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Father and Son Relationships
Though written from very different perspectives, "Death of a Salesman" and the Namesake share a number of important similarities, particularly with regard to similar messages about fathers and sons. The conflicts and complexities of father/son relationships are explored by both Arthur Miller and Jhumpa Lahiri in their characters Willy, Biff, and Happy Loman in "Death of a Salesman" and Ashoke and Gogol Ganguli in the Namesake. Yet, it is important to recognize that, while both Biff and Gogol travel similar paths, and for similar reasons, their journeys take them down wildly divergent paths.
Unlike the characters in "Death of a Salesman," the characters in the Namesake must deal with issues of conflicting national and cultural identities. The clash of cultures is a recurrent theme throughout the Namesake, and drives much of the plot. For instance, while giving birth, Ashima reflects on the differences between Bengali and American culture, noting that "In India women go home to their parents to give birth, away from husbands and in-laws and household cares, retreating briefly to childhood when the baby arrives" (Lahiri, 4). Perhaps the most consequential difference, at least with regard to the novel's plot, is the differing American and Bengali approaches to naming their children. According to Lahiri, Bengali children are named by female elders, not by their parents; as Ashima protests to a well meaning, but ignorant, civil servant, "But, sir, we can't possibly name him ourselves" (Lahiri, 27). Ashima and Ashoke's decision to name their child Gogol has far-reaching effects on the boy's life and character, driving the novel's plot.
Naturally, naming children is a huge moment in a new parent's life, and it is also an important element in "Death of a Salesman." While not fraught with the same cultural baggage as it is in the Namesake, Willy Loman's assertion that he "named" Howard Wagner in "Death of a Salesman" illustrate the importance of naming children in American culture. For Willy, the fact that he "named" Howard (a misperception, to be sure) ought to create a father/son bond between the salesman and his boss but, instead, Howard treats Willy disrespectfully and contemptuously before finally firing him. In other words, Willy tries to assert a father/son relationship between himself and Howard based on the fiction that Willy named Howard, only to have Howard demonstrate that he does not reciprocate Willy's affection. This incident points to the cultural importance of naming children in both "Death of a Salesman" and the Namesake and indicates the ways in which naming children can be an important building block in a father/son relationship.
Ashoke and Ashima's choice of Gogol for their son's name also creates some tension within their family. Though Gogol initially likes his name, by the time he is in the sixth grade it has become clear to him that it sets him off from the other students. A field trip with his classmates to a cemetery to do headstone rubbings drives home to Gogol his essential separateness from the other students in his class. Gogol begins slowly rebelling against his Bengali heritage and more fully embracing American culture. This is somewhat ironic, given the fact that his name is not Bengali, but Russian, and his last name, Ganguli, is an anglicized pronunciation of his true last name, Gangopadhyay. However, Gogol's rejection of his name is not simply a rejection of his Bengali heritage; he does, for instance, continue using the equally, if differently, ethnic Nikhil. Clearly, if all Gogol wanted to do was more fully assimilate into American culture, he would have chosen a more common "American" name. In reality, Gogol's desire to change his name is about putting distance between himself and his father because of importance that Ashoke attaches to Gogol's name. As Fitz E. Barringer states, "Gogol spends most of the book trying to eradicate his heritage" (Barringer). Gogol's rejection of his name symbolizes the growing distance between father and son.
Distance between fathers and sons is also one of the themes of "Death of a Salesman." Throughout the play, Willy mentions his fear that people do not like or respect him. Garnering other people's respect is incredibly important to Willy because he believes that it is the key to success in business. Willy goes so far to criticize his neighbor, Charley, who owns a successful business as being "liked, but not well-liked" (Miller, 21). In Willy's mind, the fact that Charley is not "well-liked" mitigates his obvious greater material success. Willy's son Biff initially follows in his father's footsteps, criticizes Charley's son Bernard, a classmate of Biff's, for being "liked, but not well-liked" (Miller, 23). By having Biff use exactly the same phrase as his father Willy, Miller is subtly demonstrating that Biff idolizes his father, a point explicitly driven home when she tells Willy that "Few men are idolized by their children the way you are" (Miller, 26).
Unfortunately, that is all in the past; in the action that takes place in the "present," Biff is cold toward his father. This is a consequence of the fact that, years earlier, Biff discovered that Willy was cheating on Linda. This shattered Biff's image of Willy and caused the distance between the two of the that is the subject of much of the play. This sets in motion a journey of self-realization that culminates in Biff's discussion with his brother, Happy, at Willy's funeral. Throughout the play, it has becomes obvious that Willy has given his sons the wrong advice, teaching to avoid responsibility and hard work. By the end of the play, Biff realizes that his father was wrong about all of this, and decides to abandon New York (symbolically, Willy's world) in order to pursue his own dreams. By contrast, Biff's brother Happy states his resolute commitment to staying in New York and pursuing Willy's dreams in order to prove that the salesman's death was not in vain. As Stephen a. Lawrence makes clear, " at the close of the plat Happy is as deluded about his father's worth [as he was in the beginning of the play], even though Biff has reached the point of self-awareness" (Lawrence, 547).
Gogol follows a similar path of self-evolution when it comes to his relationship with his father. Although initially Ashoke and Gogol are close, Gogol's decision to go to Yale, as opposed to his father's alma mater MIT, creates some tension within the family; this event is similar to the moment where Biff discovers his father cheating, because it sets in motion a major shift in the father-son dynamic. Like Biff, Gogol chooses not visit often or contact the family frequently, and like Happy, Gogol engages in series of meaningless sexual encounters that leave him feeling unfulfilled and unhappy. Unlike Biff, the emotional baggage that Gogol carries is not a lifetime's worth of bad advice about how the world works; rather, it is his sense that he is an outsider.
One turning point for Gogol is when his father finally explains to him the significance of his name. Gogol is so overwhelmed that he bursts into tears and asks his father why Ashoke did not explain the meaning of his name sooner, telling his father that "it's like you've lied to me all these years" (Lahiri, 123). However, this is a turning point for Gogol because, even though he is not yet ready to embrace his heritage, he apologizes to his father for all of the anger and misunderstanding. The second turning point is when Gogol most journey to Ohio to claim his father's ashes and belongings. Gogol begins a slow process of retreating back into his Bengali heritage by distancing himself from his American girlfriend, Maxine, and by spending more time with his mother and sister. This is a very different journey from the…[continue]
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