Free East-West Relationships In The Namesake Essay Example
In today’s smaller, more globalized world, the intersection between East and West is experienced in more dramatic and frequent ways every day. The fundamental origins of many of these two worlds’ values, particularly as they relate to how to define ourselves, how to engage in relationships, and more, have such different beginnings that these two ways of thinking create immense difficulties in allowing people from these worlds to relate to each other. Looking at these issues in the context of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, in particular, Eastern and Western ideas are shown to be in constant conflict, and can only be addressed in a fleeting and temporary way. The character of Gogol in The Namesake personifies the inherent inability of Western and Eastern ways of thinking to be easily reconciled in a single person. As a character who must wrestle with his Bengali heritage and his American sense of self and identity, Gogol’s constant strife and difficulties demonstrate how hard it is to bring all of these ideas together. Gogol’s name itself is a reference to the writer Nikolai Gogol, whose works focused on the interconnected nature of people and whose name choice reflects the sympathies and concerns of his parents. Divided between the pluralistic and benevolent nature of his Bengali family and the selfish concerns of Western life and the American Dream, Gogol’s life is beset with anxiety and the trials of hybridity. In the areas of love, money, friendship, and identity, the differences in thinking between the East and the West are irreconcilable and therefore relationships are problematic.
Love has substantially different meanings and constructions in Western and Eastern thinking. Westerners take a much more modern, continental view of love, in which men and women from different ways of life and races are able to easily, casually date (including having a sex life) until they find the right person. In the East, however, there is still a fundamental focus on tradition and monogamy, as well as arranged marriages set up by one’s parents. Eastern ideas of love are much more conservative than in the West, with a greater emphasis placed on loyalty, fidelity and prudence. Gogol’s love life in The Namesake demonstrates the fundamental differences that are problematic and irreconcilable between Western and Eastern culture. In college, Gogol chooses to fully embrace his American college experience, losing his virginity to a girl he does not remember (while using his Americanized name of Nikhil) (Ch. 5). Later, his relationship with Maxine, an American, leads to further tension among his family, as his mother simply believes that Maxine is evidence of Gogol’s flirtation with the pleasures of American decadence and life. His parents embody the ideals of Eastern love, with a more practical, spiritual connection that does not prioritize physical pleasure as highly: “Like a kiss or caress in a Hindi movie, a husband's name is something intimate and therefore unspoken, cleverly patched over” (Lahiri, Ch. 1). Conversely, Gogol is drawn to the American nature of the non-Indian girls that he dates, relishing in the exoticism of dating a girl whose parents are divorced. Later, Gogol dates, and then marries, Moushumi, in keeping with more traditional ideas of what Eastern love and marriage is like; however, they both find this tremendously dissatisfying as well, their relationship eventually ending in the wake of infidelity and divorce. Gogol’s inability to find true, lasting love comes from his desire (and that of others) to combine both Western and Eastern ideas of love, which is shown to be problematic.
Friendship also has its fair share of differences in Western and Eastern thought; while Westerners see friends as individual people whose relationships can change or diminish depending on how they feel their interests are being represented, Easterners carry with them a sense of collective agency that binds all people together (Nisbett 6). Westerners see friends as those who have shared interests and values, as opposed to Eastern friendships, which come from a sense of shared identity and mutual benefit. While Americans, for example, gather friends who are already on the same trajectory, Eastern friendships provide a deeper spiritual intimacy and connection with one another.
Westerners also see a tremendous difference in the way they think about money than in the East. Westerners will often view money as the chief motivator for their taking an action (i.e. offering to do a job in exchange for money). However, many Easterners will presume a more selfless motivation for taking an action (e.g. doing the right thing, helping others, providing charity). Western thought places a greater emphasis on the material, objective aims of an action, while Eastern thought focuses on the contributive efforts of that individual towards the community (Nisbett 126). However, despite Easterners’ more selfless attitudes toward money, this also causes a bit of tension between East and West, as in The Namesake, when Gogol is made to choose between money (American values) and the pen (Eastern values) during his childhood ceremony. Someone at the party shouts, “Put the money in his hand!An American boy must be rich,” laying out the stakes for this choice – picking the money would ally him with the Western chase for wealth, while the pen would make him a scholar and someone more in line with Eastern thinking (Lahiri, Chapter 2).
Most importantly, Eastern ideas of identity contrast widely with Western ideas, chiefly in terms of the individual vs. the universal. Eastern conceptions of selfhood and identity can be tied to several intellectual traditions, including Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and more. In Confucianism, self-realization is the ultimate goal of living life, with the goal of people to constantly renovate and improve upon themselves in order to become virtuous (Ho 117). While this school of thought, which values the individual’s place within society, is most closely akin to Western adherence to social hierarchy, other Eastern schools of thought such as Taoism and Buddhism can run counter to this ideal. Taoism, for example, offers the good life as being “spontaneous, in harmony with nature, unencumbered by societal regulation, and free from the desire to achieve social ascendancy” (Ho 119). Buddhism, similarly, involves detaching oneself completely from the ego and the world around them, becoming completely selfless and transcending into a greater state of enlightenment. This is a huge contrast to the more opportunistic and materialistic Western way of thinking, which does not consider the presence of an “undifferentiated whole” that binds everything together in an equal power relationship; instead, identity is closely tied to the self, which is completely distinct and unconnected with everyone else (Ho 128). Western ideas accept the distinction between subjects and objects, centering the individual firmly within their own ego as the conduit by which they view and value the world. To a greater extent than in Eastern thinking, Western ideals focus on valuing the world through what they can get out of it, or how far they can advance in relation to others. Western ideas view individuals as independent rather than interdependent, as is the case in Eastern thinking. In The Namesake, Gogol’s difficulty in reconciling who he is with where he came from rests in the fundamental incompatibility of Western and Eastern thought. Even at six months of age, Gogol refuses to take part in Bengali rituals, refusing to “confront his destiny” as a member of this family (Lahiri, Ch. 2). The issue of his name becomes a chief tension for his struggle with identity – Gogol is only meant to be a Bengali pet name used by family, but his American school uses that as his official name. Gogol himself tries to change his name several times, as it does not sound right to him: “Gogol sounds ludicrous to his ears, lacking dignity or gravity. What dismays him most is the irrelevance of it all” (Lahiri, Ch. 4). The phrase ABCD (“American-born confused deshi”) is applied to Gogol, further demonstrating Easterners’ inability to fully assimilate into American culture, or vice versa (Lahiri, Ch. 5).
Through this exploration of Gogol in The Namesake, it becomes clear that Western and Eastern ways of thinking are irreconcilable and makes relationships very difficult, if not impossible, to navigate. Western ideas of the individual and its need to opportunistically inhabit its own place in the universe run afoul of deep-seated Eastern traditions and its overall sense of transcendence and universality. Just as Gogol experiences failure in his relationships, his work and his own sense of identity, so too do Easterners and Westerners have trouble finding common ground in the fundamental way they view things. The best that can be hoped for is a sense of liberal tolerance of each other’s ways of life, but true understanding may well be outside of their reach. While Gogol comes to accept his name and what it means for his family, the character still has a long road ahead of him in terms of navigating the other complicated relationships and social situations that await him as an ABCD.
Ho, David YF. "Selfhood and identity in Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism:
contrasts with the West." Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour25.2 (1995): 115-139.
Lahiri, Jhumpa. The Namesake. Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
Nisbett, Richard E. The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think
Differentlyand Why. The Free Press, 2003.