Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2665
To avoid confusion, the narrator and main character in Middlesex is referred to here as "Cal" and by the pronoun "she." The novel opens noting two birthdates, the first when Cal was born as a baby girl in Detroit in 1960 and the second when she was born again as a teenage boy in a hospital in Michigan in 1974. She notes that she was written up in a gender study in 1975 and discussed in a medical journal, and she gives a brief history of her life, listing her various jobs and experiences. The novel's title refers to the name of the street where she lives in Grosse Point, a suburb of Detroit, and it is also an allusion to her sexual location between the polarities of male and female and incorporating some traits of each.
Cal, who is now forty-one, says that she feels "another birth coming on." As a result, she has determined to write down the history of "the recessive mutation on [her] fifth chromosome" that "polluted" her family's genetic pool and eventually caused her to be born a hermaphrodite.
Cal notes that three months before she was born, her grandmother, Desdemona, tried to divine her gender by dangling a spoon over her mother's pregnant belly. She predicted a boy, which turns out was only half right. On the night Cal was born, her grandfather, Lefty, had the first of his thirteen strokes and lost the ability to speak.
Cal's narrative turns to the story of her grandparents' union, which begins in 1922 in Bithynios, a village on Mount Olympus in Asia Minor, later part of Greece. Twenty-one-year-old Desdemona lived there with her brother, Lefty. The two had always been close, but lately, he had been going into town looking for women. Desdemona tries to find a mate for him, but Lefty rejects them all. One night, in their village where "everyone was somehow related," the siblings admit and consummate their love for each other.
Cal shifts the narrative to the present when she lives in Berlin, working for the Foreign Service. She notes that she has "all the secondary sex characteristics of a normal man" except for her immunity to baldness. While she has lived as a man for half of her life, at times her feminine side emerges. She explains that she needs to go back to her grandparents' story to explain her own.
As the Turkish army advances, Lefty and Desdemona decide to immigrate to the United States, where their cousin Sourmelina lives. They set off for Smyrna where they hope to find a ship to carry them across the Atlantic. Desperate to get out before the Turkish troops arrive, they wait one week amid the chaos of the city's evacuation. A physician, Dr. Nishan Philobosian, treats a wound on Lefty's hand and gives him bread. As the Turks advance, they set fire to the city, forcing all of the residents to the wharf where Lefty convinces Desdemona to marry him. Posing as French citizens, they eventually gain entry on a ship bound for the United States. After Dr. Philobosian's family is brutally murdered by Turkish soldiers, Lefty claims he is his cousin and gains him passage as well.
Desdemona and Lefty pretend to meet and fall in love on the ship where they are soon married. Cal claims that they both carried a single mutated gene that they subsequently passed on to her. Lefty assures Desdemona that Sourmelina, called Lina, will keep quiet about their true identities because she has a secret as well: her lesbianism.
Desdemona and Lefty move in with Lina and her husband, Jimmy Zizmo, in Detroit, and Lefty takes a job with the Ford Motor Company. When the management discovers Jimmy's criminal record, Lefty is fired.
Desdemona and Lina become pregnant with Cal's parents, and Lefty starts to work with Jimmy smuggling alcohol from Canada. Desdemona is convinced that the intermarriage will cause their child to be deformed. One night as they cross the lake into Canada, Jimmy accuses Lefty of having an affair with Lina. In a jealous rage, Jimmy races the car across the lake and cracks through the ice just after Lefty jumps clear. Desdemona gives birth to Milton, Cal's father, soon after Tessie, Cal's mother, is born to Lina. Everyone assumes that Jimmy has drowned in the river.
After Milton's baptism, Desdemona determines never to have any more children so her "sin" will not be passed on. Lefty opens an illegal bar, the Zebra Room, where he spends most of his time. A few years later, Desdemona gives birth to Zoë, Cal's Aunt Zo, and Lina and Tessie move out.
Desdemona gets a job during the Depression making silk clothing for the Nation of Islam in Detroit's Black Bottom ghetto. She discovers that Prophet Fard, who is credited with forming the Nation, is really Jimmy Zizmo. He is soon arrested for conducting illegal activities using the Nation as a cover. After he is released, he disappears and is never seen again. Lefty begins a lucrative business selling suggestive pictures of women lounging in cars. Determined not to pass on her sin to a child, Desdemona gets sterilized.
