Reckoning & The Namesake are studied as part of VCE English's Comparative. For one of our most popular posts on Comparative (also known as Reading and Comparing), check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Comparative.
- Inheritance of Trauma
- Identity and Naming
- Memory and Retrospect
Magda Szubanski’s memoir, Reckoning, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s bildungsroman, The Namesake, follow misguided protagonists as they attempt to reconcile and ‘reckon’ with complicated family histories. Magda is burdened by her father’s legacy, whilst Ashoke’s distressing train accident lays the foundation for Gogol’s uncertainty, exposing the inescapable and often inscrutable marks that trauma leaves on the identities of later generations. With a large focus on inherited trauma, identity and memory, we’ll be breaking down some crucial quotes from each of these texts to better understand these key themes.
For a deeper look into some of the themes in Reckoning and The Namesake, check out this earlier post. And, if you need a refresher on how to properly embed quotes in your writing, take a look at How To Embed Quotes in Your Essay Like a Boss.
1. Inheritance of Trauma
Whether it be the hardships of war or the adversity of misfortune, both texts observe family timelines steeped in history and trauma. Magda and Gogol are inadvertently burdened by their parents’ experiences, which remain obscure and confusing to the two protagonists and only complicate their identities.
We were tugboats in the river of history, my father and I, pulling in opposite directions. He needed to forget. I need to remember. For him, only the present moment would set him free. For me, the key lies buried in the past. The only way forward is back. (p. 13)
This quote is intrinsic to the authorial intent behind Szubanski writing her cathartic memoir. The experiences of Magda’s father in war-torn Poland are, as Magda expresses, ‘passed on genetically’. Yet, with Zbigniew’s instinct to ‘[clamp] down tight on all feeling’, his trauma remains unrevealed and unexamined during much of Magda’s life. This impenetrable history impresses onto Magda as intergenerational trauma, which leaves her an ‘unregulated mess’, constantly ‘ricocheting between feeling nothing and feeling everything’.
As Magda accurately describes, both she and her father are metaphorical ‘tugboats in the river of history’, drawn in completely opposite directions to resolve their traumas. For her, digging into the ‘buried’ past is vital to understanding her father and herself. As she puts it, ‘the only way forward is back’. This is entirely the opposite for Zbigniew, who is unwilling and unable to articulate his trauma in anything other than ‘incoherent…jottings’ and ‘fragments’. Burdened by his past, Zbigniew prefers living in the present moment where he can suppress and avoid the past. However, this difference in how the two approach trauma leads to a strained father-daughter relationship founded upon a lifetime of misunderstandings and secrecy that only deepen their inability to understand one another.
‘Even at that young age,’ Mum told me, ‘I knew, I knew I had done something wrong.’ When she told me this her face caved in, stricken with remorse. Actors can never replicate this look. Meg didn’t punish her, but ‘Oh! The look of disappointment on my poor mother’s face.’ Now, today, more than eighty years later, my mother still feels the stinging sense of guilt.
History repeats. That story of how, when I was six, I got blood on my best dress before a trip to take Dad to hospital. Mum slapped my leg in hasty anger. I understand now, of course, that it was herself she was slapping. Her life-loving, disobedient six-year-old self. We are bookends, she and I. (p. 346)
Intergenerational trauma surfaces as ‘patterns’ within the Szubanski family, where regret and resentment are passed down as ‘hand-me-down trinkets of family and trauma’. Magda uses the metaphor of ‘bookends’ to describe her and her mother’s remarkably similar experiences dealing with familial trauma. In other words, both Magda and Margaret are mirror images of each other, both having a shared experience of supporting and living with ill fathers. When Magda gets ‘blood on [her] best dress’ before another trip to the hospital, Margaret ‘slap[s her] leg’. Although Magda initially mistakes this reaction as ‘hasty anger’, hindsight allows her to understand that Margaret was preoccupied with a ‘stinging sense of guilt’, and was reprimanding herself - the ‘disobedient six-year-old self’ who had similarly ruined her own ‘special dress’. This realisation suggests that even though trauma ‘repeats [like]…history’, there is a generational difference in the way individuals are able to process and respond to situations of grief, poverty and war.
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. "Is that what you think of when you think of me?" Gogol asks him. "Do I remind you of that night?"
