What are some conflicts and main conflict in the novel Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides?

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egb1870 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of the main conflicts in this novel has to do with identity. This is most obvious with Cal, the main character, who tells the readers that he "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 with a condition that gave him female characteristics and, due to a doctor's incompetence, led his parents to raise him as a woman. Cal (called Calliope or Callie when living as a girl) does not go through puberty like the other girls do and falls in love with a female friend who is only ever described as "The Obscure Object." Cal ultimately chooses to live as a man instead of having a sex reassignment surgery, choosing his own identity instead of one others attempt to choose for him.

Cal is not the only character who struggles with identity in the novel. His brother is not even given a true name in the narrative and is only referred to as "Chapter Eleven," which refers to a chapter of the bankruptcy code, foreshadowing his money problems. This lack of an identifying name for a relatively important character shows that Cal is not the only character in his family whose identity is in question.

Desdemona and Lefty, Cal's grandparents, also have a character arc that deals with an identity conflict; it is revealed in the story that Desdemona and Lefty are actually siblings and lied about their true familial relationship when traveling to America in order to get married. Though she truly loves Lefty, the knowledge that their incestuous relationship can lead to deformed children (and, it is revealed later, is the cause of Cal's condition) causes Desdemona to refuse to have sex with Lefty, leading to a conflict in their marriage.

Cal's identify conflict is one of the main elements of the novel, but it is revealed throughout the story that other characters struggle with their identities themselves, though perhaps in smaller ways. Cal himself realizes this when he says, "We're all made up of many parts, other halves. Not just me."

kmcappello eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Jeffrey Eugenides' epic novel, Middlesex, tells the story of a hermaphrodite named Cal raised as a girl in the 1970's.  Cal's hermaphroditism is the result of a mutated gene passed down by her grandparents.  The main conflict in the novel, and in Cal's life, is obvious because it is physical.  As she grows up and enters adolescence, she does not develop as normal girls do.  Instead, her body stays boyish.  What's more, she begins to experience feelings of attraction for other girls.  Both of these occurrences lead her to choose the life of a male rather than a female.

Related to this is the conflict that many emigrants to America face.  Because of their customs and their lifestyle, Cal's family are treated as outsiders by the other suburbanites.  This only makes Cal's struggle to fit in even harder.

There is also an underlying conflict in the novel between fate and choice.  This conflict is first raised when Cal tells the story of her grandparents' emigration from Greece to America.  Though they were brother and sister, they fell in love with each other.  They may have been fated to fall in love, but they choose to run away to America and live as husband and wife.  Because of their incestuous marriage, they pass down the mutated gene which causes Cal's predicament--fate again.  Yet again, Cal has a choice.  Rather than continue to live as a woman, she chooses to have an operation and live as a man.

jerseygyrl1983 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Another important conflict is the racial conflict between black and white citizens that reached its zenith with the Detroit uprising in 1967.

Calliope's coming-of-age really begins in the late 1960s, when she witnesses the uprising. Her family, Greek immigrants from Smyrna, have a diner in the community, the Zebra Room, which becomes engulfed in flames after Marius Grimes throws a Molotov cocktail through the window. Milton is able to profit off the of the loss of the diner, due to his family's insurance policies. He buys a Cadillac, then a home in the affluent suburb of Grosse Pointe. The real estate agent who sells them the home tells them about a point system that keeps out "undesirables," particularly non-whites.

The Stephanides family's experience of the Detroit uprising is distinct from that of their black customers and neighbors. Their experience reveals the conflicts that led to the conditions which created the riot. Because the Greek immigrants are accepted as white citizens, they are able to open a diner. Due to discriminatory lending practices, as well as a history of economic disadvantage, black people did not usually have the capital to open businesses. Like many white citizens, their response to the uprising was to leave for the suburbs. "White flight," as this was called, partly led to the economic deterioration of Detroit.

tjburnsed | Student

The sweeping novel “Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides is, at its heart, a coming-of-age story about the book’s main character, Calliope/Cal Stephanides. Cal is born with a 5-alpha-reductase deficiency, a gene mutation that gives him the physical characteristics of a girl but the hormones of a boy. Cal’s struggle with, and eventual acceptance of, his unique identity is the over-reaching conflict in the novel. However, many more conflicts exist.

The family history that may be responsible for Cal’s deficiency begins in conflict. His grandfather and grandmother are orphaned siblings, conflicted by their feelings for one another. The two live in Bithynios, Greece and are victims of the Greco-Turkish war—another conflict.

As Cal is born in 1960 in Detroit, Michigan, societal conflicts of the time and region shape his awareness, notably racial unrest, the tension between immigrants and established American citizens, economic oppression and political strife. The personal conflict experienced by Cal’s parents as they struggled to come to grips with their young child’s physical difference is also explored.

A larger theme of nature vs. nurture or choice over fate is a conflict that drives each generation in Eugenides’ epic family saga.

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