In the present time, Cal goes out on a date with Julie Kikuchi, an Asian-American woman Cal met in Berlin. In 1944, Germany is engaged in World War II. Milton serenades Tessie out his back window. Desdemona has been trying to fix him up with a Greek girl, not wanting any more intermarrying in the family. Milton, however, is in love with Tessie. Sometimes when they are alone together in the house, she lets him play his clarinet on her body.
Inexplicably, Tessie soon becomes engaged to Michael Antoniou, who is a seminarian at the Greek Orthodox church they attend. Milton is so upset at the news that he enlists in the navy. Stationed in San Diego, Milton begins to realize the dangers he will face when he is shipped overseas. Back in Detroit, Tessie thinks she sees him in a newsreel and immediately breaks off her engagement to Father Mike and determines to marry Milton. After receiving a ninety-eight on an application to the Naval Academy, Milton is immediately transferred to Annapolis. Within a year, he and Tessie marry.
By 1950, Aunt Zo has married Father Mike and Malcolm X has taken over the Nation of Islam. Whites start moving out of Detroit to the suburbs and the business in Lefty's bar drops off. When Milton comes home from the academy, he remodels the bar into a successful diner. With a lot of time on his hands, Lefty begins to gamble and soon loses all of his retirement savings. As a result, he and Desdemona have to move in with Milton, Tessie, and their son, whom Cal calls Chapter Eleven.
Dr. Philobosian delivers Cal, but because he is distracted by his nurse, he does not closely examine Cal's genitalia. Subsequently, he pronounces her a healthy girl. When Cal urinates like a fountain on Father Mike during her baptism, "no one wondered about the engineering involved." Cal explains that she had no doubts she was a girl as she was growing up. Dr. Phil, who has faulty eyesight, never saw anything out of the ordinary during Cal's yearly examinations. Milton's diner begins to lose business as the neighborhood deteriorates. By the 1960s, it is worth less than when Lefty bought the bar in 1933.
In the present, Cal takes Julie away for the weekend to the sea. When she sees nudists on the beach, Cal complains, "What is it like to feel free like that? I mean, my body is so much better than theirs." In 1967, the diner is failing as racial tension increases in Detroit. One night after the police start making arrests in a local strip club, bottles and stones are thrown, and the Detroit race riots begin. Milton holes up in his diner for three days, trying to protect it from looters. Eventually, though, it is burned down. After Milton cashes in the insurance money, they are able to move out to Grosse Point, a small, elite Detroit suburb.
There Cal makes her first friend, Clementine Stark, who teaches her the right way to kiss. Cal admits, "there was something improper about theway I felt about Clementine." When her grandfather has another stroke while she and Clementine are playing naked in the bathhouse, Cal blames herself, thinking that she shocked him. The stroke affects Lefty's memory. Soon after, when Lefty dies, Desdemona takes to her bed where she spends the next ten years.
In the present, Cal and Julie end their weekend together. Cal thinks of the "very real possibility of shock, horror, withdrawal, rebuff. The usual reactions" and so decides to stop seeing her. Back in the past, Milton opens a successful chain of hot dog stands. After Detroit begins a busing program, Milton sends Cal to a private girls' school. She feels like an outcast there, especially when her features turn more ethnic, and she does not begin to develop as the other girls do.
When Chapter Eleven waits nervously for his number to be picked in the Vietnam War draft lottery, he and Cal grow closer. His high number ensures that he will escape the draft, and so he goes east to college. When he comes home for a visit with his girlfriend, he and Milton get into a nasty argument about his anti-war, anti-establishment views, and Chapter Eleven storms out.
Cal falls in love with the Object of Desire, one of the Charm Bracelets, the popular clique at school. During this time, Cal feels sexual urges and changes in her genitalia. She plays Tiresias in her school's production of Antigone, and Object plays Antigone. The two become friends as they rehearse, away from the pressures of school. During the opening performance, one of the girls has an aneurism and dies. Cal comforts Object, which is observed by Tessie.
That summer Cal spends every day with the Object at her swim club, and the latter declares that the two are best friends. Cal is despondent over an upcoming trip to Greece with her family, but it gets canceled after the Turks invade the country. After Milton renounces his heritage in response to the U.S. government's support of the invasion, the relatives stop coming over for their Sunday visits.