"Not at all," his father says eventually, one hand going to his ribs, a habitual gesture that has baffled Gogol until now. "You remind me of everything that followed." (p. 124)
Just as Magda inherits Zbigniew’s harrowing war experience, Ashoke’s own ‘persistent fear’ from the train derailment that cripples him lives on through his son’s name. His chance rescue whilst ‘clutching a single page of ‘The Overcoat’’ is meaningful and life-altering. For Ashoke, naming his child after the ‘Russian writer who had saved his life’ emphasises his profound appreciation for surviving the accident. His son Gogol is a comforting reminder of ‘everything that followed’. In this way, Gogol acts as a symbol of both redemption and hope, representing Ashoke’s optimistic appraisal of his accident and his determination to make the most of his miraculous rescue.
But for Gogol, the memory of his father’s accident is entirely foreign and lacks any real meaning for him. His childhood pet name ‘Gogol’ - which he has always resented for making him feel out of place around other kids - suddenly becomes ‘something completely new’ when he discovers the truth about Ashoke’s accident. Gogol feels enormous pressure to live up to his father’s expectations as he represents a ‘catastrophe he has unwittingly embodied for years’. This is the source of much of Gogol’s guilt, confusion and resentment (towards his name, father, family and entire culture) and gradually erodes his sense of self. However, this inscrutability of the past only deepens Ashoke’s and Gogol’s similarity, whilst complicating and straining their father-son dynamic. Ashoke is unable to recognise the burden he has placed on his child, whilst Gogol alternatively cannot appreciate or truly understand being a miracle and source of salvation for Ashoke. Like with Magda and Zbigniew, here, father and child are unable to understand each other, creating a schism in their relationship which they are never able to reconcile. In any case, Lahiri conveys that the actions of enduring and processing trauma are intertwined and often leave permanent traces across future generations.
But Gogol 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 so that in spite of his mother’s disgust he refuses to throw the rubbings away. He rolls them up, takes them upstairs, and puts them in his room, behind his chest of drawers, where he knows his mother will never bother to look, and where they will remain, ignored but protected, gathering dust for years to come. (p. 71)
Lahiri also indicates generational similarities in how individuals relate to trauma. As a second-generation migrant who has always felt displaced from his culture, Gogol’s graveyard field trip allows him to experience a semblance of belonging in Massachusetts for the first time and relate to America’s ‘very first immigrants’. While Ashoke profoundly connects to the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, his son Gogol refuses to get rid of the etchings of archaic names. These ‘ancient Puritan spirits’ with similarly ‘unthinkable, obsolete names’ like his own provide Gogol with a source of relief and offer proof that he is not alone in his differences. He feels protective of them - conveying his own desires to defend himself against childhood bullies, and also providing a way to preserve this first true moment of belonging.
Just as ‘The Overcoat’ resonates with Ashoke, Gogol feels connected to the etchings and conceals this single page from his mother Ashima, who is resentful of the peculiar American school excursion. Similarly, Ashoke struggles to convey the deep significance behind his own liberating ‘single page’ from the Russian book. In this way, both pages remain ‘ignored but protected’ and, for both father and son, symbolise the power of literature and storytelling to salvage their profoundly intimate and life-altering moments that are unfathomable to others.
2. Identity and Naming
Both Reckoning and The Namesake suggest that hasty personal reinventions can only temporarily suppress, rather than truly resolve, trauma. The ‘self-made man’ Gogol strives to be, and the ‘mostly-self created…Little Englishman’ identity that Zbigniew carves for himself, are simply ‘bandaids plastered over’ unresolved grief and hardships. Cut off from family and history, these facades only worsen their inner discontent and complicate identities.
For my father Australia was love at first sight. The moment we landed he knew he had done the right thing. The blast-furnace heat invigorated him. Only mad dogs and my father would go out in the midday Australian sun. He wouldn’t just go out in it…he would mow the lawn in it. We had a big, bumpy, untamed backyard and when the mercury hit 103 degrees Fahrenheit he’d be out there dragging the lawnmower across every inch of it. Wearing Bombay bloomers and a terry-towelling hat, singing Polish songs over the din of the mower. (p. 44)
Escaping battle-scarred Poland and the origins of his trauma, Zbigniew is a migrant who ‘could not shed his Polishness fast enough’. He ‘crosse[s] the world to get away’ from his destroyed and tarnished home. Zbigniew begins a ‘second life’ as Peter, and like the Polish amber Magda’s cousin gifts her, Zbigniew is ‘transformed by pressure’ (a metaphor for the natural formation of amber) into the ‘Little Englishman’. This persona is a role he takes with grave determination - an echo of the ‘killer instincts’ he suppressed from his abandoned life as a Polish assassin. Bewildering the rest of his family, Zbigniew relishes the ‘invigorat[ing]…blast-furnace heat’ of Australia, and acts the part of a true Aussie in his ‘Bombay bloomers’ and ‘terry-towelling hat’. This characteristically Australian ensemble essentially functions as another battle armour he equips himself with to protect his blemished soul, tainted by a history so ‘bizarrely awful’ that his only way to survive is by ‘clamping down tight’ through an ironclad persona.
