Grave Rubbing: Independance and Choice in The Namesake

I was a very obedient boy – being an only child, I often had a great bit of focus placed onto me, and as such I, more often than not, did what I was told. It’s for this reason that I remember the first time I openly said no to my mom, and it was during the classic nightly call for bedtime. I don’t remember how old I was, but I do remember that this time, for whatever reason, I just wasn’t feeling it.

So I crossed my arms across my chest, looked her in the eyes, and said very plainly, “I refuse.”

What a little badass I was.

Meanwhile, in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, young Gohol’s first conscious refusal is a bit less direct but just as impactful: Asked to get rid of a number of rubbings taken from gravestones, the youngster secretly defies his mother.

“But Gohol is attached to them. For reasons he cannot explain or necessarily understand, these ancient puritan spirits, these very first immigrants to America, these bearers of unthinkable, obsolete names, have spoken to him so much that in spite of his mother’s disgust he refuses to throw the rubbings away.” (Lahiri 71)

A tombstone

While Gohol’s first refusal of his mother’s request may not have been as direct as my own, Lahiri’s description of it makes it just as mythical of a moment. It’s very clear here that something has happened — the structure makes that obvious, as Lahiri slowly works through the different sections of the deep connections Gohol feels to theses dead puritans. The focus on the “unthinkable, obsolete names” clearly attributes part of the connections to Gohol feeling closer to them due to the unusual nature of his own name, but there’s a lot more going on here, even if we don’t quite know what (Lahiri 71). The narrator’s reference to this makes that clear: as he “cannot explain or necessarily understand” the nature of his feelings, neither are we told what they are in this moment, in this peek into his mind (Lahiri 71).

But that doesn’t mean we can’t figure them out.

See, here’s the funny thing about Gohol’s first refusal: It’s not. His first refusal actually occurs in chapter 2, during the ceremony in which he is asked to choose his destiny among a number of items placed in front of him. Instead of listening to any of the urgings from the voices around him, he begins to cry, denying everybody and refusing everything at the same time. And the reason for his refusal isn’t because of him not wanting to choose any of those items, it’s because of all the voices screaming at him because he WANTS to refuse.

A man refusing

Both refusals have been desperate attempts clutching at some form of independence, the first, in chapter 2, over the right to choose his own destiny, and the second in chapter 3 over the right to choose his own connections.

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