Cal is invited to the Object's summer home. One night Cal, the Object, the Object's brother Jerome, and a male friend of the Object's go to a cabin in the woods where they drink and smoke marijuana. As she watches the Object and her friend kissing, the inebriated Cal mentally slips into his body. Cal admits "how right it felt" to imagine herself caressing the Object. Jerome begins to have sex with Cal, which she allows. For the first time, she understands that she is not "a girl but something in between" and is sure that Jerome realizes it, too. Jerome, however, "hadn't noticed a thing."
The next morning, the Object calls Cal "a total slut." When Jerome tries to have sex with her again, Cal stops him, insisting that she does not like him "like that." The rest of the day the Object avoids Cal. During the night, Cal slowly begins to caress the Object as they lay together in her bed. This develops into a nightly pattern. One afternoon, Jerome catches them caressing each other on the porch swing and calls them "carpet munchers," a derogatory term for a lesbian. In response, Cal tackles Jerome and spits on him. Enraged, Jerome chases her. She runs head first into a tractor and is taken to the emergency room. The doctor who examines her tells her parents to take her to New York City to see a specialist. Cal finally confronts the fact that she "was no longer a girl like other girls."
Dr. Luce conducts medical and psychological exams to determine Cal's sexuality. Cal lies on some parts of the psychological exam when he asks about her attraction to boys and girls. After two weeks of tests, Dr. Luce calls Cal's anguished parents in for a consultation while Cal waits in the library. He diagnoses her as "a girl who has a little too much male hormone" and tells them, "we want to correct that" through hormone therapy and cosmetic surgery. He also tells them that Cal can never have children. Although the last news upsets Tessie, she and Milton are relieved that "no one would ever know" about Cal's condition.
While in the library, Cal finds under the definition of "hermaphrodite" the synonym "MONSTER" and decides that is what she must be. Later, her parents tell her Dr. Luce's conclusions and assure her that her situation is "no big deal." She understands that her parents want her to remain a girl.
While waiting for Dr. Luce in his office, she reads her file, which shows that the doctor's assessment is based in part on his assumption that she is sexually attracted to boys. That conclusion, along with the possibility that the cosmetic surgery will prevent her from experiencing sexual pleasure, prompts Cal to write her parents a note declaring "I am not a girl. I'm a boy" and to run away.
Before she heads west, Cal gets her hair cut and tries to adopt more masculine mannerisms. She is not sure what to do next. Lonely and scared, she starts hitchhiking and eventually is picked up by a man who tries to seduce her. Later, Bob Presto, the owner of a strip club, picks her up and suggests that she go to San Francisco. He asks if she is gay or a transvestite and then insists that she call him if she gets in trouble. Back in Detroit, Milton and Tessie are despondent. Milton posts pictures of Cal in local stores and in his hotdog restaurants as the family gathers around. Tessie grows increasingly depressed.
Chapter Eleven comes home and joins Milton in the hot dog business. Cal arrives in San Francisco where she makes friends with other homeless teenagers. One night, while guarding their camp site in the park, two homeless people steal her money. After stripping her, they call her a freak and beat her up…. With nowhere else to turn, she calls Bob Presto.
Cal takes a job in his sex club where she works in a water tank as Hermaphrodites. She meets Zora Khyber there, another hermaphrodite who performs with her. Zora, who has done extensive research on hermaphrodites, talks to Cal about their gender issues, making Cal feel "less alone in the world." After the police raid the club, Cal calls Chapter Eleven, who says Milton has just been killed in an accident.
In the present, Cal attends an art opening and sees Julie. Cal tells her about herself, and the two go back to Cal's apartment. Back in Detroit, Cal learns about Milton's death. Milton had gotten a phone call from a man who insisted that he had kidnapped Cal and who demanded money for her release. Milton arrived at a train station where he dropped money they had agreed upon as ransom. After he saw Father Mike pick up the money, he chased him to the Canadian border. On the bridge to Canada, Milton died in a car crash.
Father Mike, who confessed that he was trying to get back at Milton for stealing Tessie from him, was sent to jail. Cal jumps ahead into the future and notes that Chapter Eleven ruins his father's business, and Aunt Zo, Desdemona, and Tessie move to Florida.
After Cal comes home for Milton's traditional Greek funeral, the family gradually adjusts to Cal as a male. Desdemona admits that Lefty was her brother and blames herself for Cal's situation. Cal tells her that Cal likes his life and that he is okay. The novel ends with Cal at the door, happy to be home, and "thinking about what was next."
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