ailing grandfather in Jamshedpur, Gogol's father, Ashoke, is nearly killed in a train wreck that leaves him paralyzed for over a year thereafter. Mere hours prior to the crash, Ashoke shares words with an older Bengali man named Ghosh who urges him to leave India. At the time, Ashoke has no desire to leave his home and responds saying that his teachers have suggested such a course of action on several occasions but that he has an obligation to his parents and younger siblings. As he lies in bed recovering from his injuries, immobile for over a year, he recalls the prophetic words of the man whom he had met on the train that fateful night and resolves not only to walk once again, but to walk away "as far as he could from the place in which he was born and in which he nearly died" (Lahiri 20). Upon graduating from college, Ashoke applies to continue his studies abroad, much to the dismay of his parents and younger siblings.

Prior to his brush with death, Ashoke harbors no intentions of leaving India. Having nearly lost his life and having been paralyzed for over a year, Ashoke has experienced the fragility of life firsthand. Though he has not perished in the literal sense, the train wreck marks the death of his former identity as a boy bound to a sense of duty to his family and the birth of his new identity as a man who will chart for himself a course to explore the world beyond his homeland.

Like his father, Gogol, too, experiences a shift in identity that is influenced by his experience on a train. On the Thanksgiving of his senior year of college, Gogol takes a train to Boston to visit with his family. Midway through the trip, the train comes to an abrupt stop and is delayed for over an hour. Gogol later discovers that a suicide had been committed; a person had jumped onto the tracks. The delay causes him to miss his commute rail connection and when he finally arrives in the suburbs, his fathe has been waiting for hours, worried that Gogol has been injured in an accident. When they arrive back home, Ashoke is compelled, in light of the recent event, to reveal to Gogol the significance of his name.

Gogol learns that rescuers were able to pull his father from the wreckage of the train crash in India because they had seen Ashoke's book of Nikolai Gogol's short stories in their lantern light. Taken aback by this newly acquired knowledge, Gogol feels as though his father is a stranger with a secret past, that he has been lied to all these years. "I've always meant for you to know, Gogol" his father says. Now, hearing his father refer to him by his pet name, it has acquired a new meaning. "And suddenly the sound of his pet name, uttered by his father as he has been accustomed to hearing it all his life, means something completely new, bound up with a catastrophe he has unwittingly embodied for years" (Lahiri 124). Gogol asks his father if he reminds him of that night. Ashoke responds saying that Gogol reminds him of everything that followed, that it was in celebration of life that he named him so.

Throughout his adolescence, Gogol's name was a perpetual source of embarrassment. After learning about the tragic life and death of his namesake in high school, Gogol came to detest his name even more. Having discovered the true meaning of his name and the significance it possesses in connection to his father's life, Gogol has, in a sense, formed a new indentity for his name no longer symbolizes death, but rebirth and life. Though Gogol's shift in identity is not directly caused by the suicide on the train, it is the delay that causes Ashoke to fear for his son's safety, this compelling him to reveal to his son the true nature of his name. Lahiri's use of trains is symbolic of life. As with the progression of time, trains do not travel in reverse but in a forward unwavering motion. When outside forces work against the train, only then are they kept from moving or caused to derail, much like outside forces affect and redirect us as people on our life path. It is by trains themselves that characters experience change and by their passage on trains that they are brought to places in their life where change occurs.

Lahiri also uses the symbol of home to portray the death of former identities and the birth of new identities. When examined closely, the concept of home develops a complexity the eludes narrow definition. For some, home is an individual's physical dwelling, whether it is an apartment, a condominium, a two-story colonial or a greek revival. As Americans, we pride ourselves on the aesthetics of our homes. We associate our homes with economical success and power, with the American dream. For immigrants attempting to assimilate into American culture, the ownership of a home and a piece of land is essential in this process. Lahiri writes, "In the end they decide on a shingled two-story colonial in a recently built development, a house previously owned by no one, erected on a quarter acre of land. This is the small patch of America to which they lay claim" (Lahiri 51). Ashima and Ashoke have purchased their first home. More importantly, they have made this purchase as Americans. In a literal sense, they have literally made claim to a home and a parcel of land. On a symbolic level, by purchasing the typical American colonial home and a plot of land, they have further assimilated into American culture, adopting a small piece of the American ideal.

The symbol of home emerges once again near the novel's end as Ashima prepares to sell the Ganguli family home on Pemberton Road. The Ganguli children have long since grown up and are no longer living at home. Ashoke has passed away and Ashima does not wish to live by herself. She has decided to live for six months out of the year with relatives in India and for the other six months she will return to America, dividing her time between her children and her Bengali friends. Lahiri writes, "True to the meaning of her name, she will be without borders, without a home of her own, a resident of everywhere and nowhere" (Lahiri 276).

Lahiri uses the absence of a home to portray a shift in Ashima's identity. Her home was symbolic of her assimilation into American culture. It was in her home on Pemberton Road that she raised her children and it is where she came to know and love her husband. To leave her home is to leave behind a part of who she is. As she travels back and forth from India to America, she will once again be caught between two worlds, as she had been when she and Ashoke first settled in Cambridge many years ago.