Magda recalls him ‘forever trying to tame th[e] lumpen block’ of ‘untamed’ and ‘unpredictable’ soil in their yard, ‘dragging the lawnmower across every inch’. This crystallises the truth of his life: no matter how committed Zbigniew is to perfecting any project, simply plastering order (trying to tame the lawns by mowing them) over chaos (heat + lumpen, untamed, unpredictable soil) leaves the trauma unresolved.
The rest of it went smoothly and before too long I had my entire sharpie uniform. Only one thing was missing—a Conti. This smart striped cardigan, worn high and tight, was the centrepiece of the ensemble, the definitive wardrobe item of the sharpie. But none was available, not in Croydon anyway. We had to settle for a plain cardie, rolled up at the bottom until it sat under my boobs. I never did get a Conti. I think it was a sign. (p. 126)
Like her father, Magda toys with personas herself. Identity is fluid and inconstant for Magda, often fluctuating between a form Zbigniew would be proud of, one she hopes would trigger any emotional reaction from him, and one desperate to fit within the social climate of Croydon. She cultivates a variety of comic personalities and, like her father, pursues her own ‘tennis madness’ by becoming madly obsessed with the sport and playing competitively. Magda also attempts to embrace the dutiful Catholic ‘good girl’ personality she believes would satisfy her father, but she rebels when he continues to ‘display [no] emotion at all’ and embraces the Sharpie youth gang uprising in her neighbourhood. However, Magda ruefully mocks the contradictory nature of her Sharpie persona, describing her conversion as a hybrid - a ‘convent-school Sharpie’ - rather than the ‘true Sharpie chick’ she aspires to be. But, while all of these personas attempt to unite the ‘disparate, confusing parts’ of her identity, they just suppress the ‘real girl’ behind the mask and leave her more dissociated from herself than ever before.
Magda goes to great lengths to ‘smoothly’ acquire the perfect Sharpie disguise, but even with the ‘entire Sharpie uniform’, her facade is flawed; she lacks the Conti cardigan, which is the ‘definitive wardrobe item of the sharpie’. Her Sharpie identity becomes a parody of the authentic Australian youth gang. The flaws behind her imitation persona are worsened when Magda tries to replace the Conti ‘centrepiece’ with a simple ‘plain cardie, rolled up at the bottom’. Magda only realises this when she barely avoids a ‘beating’ by a ‘predatory Sharpie’ whilst vulnerable, dressed in her convent-school uniform, and unrecognisable as a fellow gang member. Here, she is finally able to concede that she has only been ‘playing at being a bad girl’ and laments, ‘I never did get a Conti. I think it was a sign’ - wryly foreshadowing the inevitable dissatisfaction of teenage facades.
"I'm Nikhil now," Gogol says, suddenly depressed by how many more times he will have to say this, asking people to remember, reminding them to forget, feeling as if an errata slip were perpetually pinned to his chest. (p. 119)
Gogol’s place in the world as an ‘American Born Confused Deshi’ (ABCD) is his own ‘awkward [truth]’. Like his own name which he scornfully labels a ‘scratchy tag’, his status as an ‘ABCD’ is another brand he is ‘forced permanently to wear’. He is both ashamed and resentful toward his second-generation migrant identity and feels ‘neither Indian nor American’ whilst mocked for his nickname that is ‘of all things Russian’. Indeed, Gogol’s entire adolescent experience is eclipsed by his confusion about ‘who he is’ as he struggles to obtain any stable foundation for his identity.
Unlike the costumes and disguises that Magda and Zbigniew embrace, Gogol takes action by solemnly changing his name to Nikhil, the ‘one that should have been’ given to him all those years ago. But even Gogol is acutely aware that this ‘scant’ persona leaves him having to repeatedly reinforce and assure others (and himself) of his identity. Gogol actually rejects the name ‘Nikhil’ on his first day of preschool, foreshadowing the inward dissociation he experiences later in life. He is again ‘afraid to be Nikhil, someone he doesn’t know.’
