Chapter 1 Summary
Editor's Note: To avoid confusion, the narrator and main character in Middlesex is referred to by the pronoun "she" in chapter summaries 1-23.
Jeffery Eugenides’s Middlesex begins with “The Silver Spoon,” a chapter in which the narrator, Cal, explains how she was
born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.
Cal was born “Calliope Helen Stephanides” but her driver’s license names her “Cal.” Cal, at forty-one years old, is writing a memoir about her life, which she describes as a “roller coaster ride of a single gene through time.” Recalling The Odyssey, she invokes the muse, apologizing if she gets “a little Homeric at times. That’s genetic, too.”
The story begins three months before Cal is born. It is 1959, and Cal’s grandmother, Desdemona, relies on a silver spoon for predictions. She dangles the spoon above the belly of Cal’s mother, Tessie. By this method, Cal’s grandmother has correctly predicted the sex of the previous 23 children born to the family. When she finishes, she proclaims that the child will be a boy, and the family celebrates. However, the news is a disappointment to Cal’s parents.
Milton and Tessie, Cal’s parents, had wanted a daughter. Their first-born son, “Chapter Eleven,” has turned five. The narrator explains how Tessie felt left out in such a “masculine household” and how she envisions “a daughter as a counterinsurgent: a fellow lover of lapdogs, a seconder of proposals to attend the Ice Capades.” Every week, the family would join together in Milton and Tessie’s living room to talk, and one week Peter Tatakis, “Uncle Pete,” explains that science has recently shown that male sperms move faster than female sperms. So, taking the timing of ovulation into account, a couple can plan to have sex after a certain time has passed, allowing the speedy male sperms to go to waste and ensuring that the “good old, slow, reliable female sperm” fertilize the egg. Milton even goes so far as to buy a thermometer for his wife, which Tessie reluctantly uses to help track her ovulation.
When Calliope, a girl, is born, the family celebrates, though Uncle Pete refuses to take any credit. On that day, Cal’s grandfather suffers the first of his thirteen strokes, which causes him to lose his ability to speak. Desdemona, meanwhile, becomes “grim." Cal says: "My arrival marked the end of her baby-guessing and the start of her husband’s long decline." The spoon is no longer used to predict the sex of children.
Chapter 2 Summary
As the second chapter, “Matchmaker,” begins, Cal suggests that she might end up the most “famous hermaphrodite in history.” Cal explains how other hermaphrodites in history made money showing themselves to physicians. Cal’s own case was quite lucrative because “to the extent that fetal hormones affect brain chemistry and histology, I’ve got a male brain. But I was raised as a girl.” In spite of Cal’s “androgenized brain, there’s an innate feminine circularity in the story I have to tell.” To tell the story, she will have to take her reader back in time. It is Greece, 1922, and Desdemona Stephanides is in her silkworm cocoonery, which is “high on the slope of Mount Olympus.” Desdemona has lost her parents...
(The entire section is 517 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary
The third chapter, “An Immodest Proposal,” opens with Cal discussing her life today. Though born an American, Cal works in the Foreign Service in Germany; her department is in charge of “readings, lectures, and concerts.” Cal lives as a man and she explains how she uses the men’s washroom, though not the urinal, and wears a double-breasted suit, gleaming wing tips, and he smokes cigars. Though she acknowledges that this might seem excessive, she maintains that she feels the need the need for it. This is particularly true considering that Calliope still sometimes returns to the surface, noticeably in Cal’s walk or other gestures like checking her nails. However, she reflects:
just as suddenly...
(The entire section is 597 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary
The fourth chapter, “The Silk Road,” opens with a description of Princess Si-Ling Chi, a figure from Chinese legend. A silkworm cocoon falls into her teacup and she has one of her maids unravel it. Cal discusses how she feels this story is like a long role of silk that she is unwinding: if she follows it back far enough, she will find Lefty and Desdemona on the Jean Bart. However, the two switch ships and leave Athens for America aboard the Giulia. Cal remembers a tradition where people leaving for America unravel a ball of string that is held by someone on the shore.