When developing a particular theme, an author uses tools of comparison in order to give a tangible form to abstract concepts. Metaphor is a powerful tool of comparison that Lahiri uses to portray the loss and formation of identity. Before entering college, Gogol decides to legally change his name. When presented with the idea, his mother and father are at once opposed to such a suggestion. In the end, Ashoke gives in to his son's wishes and signs the form of consent. In describing Ashoke's sentiments towards Gogol's wishe to change his name, Lahiri writes the following; "He'd brought the form to his father who glanced at it only briefly before signing his consent, with the same resignation with which he signed a check or a credit card receipt, eyebrows slightly raised over his glasses, inwardly calculating the loss" (Lahiri 100). By comparing the loss Ashoke feels in regards to Gogol's change of name to the loss he feels when signing for a monetary deduction, Lahiri has given shape to an otherwise abstract concept.

Lahiri calls upon the power of metaphor once again in the final scene of the novel when Gogol stumbles upon a book of Nikolai Gogol's short stories that had been given to him by his father as a birthday gift years before. It is the Ganguli's final night in their home on Pemberton Road and Ashima organizes one last Christmas party for her many Bengali friends. She asks Gogol to fetch his father's camera so that he may take pictures of their last night together in their home of twenty seven years. While searching for a new roll of film and a fresh battery, Gogol stumbles upon the book of Nikolai Gogol's short stories. Lahiri writes, "Until moments ago it was destined to disappear from his life altogether, but he has salvaged it by chance, as his father was pulled from a crushed train forty years ago" (Lahiri 290). Recalling Ashoke's brush with death on the train ride to visit his grandfather, it was that defining moment that had propelled Ashoke to leave his home in search of an education abroad. It was the train crash that opened Ashoke's eyes to the fragility of life thus transforming his very identity. In a sense, Gogol has salvaged his former identity for it was because of that book that he acquired this name. Though it is a name that had haunted him until this point, we see Gogol in this final scene coming to terms with his past.

The sequence in which events are described or the plot stucture of a literary work is yet another tool authors will use when developing a particular theme. Lahiri uses plot structure to develop Gogol's search for identity as it applies to the relationships he forms with women throughout the novel. Gogol's relationships with women closely parallel his movement away from and back towards his Bengali roots. While working as a corporate architect in New York City, Gogol meets Maxine, a young blue blood who has recently returned home to live with her parents after a failed courtship. Within a day of their meeting, Gogol is invited to Maxine's parent's home for dinner. There, he indulges in exquisite cuisine and superficial pleasantries. In describing Gogol's immersion into Maxine's world, Lahiri writes the following:

From the very beginning he feels effortlessly incorporated into their lives. It is a different brand of hospitality from what he is used to; for though the Ratcliffs are generous, they are people who do not go out of their way to accomodate others, assured, in his case correctly, that their way of life will appeal to him. (Lahiri 136)

Gogol is attracted to the lifestyle Maxine and her parents lead for he does not experience the same sense of obligation and responsibility as he does with his own family. As observed by Christopher Ruddy, "Maxine and her parents, in particular, embody the cultured ease and self-absorption that is so different from his parents' practicality and sense of duty" (Rudy 18). Lahiri uses Gogol's relationship with Maxine to develop his search for an identity that is separate and detached from the world in which his family lives.

Following the death of his father, Gogol begins to gravitate back towards his Indian roots. Gogol sees his relationship with Maxine as a betrayal of his family for it was in rejection of his family and his Indian heritage that he had sought to incorporate himself into Maxine's life. Within months of his father's passing, Gogol steps out of Maxine's life for good. At the suggestion of his mother, Gogol begins to see a Bengali woman by the name of Moushumi, a family friend whom until this point has remained nothing more than a footnote in Gogol's past. Lahiri writes, "He struggles but fails to recall her presence at Pemberton Road; still, he is secretly pleased that she has seen those rooms, tasted his mother's cooking, washed her hands in the bathroom, however long ago" (Lahiri 200). It is Moushumi's familiarity that has drawn Gogol to her. Initially, Gogol wished to separate himself from his Indian heritage and this was reflected in his relationship with Maxine. The relationship Gogol begins with Moushumi signifies his movement back towards his family and his Indian roots.

The search for identity is a path we must all walk for it is this search that gives us purpose and direction to our existence. Throughout life, decisions will be made that both reflect and shape who we are. Outside forces will inevitably cause us to derail, opening our eyes to the fragility of life or guide us to a moment of revelation. Through her use of symbolism, metaphor, and plot structure, Lahiri represents the common struggle of defining a concept of self that we all share in a new and unique light.

Works Cited

Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

Ruddy, Christopher. "Strangers on a Train." Commonwealth 130.22 (2003): 18-20. Academic Search Premier. April 2006.

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All Roads Lead to Identity by Joshua Alan Blodgett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.
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