Similarly, the flask Gogol’s sister Sonia gives to him for his thirtieth birthday, inscribed with his new initials NG, becomes a symbol of his inability to ‘break from that mismatched name’. Lahiri indeed suggests that identities are unavoidably ‘engraved’ with the layered ‘randomness’ of their lives and cannot be easily dissolved.
And then he returned to New York, to the apartment they’d inhabited together that was now all his. A year later, the shock has worn off, but a sense of failure and shame persists, deep and abiding. There are nights he still falls asleep on the sofa, without deliberation, waking up at three A.M. with the television still on. It is as if a building he’d been responsible for designing has collapsed for all to see. And yet he can’t really blame her. They had both acted on the same impulse, that was their mistake. They had both sought comfort in each other, and in their shared world, perhaps for the sake of novelty, or out of the fear that that world was slowly dying. Still, he wonders how he’s arrived at all this: that he is thirty-two years old, and already married and divorced. His time with her seems like a permanent part of him that no longer has any relevance, or currency. As if that time were a name he’d ceased to use. (pp. 283-284)
For the majority of his life, Gogol alternates between feeling irritation and resentment for his Bengali heritage, and profoundly longing to be truly Indian. Gogol has several failed relationships and romantic encounters: Kim, with whom he introduces himself as Nikhil ‘for the first time in his life’, then Maxine, who attracted him with the ‘gift of accepting her life’. But, like his indulgence of and immersion in the Ratliff’s self-satisfied American life, the interactions with these women feel like a ‘betrayal of his own’ culture, family and identity.
It is ‘familiarity’ that draws him to Moushumi, a childhood Bengali family friend with whom he ’s[eeks] comfort’ in their shared culture. For Gogol, his relationship with Moushumi represents the possibility of salvaging a childhood he spent disliking, but for Moushumi it’s a betrayal of her principles of independence. She has ‘turn[ed] her back’ her Indian and American ties to embrace a third culture in France, a country with ‘no claim’ on her and none of the cultural pressures of her heritage.
Gogol longs - ironically - for stability and ‘fall[s] in love with Gothic architecture’; he equates his failed marriage with Moushumi to a ‘building he’d been responsible for designing’. This is essentially Gogol’s way of dealing with the trauma of his divorce, translated into a form he can understand and process. And yet, even a year after their separation, a ‘sense of failure and shame persists, deep and abiding’ - Lahiri suggests that trauma, grief and heartbreak are embedded into our identities and we don’t require a set length of time to accept them.
Both Moushumi and Gogol come to realise that they were sustained merely by ‘the same impulse’ to erase discomfort, their marriage ‘collaps[ing] for all to see’. Their relationship becomes meaningless and their time together dissolves like a ‘name [Gogol had] ceased to use’. Lahiri conveys that re-entering and recreating a life once discarded (as harshly as Gogol discards his own name) is impossible, even irrational.
3. Memory and Retrospect
It is no surprise that retrospect and remembrance emerge as central themes in both Reckoning and The Namesake. Gogol’s resented ‘namesake’ itself is a conduit for redemptive memory, whilst Magda ascertains the value of history to ‘salvage’ the present.
I wanted to know; I didn’t want to know. Without realising it I plotted a course somewhere between the two. My father, unable to get any further with his own attempts at a reckoning, had simply closed the door on the past. And now I was about to open that door. (p. 290)
Retrospect specifically becomes a vital motif in Reckoning as Szubanski uses her memoir to ‘join up the dots of [her]self’ and gain perspective on her father’s ‘unresolved and unexamined feelings’. Through her adult perspective, she reflects on her early doubts as she is finally able to appreciate and understand her heritage, reading ‘Dni Powstania’ and ‘Exodus’ on the Poles’ shame. Although Magda and Zbigniew ‘[pull] in opposite directions’ for most of her life, only by becoming the ‘collector of [Zbigniew’s]…stories’ and taping his ‘confession’ are the two brought to some level of understanding. Magda is finally able to ‘rozumiesz’ (to understand) that her father had ‘never helped the Nazis’, and on some level, ‘feel the feelings [her] father could not allow himself’. Perhaps more importantly, Zbigniew is able to share the paradoxical nature of his guilt - ‘what he had done in the name of good’ - feeling neither ‘ashamed’ nor ‘proud’ of his past. His reflection through the outlook of a ‘half old, half young’ version of himself mirrors Magda’s own introspection - in this sense, the ways in which Magda and Zbigniew are resolving (or at least learning to accept) trauma are ‘repeat[ing like]…history’ in their family.
