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.