Analysis

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Middlesex, the long-awaited and Pulitzer Prize-winning second novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, unfolds like a Greek drama, with a sense of inevitability and of underlying purpose in what might be seen as random and coincidental occurrences. Characters suffer from flaws that the reader knows will somehow be their undoing but act according to their seemingly free will, even when taking actions that they suspect will prove ruinous. The moral lessons, barring an admonition against incest, are not as obvious as in Greek drama, but the reader leaves the book feeling that the gods do in fact have plans for mortal beings.

Cal Stephanides, a pseudohermaphrodite (he has external female genitalia but male XY chromosomes, rather than female XX), narrates the novel. The opening sentence hints at inevitability: Cal states that he was born twice, as a baby girl in Detroit in 1960, then as a teenage boy in an emergency room in Petoskey, Michigan, in 1974. Readers thus know that Cal will discover his identity, but through many chapters, Calliope (his young female self) remains confused by her feelings and by her body. Cal believes that he breaks from predestination by deciding to live as a man, but one could argue that because he is genetically male (with XY chromosomes), albeit with female genitalia, the choice to be a man is not his.

Cal’s grandparents are more firmly attached to the idea of life as inevitable tragedy. Shortly before fleeing their tiny Greek village during the Turkish invasion of 1922, they realize that although they are brother and sister, they love each other as man and woman. Thus is rooted another theme of the book, that of transformation—Cal’s from female to male identification and his grandparents’ reinvention of themselves as husband and wife rather than brother and sister. The latter choice sets Cal’s story in motion, for it is through his grandparents’ mating that a rare recessive gene is passed to Cal’s father.

That is getting ahead of the story, but the narrator does the same. Early chapters begin with snippets of the narrator’s current life. He relates that he dates women and is good at chatting up and front-door kisses, even groping and the first stages of undressing, but when a relationship gets to that point, he abandons it. He is compelled to engage in the chase, but he has no real interest in bagging the quarry. These glimpses let readers know early on how Cal has turned out, at least in outline, but how he gets there nevertheless makes for fascinating reading.

The book contains two main stories, one acting as prelude to the other, and a third that is neglected. The prelude, about one third of the book, tells how Cal’s grandparents came to the United States, set themselves up as a family, and had a child, Cal’s father. The second is Callie’s tale of growing up as a girl, increasingly confused about her identity, and her discovery of her dual self. It climaxes with her decision to defy her upbringing and live as a man, then shows the process of breaking away from the past and discovering how to be a different person. The tentative and painful first steps of that process are related poignantly.

The neglected story is what happened to the teenage Cal and how he became the forty-one-year-old narrator: Eugenides reveals only the barest outline of more than two decades of Cal’s life. At the age of forty-one, Cal meets a young woman, then abruptly shuts her out of his life when the relationship becomes too serious. He meets her again by chance—but...

(This entire section contains 1882 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

in this novel, what is chance and what is predestination is open to question—and decides for the first time to tell the truth about himself to someone other than a family member. This end fits, for it shows Cal’s willingness to move to a new stage in his life.

Cal begins by telling readers about his dual birth, relates a bit about his present circumstances, and then goes back to the roots of his story in the lives of his grandparents. His grandmother, Desdemona, knows that something bad would come from marrying her brother and tries to avoid becoming pregnant. Greek myth enters here. Desdemona and her cousin Sourmelina, with whom Desdemona and Lefty live, become pregnant on the same night after watching an Americanized performance of a Greek tragedy. The double impregnation is doubly ominous, as Sourmelina, a lesbian, had not had sexual intercourse with her husband, Jimmy Zizmo, for five months, putting him off with various excuses.

The primary reason for Cal to tell so much about his grandparents as part of his own story is to reveal how the rare recessive gene for Cal’s form of hermaphroditism was passed to his father, Desdemona and Lefty’s child Milton. Milton marries Tessie, the daughter of Sourmelina and Jimmy Zizmo. Such intermarrying among close families was common in their home village, but Desdemona comes to learn of the medical reasons against it.