I was never told anything much about Luke. But my mother’s eyes—beneath the humour—were haunted by a deep, fretting sadness. Behind the querulous hypervigilance, the nitpicking, the irritability, there cowered a terrified child. A child full of panicky uncertainty about everything. I wanted to reach back and grab her hand and pull her through time and…what? I wanted to hug my mother when she was a child, to tell her everything was all right. (p. 336)
Szubanski observes how generations of poverty and war have shaped her mother’s ‘flinty’, unyielding determination to ‘just…get on with it’ and move on from adversity. Her ‘deep, fretting sadness’ hidden ‘beneath [her] humour’ is compassion and grief for her father, Luke, who ‘woke every night screaming’ after the war. This resonates strongly with Magda because her own father’s war experience mirrors Luke’s. The two families (Magda’s family, and her mother’s family) are forced to ‘[walk] on eggshells for fear of detonating [them]’.
However, Magda is able to understand that her mother’s capricious tendency to ‘cling like a python then turn and snap like a crocodile’ is a product of her trauma, which allows Magda to understand Margaret’s character on a more intimate and genuine level. Magda, as a neglected and ‘terrified child’ with ‘panicky uncertainty’ herself, empathising with Margaret’s own troubled childhood allows Magda to offer her mother the comfort and support she craved when struggling alone beneath Zbigniew’s ‘exacting…standards’. Through this, Szubanski seems to suggest that although the legacy of trauma is an ongoing and deeply complex process, ‘reach[ing] back’ to process unresolved traumas together becomes a precious and vital way to ‘salvage’ bruised relationships.
There is no question of skipping this meal; on the contrary, for ten evenings the three of them are strangely hungry, eager to taste the blandness on their plates. It is the one thing that structures their days: the sound of the food being warmed in the microwave, three plates lowered from the cupboard, three glasses filled. The rest of it—the calls, the flowers that are everywhere, the visitors, the hours they spend sitting together in the living room unable to say a word, mean nothing. Without articulating it to one another, they draw comfort from the fact that it is the only time in the day that they are alone, isolated, as a family; even if there are visitors lingering in the house, only the three of them partake of this meal. And only for its duration is their grief slightly abated, the enforced absence of certain foods on their plates conjuring his father's presence somehow. (pp. 180-181)
Even in death, Ashoke’s spirit is able to heal his fractured, grief-ridden family - truly and ultimately ‘transcend[ing] grief’, fulfilling the destiny his name’s meaning set out for him. Surrounded by meaningless condolences and forced sympathy - the ‘calls’, the ‘flowers’ and the ‘visitors’ - the Ganguli family is left ‘unable to say a word’ or process their loss in a safe and judgement-free space. The ‘mourner’s diet’ that sustains them, even in all its ‘blandness’, is able to ‘slightly [abate]’ their grief; it ‘conjur[es Ashoke’s] presence’ and unites the ‘isolated’ Gangulis ‘as a family’. Ironically, these cultural traditions that young Gogol so adamantly refused become the ‘only thing that seems to make sense’. Preserving and honouring Ashoke’s memory, this forsaken custom becomes an unanticipated lifeline for a family torn apart by cultural expectations, irreconcilable differences and shared tragedy.
"Try to remember it always," he said once Gogol had reached him, leading him slowly back across the breakwater, to where his mother and Sonia stood waiting. "Remember that you and I made this journey, that we went together to a place where there was nowhere left to go." (p. 187)
Unlike Magda and Zbigniew who are able to reconnect in life, Gogol’s own poignant flashbacks with his father are cherished only after his death. However, it is only with this hindsight that Gogol is truly able to appreciate these initially resented, perhaps forgotten, moments as meaningful connections to his family. Gogol’s relationship with his father is tragically underpinned by a lifetime of misinterpretations and misunderstood trauma, the two unable to understand each other’s disparate outlooks on life and culture. However, when they visit Cape Cod both Gogol and Ashoke are, if only momentarily, pioneers. They are exposed to the world, just as Ashoke had been when he migrated to America; the two travelling ‘together to a place where there was nowhere left to go’.
Gogol indeed grapples with a desire for stability and meaning throughout his entire life, bewildered by the ‘unintended’ series of ‘defining and distressing’ events. However, family indeed becomes the source of true security for Gogol. ‘Remember[ing]…always’, he preserves the memory of his father, and resistant to time and change, it remains a comforting constant amidst the ‘randomness’ that characterises and complicates his family’s life.