Lefty and Desdemona have devised a secret plan that they carry out aboard the Giulia. Desdemona goes below and Lefty stays...
(The entire section is 457 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
The fifth chapter, “Henry Ford’s English-Language Melting Pot,” begins with Lefty and Desdemona on their way to Detroit. They first must pass through Ellis Island, where the immigrants have letters, such as “Pg” for “pregnant,” chalked onto their clothing. Dr. Philobosian has an “X” chalked on him when a doctor notices that his eyes are inflamed. There are many letters to denote diseases, such as “C” for conjunctivitis. Desdemona’s immigrant braids, which are still tied with ribbons of mourning, are cut off at the YWCA. Lefty thinks it makes her look like an American woman, but Desdemona replies that she does not want to look like an American. She puts her braids into her silkworm box, which is now empty...
(The entire section is 679 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
At the start of sixth chapter, “Minotaur,” Cal explains that she will never be able to have children. Over the years, she has not carefully chosen the people in whom she confides that she is a hermaphrodite. Her romantic relationships have consequently been superficial. Cal explains that after she takes off her first layer of armor, the double-breasted suit, and reveals her muscular frame, the second layer of armor, she usually leaves before removing her underpants. Now, she has set up a date with Julie Kikuchi, the Asian-American girl with the bicycle whom Cal espied earlier in the book.
Cal then tells the story of the “Simultaneous Fertilization.” Before Lefty realized that he would be laid off, he had...
(The entire section is 543 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary
The seventh chapter, “Marriage on Ice,” begins with Jimmy’s funeral. His body has not yet been recovered from inside the lake, though the authorities explain that bodies recovered from a winter lake are often preserved very well. Regardless, the family is able to have a funeral, at which Lina cries out against Jimmy and against God for leaving her a widow and alone with a child to support. After forty days of mourning, Lina emerges from her room in an orange dress, which shocks Desdemona since widows should wear black for life. However, Lina maintains that forty days is long enough.
Desdemona raises both Milton and Lina’s daughter, Theodora. The two are brought up so close that their shadows touch each other...
(The entire section is 804 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary
In the eighth chapter, “Tricknology,” Desdemona has begun to work for the Nation of Islam, which is led by Minister Fard. In the midst of the Great Depression, “Ford was closing factories, but at 3408 Hastings Street, Fard was open for business.” Desdemona has begun to get used to life in the temple and she is shocked to learn that the insides of the mavros’ (black peoples) hands are white. She converts an outhouse to store the silkworms, but the first group dies. Sister Wanda says that more are on the way and Desdemona likes that Minister Fard has trained his followers to be humble and modest.
Though she never sees Minister Fard directly, Desdemona does manage to overhear him speaking to his...
(The entire section is 654 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary
The ninth chapter, “Clarinet Serenade,” opens on Cal’s first date with Julie Kikuchi. Cal takes her out to a restaurant called “Austria” and translates the menu for her. Julie is 36, though she looks ten years younger. She is a photographer, but she does not want Cal to look at her work. She has arthritis in her right hand, which means that she cannot hold a camera for very long. She likes the restaurant, and though she briefly mentions a boyfriend, she does not allow the conversation to turn to former partners. This decision is good for Cal since she has a short list of partners to complain about, which she knows can make women suspicious. Looking at Julie, Cal admits to the reader, “I like her. I like her a lot.”...
(The entire section is 538 words.)
Chapter 10 Summary
The tenth chapter, “News of the World,” begins with Cal’s relationship with Julie. Cal sees Julie's work and admires it. Julie photographs factories, and Cal professes a natural appreciation of factories because she is from Detroit. Julie shoots factories used in the Holocaust and worries that her work will be seen as cliché. Cal reassures Julie that her work is good and a natural extension of her body of work. They kiss, and Julie asks if Cal is a gay man. Julie explains that she has been approached by five closeted homosexuals. Cal reassures Julie that she is not gay, and they kiss again.
Meanwhile, Milton’s life in the navy is not what he had expected. He hoped to get away from his memories of Tessie but...
(The entire section is 496 words.)