Eugenides has a second reason for telling so much about Desdemona and Lefty: to draw their environment into the story. Like The Virgin Suicides, the book is set primarily in Detroit. Desdemona refuses to assimilate; having changed her life once, to become her brother’s wife, she remains steadfast in her desire to remain a Greek wife. Lefty, through the assistance of Jimmy, gets a job at Ford Motor Company; he attends classes in English there, and at home he adheres to Henry Ford’s strict rules about personal hygiene and behavior. It is also through Jimmy that he loses the job—Ford’s Sociological Department objects to Lefty’s association with Jimmy, who is a bootlegger.

Jimmy’s bootlegging provides the material for a key scene: As he and Lefty drive across a frozen lake into Canada to obtain liquor, Jimmy accuses Lefty of being the father of Sourmelina’s child. Lefty jumps out of the car, fearing for his life, and the car crashes through the ice. Desdemona later takes a job at what she finds out is the first Nation of Islam temple. She listens through air vents to the charismatic temple leader, W. D. Fard. The historical Fard, known by a variety of names, has a sketchy past. Eugenides here has a bit of fun with history, revealing Fard to be none other than Jimmy Zizmo, who survived the car crash and chose to reinvent himself as a religious leader—surely in it for the money, the same impetus behind his marriage to Sourmelina. Like the historical Fard, Zizmo is chased from Detroit and vanishes. As one more example of integration of setting into plot, Eugenides describes the Detroit race riots of 1967, in which Milton Stephanides’ overinsured restaurant is burned. Milton uses the insurance windfall to begin a chain of restaurants, the success of which allows his daughter Callie to grow up with a privileged lifestyle. Unlike his mother, Milton pursues the American Dream and even supports U.S. policy favoring Turkey, long the enemy of Greeks.

The story bridges fairly quickly to that of Cal. Cousins Milton and Tessie, living next door to each other, fall in love. At one point, Tessie is engaged to marry Michael Antoniou, who is to become a priest in the Greek Orthodox Church, but instead she marries Milton.

Callie’s story begins with mistakes. Desdemona, known for her skill at predicting the sex of unborn children, seemingly breaks her string of more than twenty correct guesses by predicting that Milton and Tessie’s second child will be a boy. The doctor who delivers Callie, chosen because he is an old family friend (and delivered Milton), fails to notice signs of Callie’s hermaphroditism, and thus Callie is set on course to be reared as a girl. A mistake glossed over by the author is Tessie’s failure to notice Callie’s unusually prominent clitoris (which contains the child’s urethra) while bathing and dressing her, even though she has an older boy, referred to by Cal only as “Chapter Eleven” (yet more inevitability—late in the book, Chapter Eleven runs Hercules Hot Dogs, the family business, into bankruptcy).

Callie has a relatively normal girlhood, but as an adolescent she becomes troubled by her attraction to a female classmate, referred to only as the Obscure Object, and by her failure to develop physically or to menstruate. Eugenides here prolongs suspense, providing a series of episodes hinting to Callie that something is wrong and leaving the reader to wonder just how and when she will discover her genetic identity. Her secret comes out while on a vacation with the Obscure Object. They engage in quasisexual exploration, each pretending that it is not really happening. The Object’s brother accuses them of being lesbians, and Callie runs away, only to be hit by a tractor. The emergency room doctor who treats her discovers her physical abnormality.

Milton and Tessie take Callie to a specialist in gender identity, who tells them that multiple factors determine gender, and in his opinion Callie should receive hormone treatments and surgery to allow her to live as a woman. Callie, however, reads his records and sees that genetically she is male. She leaves her parents a note saying that she really is a boy and that the doctor had lied to them, then runs away. She buys a suit, adopts the name Cal, hitchhikes to California, and lives briefly in a camp of other runaways. After being beaten there by several homeless men, in desperation Cal calls a man he met on the road. Cal works in the man’s strip club, revealing his body to peep show customers. He states that the experience, though horrible, allowed him to become comfortable with his body. When the club is raided by police, the underage Cal is taken into custody. He calls home, setting the scene for reconciliation several months after he ran away.

