Analysis of The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
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The Namesake & Social Scripts
Problems of identity are a central concern in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. While identity issues play out in a variety of ways in the novel – through the lens of national-cultural identity, within the specifically American crucible of class identity and on the universal level of adolescent-to-adult identity transformation – each of these contexts can be assessed in terms of social scripts.
Social scripts, also known as behavioral scripts, are sets of expectations that are applicable in specific situations. Scholars, especially in the field of social constructionist psychology, argue that individuals come to understand themselves through these scripts, inferring their own identities, as it were, according to how well they seem to fit the pattern of behavior that describes a given role (male/female, young/old, American/Bengali, etc.). Most social identities we can think of bear an associated “social script” and we can see the central figures of The Namesake, Ashima and Gogol, both battling with challenges that seem to derive from an instability in this particular area. It’s not that they don’t have a social script to guide their behavior and anchor their identity – it’s that they have too many.
For Ashima, a fundamental schism erupts between her life in America and the social and cultural environment that had framed her life experiences in India – and from which she derived a strong sense of meaning. The patterns of behavior that gave order to her life in India are disrupted in America. Set to give birth for the first time, Ashima reflects on this disruption, thinking that, in India, “women go home to their parents to give birth, away from husbands and in-laws and house-hold cares, retreating briefly to childhood when the baby arrives” (4). The language of this reflection is telling in the way that it suggests an unquestioned mode of behavior. This mode of behavior is a social script, one that applies to the specific instance of childbirth but which is also part of a far larger social schema that defines expectations (for motherhood, marriage, femininity, etc.) and thus provides substantial elements of a person’s identity.
In America, the remembered Indian social script is distant, disrupted and unstable. If we look at social scripts as building blocks of identity, we begin to see how Lahiri’s novel is exploring the construction of self and the potential deconstruction of self.
A branch of psychology known as “social construction-ism” addresses the benefits and problems inherent in the construction of identity through social scripts. In Realities and Relationships, psychologist and scholar Ken Gergen argues that identity is considerably dependent on narratives just like the one Ashima reflects on in the hospital, scripts that tell the “story” of how to become a mother. A culture presents the individual with a network of such stories and our identity, in large part, is defined by our sense of where we fit into those stories.
Consciously or unconsciously, we all (mostly) believe that we have an essential self, a basic and stable identity. We may not realize, however, how much this essential identity is dependent on social scripts and narratives built into our culture. Gergen writes:
The traditional view of self-conception presumes a core-identity, an integrally coherent view of self against which one can gauge whether actions are authentic or artificial. As it is said, an individual without a sense of core identity is without direction, without a sense of position or place, lacking the fundamental assurance that he or she is a worthy person. (202)
We might look at Ashima and Gogol as two examples of people who are “lacking the fundamental assurance” of their own authenticity. Ashima experiences a recurrent sense that she is alone and “without a sense of position or place.” The scripts that had oriented her life as a young woman in Calcutta no longer seems to orient her identity in America – at least not in ways that are finally satisfying. Although she tries to continue to utilize those scripts (always wearing a sari, always cooking Indian food), Ashima sees them come into competition with conflicting social scripts (Christmas trees, Christmas parties, giving up on “good names” for her children). In some ways, Ashima comes to live in a world without a center.
The challenge of maintaining an intact set of social scripts is not only seen in Ashima. When, late in the novel, Ashima reflects on Gogol’s own sense of cultural-behavioral scripts, she observes that in regards to a pressure to conform to certain behavioral expectations the “pressure has given way […] to American common sense” (276). Ultimately, Gogol is not pressured to fulfill the same expectations that Ashima brought with her from India and one result of this shift is that he too is faced with issues of an unstable identity.
Gogol grows up in between cultures in various ways. He visits Calcutta numerous times as a child, but always as something of an outsider. When he tries to go jogging in the city, his family sends a servant to follow him in case he gets lost (83). But back in America he is also something of an outsider, he feels, marked by his name more than anything else.
For young adults, there is another side of Gogol’s in-between-ness that should be very familiar because it is not culturally specific. Gogol not only stands in a transitory space between Bengali and American culture, he also transitions from adolescence to adulthood. Along the way, Gogol recognizes many of the options available to him and sees them almost consciously as social scripts. The choices he makes are choices between understood expectations – some of which are specific to his parents’ backgrounds and some of which are specific to the American educational experience.
When Gogol refuses to date the Bengali women that his parents want to set him up with, he is refusing to follow a certain social script. He is choosing against fulfilling expectations – and he could not be any more aware of this fact.
In comparison to his mother, Gogol’s identity issues are more varied and also more fully explored in the novel. Each of his romantic relationships can be seen in the light of self-construction and the social scripts involved in that process. Gogol’s sense of his identity is often explicitly script-based as he reflects on his romantic relationships and also on his relationship to his parents.
Gogol’s ability to see himself as a fictional character is pointed at times. After he changes his name to Nikhil, Gogol sees himself as playing a part: “It is as Nikhil, that first semester, that he grows a goatee, starts smoking Camel Lights at parties and while writing papers and before exams, discovers Brian Eno and Elvis Costello and Charlie Parker” (105). He has written a new part for himself by changing his name to Nikhil. This new identity is both satisfying and troubling to Gogol as “[a]t times he feels as if he’s cast himself in a play” (105) and “[a]t times he still feels his old name, painfully and without warning” (105). A moment later in the novel offers an apt phrase for Gogol’s tension.
There, Gogol tries and fails to remove an old picture from a photo album. Instead of coming free from the album, the photo “clings stubbornly, refusing to detach cleanly from the past” (207). Despite his name change, Gogol too feels the past clinging to him in ways that frustrate his sense of identity and personal growth. He cannot successfully step out of the social role created for him as a Bengali-American child and must continue – on weekends and at holidays especially – to either accept or reject that social script. One way or another, he is forced to deal with it.
Gogol is acutely aware of his parents’ expectations and those of their Bengali friends. He understands that as an individual there are specific personal, professional and romantic expectations for him. He can choose to resist them, but that does not make them go away.
He can try to write a new play and a new “part” for himself, as he does by changing his name, but in doing so he simply doubles his identity instead of leaving one behind. His “play” – the story of his life – necessarily includes the name “Gogol” and all the specific associations that the name carries.
And while this recognition of the narrative nature of identity is unique to Gogol in the novel, the questions he raises here can be directly connected to Gergen’s point about the authentic or artificial self. Having stepped away from one highly defined set of social scripts (oriented by his name and, by extension, his parents), Gogol is faced with a loss of “core identity” and authenticity.
The identity issues faced by Gogol and Ashima certainly differ in both type and intensity, yet, as shown here, the notion of social scripts can help us to connect the experiences of the two characters and perhaps also help to clarify some of the moments of crisis that these two characters encounter in the novel.
As a work exploring the immigrant experience and the challenges of first-generation Americans, The Namesake consistently examines the experience of lives in a state of flux, of irresolution and identity instability. Ultimately, Lahiri leaves us – and her characters – wondering if it is possible to grow comfortable enough with an unresolved identity so that one can accept a transitory sense of self as its own social script, well enough defined to provide a sense of place, even if that place is ‘in between.”
Gergen, Kenneth J. Realities and Relationships. Boston: Harvard University. 1997. Print.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. New York: Mariner Books. 2004. Print.
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