Chapter 11 Summary
The eleventh chapter, “Ex Ovo Omnia,” describes the circumstances of Cal’s birth. The title is Latin for “everything comes out of an egg.” It is from Calliope’s perspective that we learn this saying; she explains to her high school class that it is taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This expression can be used to illustrate the theory of Preformation, where a family can be traced back to a common egg, like a Russian nesting doll. Cal sometimes imagines herself and her older brother, “Chapter Eleven,” sitting together like dolls before their birth. In 1954, Chapter Eleven leaves Cal; he “raised his arms and traveled down the waterslide into the world.”...
(The entire section is 718 words.)
Chapter 12 Summary
The twelfth chapter, “Home Movies,” tells the story of Cal's birth and early childhood. Cal’s birth coincides with a moment of near death for Lefty. Desdemona finds Lefty on the kitchen floor and thinks he died. Although her “wail echoed off the kitchen’s hard surfaces,” she soon discovers that she feels happiness because “The worst had happened. This was it: the worst thing. For the first time in her life my grandmother had nothing to worry about.” Cal goes on to explain that she would prefer to replace the oversimplified representations of emotion, such as “joy,” with “hybrid emotions,” such as “the sadness inspired by failing restaurants” or “the excitement of getting a room with a minibar.” Lefty...
(The entire section is 713 words.)
Chapter 13 Summary
“Opa!” begins with an update on how Cal and Julie’s relationship is progressing. Cal has traditionally taken things slowly with women. Cal knows that they interpret this as a sign that Cal is a gentleman. However, Cal has learned not to wait too long. Now, he asks Julie to travel together to Pomerania, stressing that they will stay in separate rooms. As they look out across an October beach, Cal feels content with Julie. However, Cal notes that they sleep in separate bedrooms on both the first and second night of the trip.
It was April when Milton told his daughter to stay way from Marius Grimes. By summer, it has gotten extremely hot in Detroit. Business at the Zebra Room is awful, and Milton is beginning to run...
(The entire section is 747 words.)
Chapter 14 Summary
In the fourteenth chapter, “Middlesex,” Milton collects his insurance policy, which does not pay quite as much as he had hoped, but is nevertheless quite lucrative. One day, Milton returns home in a 1967 Fleetwood, his first Cadillac. Cal recalls thinking that it looked like a spaceship. Milton takes the family inside and shows them the “Air-Ride” feature, a hydraulic system that lifts the seats to make the ride smoother. Cal recalls that the family was “headed east, out of Detroit, literally floating on air.”
They begin to search for houses at Grosse Pointe, the “affluent lakeside district of the auto-magnates.” Milton at first struggles to find a house; every time that he completes an application, the...
(The entire section is 584 words.)
Chapter 15 Summary
The fifteenth chapter, “The Mediterranean Diet,” begins with Desdemona deciding to stay in bed now that Lefty has passed. Cal recalls how she believes that Lefty has secured a place for them in heaven and that it is up to her to join him. She summons Dr. Philobosian, and when he pronounces her healthy, she demands that Milton and Tessie find another doctor. Unfortunately, they all pronounce Desdemona, who is seventy-one years old, healthy. Dr. Müller is impressed by Desdemona’s longevity (he thinks that Desdemona is ninety-one, but Cal explains that her grandmother always confused 7 with 9), and he studies her in support of a theory that her longevity is due to her Mediterranean diet. Regardless, Desdemona, who spends her...
(The entire section is 556 words.)
Chapter 16 Summary
The sixteenth chapter, "Wolverette," begins with Callie playing goalie for her field hockey team. Milton refuses to bus his children to Detroit and enrolls Callie in the Baker & Inglis School for Girls. Cal explains that she was an awful player and lacked coordination. In fact, Callie is the worst player on the team, though this was in part because the other girls "didn't have, as I did, two testicles squatting illegally in their inguinal canals." After the game, Callie looks at all of the other girls around her. They have begun to physically develop, and though Cal does not recall being attracted to them, she does recall their charm bracelets and her feelings of confusion from that age. She explains the elaborate strategies...
(The entire section is 463 words.)