In the meantime, however, Milton has died. He believed a series of telephone calls from a man who claimed to have kidnapped Callie. He delivered ransom money, only to discover that the supposed kidnapper is Father Mike Antoniou. In his Cadillac, he chases Father Mike in his Gremlin. The chase ends when Milton rear-ends the Gremlin, dying in the crash. This scene is notable as the most flagrant example of a problem in the narration: As narrator, Cal relates the thoughts of both Father Mike (envious of Milton’s marriage to Tessie and of his money) and Milton. This is only the most obvious case of Cal relating things that he cannot or probably does not know. Here, he tries to get around the problem by stating “I have to be honest and record Milton’s thoughts as they occurred to him.”

The Greek tragedy thus reaches its climax. Father Mike goes to prison, Chapter Eleven ruins the family business, and Cal moves on to his life as a man. Eugenides treats his characters as people, not as freaks, and tells a story with many insights.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 98 (June 1-15, 2002): 1644.

Library Journal 127 (July, 2002): 116.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 1, 2002, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review 107 (September 15, 2002): 9.

Publishers Weekly 249 (July 1, 2002): 46.

Historical Context

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

World War II in the Pacific

Two incidents in 1940 exacerbated the tension between the United States and Japan that resulted in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. declaration of war against Japan. Japan invaded Indochina and signed the Tripartite Pact, which created an alliance between Japan, Germany, and Italy against Great Britain and France. As a result, the U.S. government drastically increased economic sanctions by withholding oil and freezing all Japanese assets. In retaliation, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and the United States entered the war.

The United States battled Japan on the sea (most notably at Midway in 1942) and on Japanese-held islands and through a bombing campaign on the Japanese mainland. In 1942, Japan's forces occupied much of the southeastern Pacific: the Philippine Islands, Indonesia, and New Guinea. Also in 1942, the Americans launched their counterattack. The Coral Sea naval battle prevented the Japanese from gaining access to Australia and the U.S. Marines regained Guadalcanal.

U.S. forces took control of the Solomon Islands in 1943 and New Guinea in 1944. They advanced on Japanese-held island groups: the Philippines, the Marianas Islands, Okinawa, and Iwo Jima. After protracted fighting, the Allies took Birmania in October of 1944, Manila and Iwo Jima in March of 1945, and Okinawa in June of 1945. Japan resisted, however, until 1945. After the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of that year, Japan accepted the terms of an unconditional surrender: the dissolution of the Japanese Empire and the release of all seized territories.

Vietnam War

The Vietnam War was fought in South Vietnam and surrounding areas between U.S. forces and insurgents supported by North Vietnam. The war started in 1954 soon after the provisions of the Geneva Conference divided Vietnam into the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North) and the Republic of Vietnam (South). Conflict initially broke out as a civil war between the North and the South but escalated as the United States threw its support to the South, initially by sending money and advisors and later by sending troops.

After the Tonkin Gulf Resolution was passed in August of 1964, the United States increased its military aid to South Vietnam. By the end of that decade, there were 550,000 U.S. troops involved in the conflict. North Vietnam gained armaments and technical support from the Soviet Union and other communist countries. Despite massive bombing attacks, the United States and South Vietnam failed to push back the insurgency.

Progress was made with peace talks after President Johnson decided not to seek reelection in 1968. After his election that year, President Nixon began troop withdrawals along with intensified bombing campaigns. In 1970, Nixon ordered the invasion of communist strongholds in Cambodia.

Public opinion in the United States turned against the war as the number of casualties grew and reports of war crimes such as the massacre at My Lai surfaced. Huge demonstrations took place in Washington D.C., as well as in other cities and on college campuses. A peace agreement was finally reached in January of 1973, but fighting between the North and the South did not abate. On April 30, 1975, the South Vietnamese president Duong Van Minh surrendered to the communists. Saigon fell as the last U.S. troops left the country. More than 50,000 U.S. soldiers died in the conflict along with approximately 400,000 South Vietnamese and over 900,000 North Vietnamese.

Cal includes details about these two wars to reveal the historical and cultural context of her family's saga. Two members of her family, her father, Milton, and her brother, Chapter Eleven, must face the prospect of serving in these wars since they are American citizens. Fortunately for them and for the rest of the family, neither is sent overseas.

Literary Style

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Mythological Allusions

The several mythological allusions in the novel reinforce Cal's sense of her Greek heritage and become important symbolically. Calliope, the goddess of epic poetry, is an appropriate name for the narrator as she tells her and her family's own epic story. In the opening pages, Cal plays Tiresias in her school's production of Antigone. She notes the similarities between the two, insisting that like him, she "was first one thing and then the other." The blind prophet Tiresias, who had lived as both a woman and a man, also becomes symbolic of Cal as a seer. Eugenides adds a touch of irony in this allusion, which correlates Tiresias, who can see into the future, with Cal, who can see into the past.

Cal also adopts a comic Homeric tone in the novel, characterized by its elevated, dramatic style of speech typical of epic poems like the Iliad and the Odyssey. This tone reflects her Greek heritage as well as her gently comic view of her family and its history. As she begins her story, she sets this tone when she writes, "Sing now, O Muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome! Sing how it bloomed two and a half centuries ago on the slopes of Mount Olympus, while the goats bleated and the olives dropped."

Self-Reflexivity

Self-reflexivity is a term applied to texts that call attention to the creative process. At different points in the novel, Cal notes that she is fabricating some of her memories or altering them for literary purposes. One such example occurs in her description of her grandfather and Jimmy Zizmo driving past an amusement park. Cal admits that the park should be closed at 3 a.m., but she claims, "for my own purposes, tonight Electric Park is open all night, and the fog suddenly lifts, all so that my grandfather can look out the window and see a roller coaster streaking down the track." This is, she suggests, "a moment of cheap symbolism only." To be truthful, however, she must "bow to the strict rules of realism, which is to say: they can't see a thing." In this fabricated moment, Cal suggests that her story moves between fiction and reality, calling readers' attention to one of her main points in the novel: the difficulty in determining what is real and what is a fictional construct in people's assessment of who they are.

Media Adaptations

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

  • In 2002, Audio Renaissance produced an audio version of the novel, read by Kristoffer Tabori. As of 2006, no film version had been made.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Sources

Collins, Rachel, Review of Middlesex, in Library Journal, July 2002, p. 116.

Eugenides, Jeffrey, Middlesex, Picador, 2002.

Review of Middlesex, in Publishers Weekly, July 1, 2002, p. 46.

Watman, Max, "Suffer the Children," in New Criterion, November 2002, pp. 65-71.

Wilkinson, Joanne, Review of Middlesex, in Booklist, June 1 & 15, 2002, p. 1644.

Wood, James, "Unions," in New Republic, October 7, 2002, pp. 31-34.

Further Reading

Colapinto, John, As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl, Harper Collins, 2000.

Journalist Colapinto tells the true story of a boy who was raised a girl after he survived a botched circumcision.

Fausto-Sterling, Anne, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality, Basic Books, 2000.

Fausto-Sterling examines the biological and environmental influences that determine sexuality.

Sowerby, Robin, The Greeks: An Introduction to Their Culture, Routledge, 1995.

This work presents a concise but comprehensive view of ancient Greek culture.

Woodhouse, C. M., Modern Greece: A Short History, Faber and Faber, 2000.

Woodhouse presents an overview of the history and culture of Greece from 324 to 1990.

Previous

Critical Essays

Next

Teaching Guide