Chapter 17 Summary
The seventeenth chapter, "Waxing Lyrical," begins with Callie learning that she has started to develop a moustache. Cal explains that there is a "hair belt" that stretches from Spain, across southern Europe, and through Turkey. The women within that belt are prone to unwanted hair, and now Callie has joined them. Tessie sets up an appointment for Callie with Sophie Sassoon, whose salon is frequented by women who want their bodies waxed. During one such session, Tessie explains that Chapter Eleven will be bringing a girlfriend with him when he returns home from college for Christmas.
After his first visit, the family discovered that Chapter Eleven had begun to change. Cal points out that her family has a special gift for...
(The entire section is 434 words.)
Chapter 18 Summary
The eighteenth chapter, “The Obscure Object,” begins with Cal recounting her romances. One of his first partners was Oliva, who had been raped at thirteen. Both of them were intellectual enough to succeed in college, but they were immature emotionally. Cal explains that her unusual anatomy was a sort of “starter kit” for Oliva. Cal has other romances, but each of them becomes harder and harder since she knows they will always have to face the “great fact of my condition.” It was different with the "Obscure Object," because they met in “blissful ignorance.”
Callie is in eighth grade at Baker & Inglis School for Girls, and one of her favorite teachers is Mr. da Silva. Though Mr. da Silva is from...
(The entire section is 483 words.)
Chapter 19 Summary
At the start of the nineteenth chapter, “Tiresias in Love,” Tessie informs her daughter that she has made an appointment her with Dr. Bauer, a gynecologist. Callie is concerned, but she is primarily focused on her next day with the Obscure Object. Callie has been invited to go to the Grosse Point Club, or the “Little Club,” as the Obscure Object’s family calls it. While they are there, Callie meets the Object’s brother, Jerome, who has been kicked out of two boarding schools. He is planning to make a movie, Vampire in Prep School, and the vampire will be the headmaster. Jerome explains that it is a metaphor. The day turns into a slumber party and as Callie rubs the Object’s back, she asks whether the Object...
(The entire section is 787 words.)
Chapter 20 Summary
When the twentieth chapter, “Flesh and Blood,” begins, Cal explains that she never did end up menstruating. Instead, she faked it and maintained a cycle, claiming to do “cramps the way Meryl Streep did accents.” Cal admits that this deception was a relief to Tessie and even to Callie herself, who was no longer “at the mercy of nature.” The summer trip has been canceled, as has the appointment with Dr. Bauer.
In the living room at Middlesex, the Stephanides family and their friends continue to discuss the Turks’ invasion of Cyprus. All of the guests are furious about the invasion. Milton, however, sympathizes with Nixon, and he detests the liberals and the left-wing media that is so focused on Watergate....
(The entire section is 490 words.)
Chapter 21 Summary
The twenty-first chapter, “The Gun on the Wall,” begins the next morning when Callie wakes up and showers thoroughly. When she goes downstairs, the Object is angry at her for sleeping with Jerome. Callie returns upstairs and cries into her pillow. Jerome enters and begins to kiss her, but Callie stops him. Jerome and the Object spend the rest of the day out of the house and Callie is forced to spend time with Mr. and Mrs. Object until she finally retires and cries herself to sleep. When the Object comes home, she lies down on the bed and falls asleep. Callie shifts over the bed until she is on top of the Object. When she slips off the Object’s underpants, the latter lifts her hips “very slightly, to make it easier for me....
(The entire section is 692 words.)
Chapter 22 Summary
At the start of the twenty-second chapter, “The Oracular Vulva,” Milton and Tessie do not believe the emergency room doctor about Callie’s ambiguous sex. They send her to Doctor Philobosian, who is now eighty-four years old. He examines her, but Cal notes that it is no surprise that he did not notice her unusual genitals when she was born since “even now, alerted to the possibility, he didn’t seem to want to know.” Callie has no idea what is happening, though she overhears at one point Tessie telling Milton that Dr. Philobosian should have noticed Callie’s ambiguous sex when she was born.
Now, the family travels to New York to see Dr. Luce at New York Hospital. They stay at the Lochmoor, where Milton...
(The entire section is 559 words.)
Chapter 23 Summary
In the twenty-third chapter “Looking Myself Up in Webster’s,” Dr. Luce concludes his experiments and invites Tessie and Milton to meet with him. Milton wears his lucky Greek drama cuff links. He has just returned from a business trip and when he sees his daughter again, he “came face-to-face with the essence of tragedy, which is something determined before you’re born, something you can’t escape or do anything about, no matter how hard you try.” When they arrive at the office, things are light and comedic, particularly in the way Tessie “found herself reading about the juvenile sexual rehearsal play of the rhesus monkeys.” Finally, they are admitted to see the doctor.
Up to this point, Dr. Luce has...
(The entire section is 677 words.)
Chapter 24 Summary
Editor's Note: To avoid confusion, the narrator and main character in Middlesex is referred to by the pronoun "he" in chapter summaries 24-28.
In the twenty-fourth chapter, “Go West, Young Man,” Cal begins his journey away from home. He buys a suit from the Salvation Army and has his hair cut. He practices walking like a man, which, Cal concludes, requires the shoulders to sway rather than the hips. Cal only has so much money, but he is determined to go West. He does not have enough money to travel by bus to California, so he decides to start hitchhiking. As he stands on the road with his thumb in the air, Cal realizes that he had...
(The entire section is 628 words.)
Chapter 25 Summary
The twenty-fifth chapter, “Gender Dysphoria in San Francisco,” begins with Cal on the road in another car. His driver, Bob Presto, used to work for the radio (he does not mention what he does now), and he prides himself on his voice. He questions Cal, who still claims to be headed to Stanford. When Presto asks where Stanford is, Cal dodges the question. Presto also mentions that he had thought Cal might be a woman based on his stance on the side of the road. When Cal asks to be let out, Presto stops asking questions. However, when they arrive in San Francisco, Presto admits that he knows Cal is not a college student and asks whether Cal is a transvestite. Cal prepares to leave, but Presto tells him to at least take his number...
(The entire section is 523 words.)
Chapter 26 Summary
The twenty-sixth chapter, "Hermaphroditus," begins with a discussion of Luce's theory of gender identity. Cal explains that Luce's theory was popular in the early 1970s because "the consensus was that personality was primarily determined by environment, each child a blank slate to be written on." However, evolutionary biology began to explain that "male" and "female" tendencies could be traced to hunter-gatherer tendencies that live in cells. In fact, Cal explains that these discoveries are "the Ancient Greek notion of fate into our very cells." For Dr. Luce, Cal's disappearance was convenient because Cal's decision to live as a male would undermine Luce's theory. However, Cal argues that his case is unusual because he never felt...
(The entire section is 545 words.)
Chapter 27 Summary
The twenty-seventh chapter, “Air-Ride,” begins with Cal attending the Warhol opening at the Neue Nationalgallerie. There are no artists at the opening, and Cal eventually sits down to light a cigar. He is joined by Julie Kikuchi, who also smokes cigars. They do not talk, but afterward, they lean toward each other until “our foreheads were almost touching.” Finally Cal asks Julie to let him explain why he did not call her, saying “there’s something you should know about me.”
Cal then returns to Milton’s story. Milton once again answers the phone on a Sunday morning. The caller is able to answer questions like where Lefty and Desdemona were born, and Milton agrees to pay money to the kidnapper. He asks for...
(The entire section is 637 words.)
Chapter 28 Summary
In the twenty-eighth chapter, “The Last Stop,” Julie continues her relationship with Cal, though she asks whether she might be his last stop. He says that she is more like his first stop. When they return to his apartment and enter the bedroom, Cal asks whether he is her last stop, and Julie admits that he might be.
Chapter Eleven meanwhile flies Cal back to Detroit. The charges are removed from Cal’s record and they do not prevent him from getting a job with the State Department. The two brothers drive through the city once more, and Cal notices that black people look at him as though he is “the Man,” which he supposes is a part of the male experience. Chapter Eleven accepts Cal as his “bro,” and...
(The entire section is 462 words.)