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Fate and Free Will

Cal questions the primacy of fate over free will as she examines her and her family's experiences. She begins with the silk worm analogy, tracing the thread to the past that has determined her hermaphroditism. "The thread," she insists, "began on a day two hundred and fifty years ago, when the biology gods, for their own amusement, monkeyed with a gene on a baby's fifth chromosome…. and my destiny fell into place."

James Wood, in his review of the novel for the New Republic, comments that "Eugenides wishes to use his three-generational structure to suggest something about fate, the bequeathments of genetics, and the possibility of revolt once fate has displayed its cards." Eugenides refuses to privilege one force over the other, insisting that both can affect human experience. Wood concludes, "the book clearly turns on this idea of destiny, and of destiny resisted, both by free will and by helpless action." While, for example, the damaged gene passed on by Desdemona and Lefty has left a clear mark on Cal, her grandparents had the freedom to choose to come to the United States, just as Cal chooses whether she will live as a man or a woman.

The tension between fate and free will also are evident in Cal's contradictory statements on the two forces. She claims at one point that tragedy "is something determined before you're born, something you can't escape or do anything about, no matter how hard you try." Yet by the end of the novel, she admits, "free will is making a comeback. Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind."

Coming of Age

One important focus in the novel is Cal's coming of age, a process that is complicated by her genetic irregularities. Initially, her maturation follows a familiar path. Her girlhood beauty makes her feel accepted by her peers. However, her lack of development during puberty makes her worry "about being left behind, left out," which in turn makes her feel "gypped" and "cheated." Her status as outsider is reinforced by her ethnicity.

Her growing awareness of her difference and her attraction to girls makes her feel even more ostracized from her peers. She is able to hide her sexual yearnings to a degree in a private girls' school where "school rituals reinforced an intimate atmosphere." But outside the classroom, her peers focus exclusively on boys. Cal admits that her "school remained militantly heterosexual." Her acknowledgement of her difference produces overwhelming bouts of shame. Yet, she is strong enough to reject Dr. Luce's determination to make her more what might be called normal.

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Chapter Summaries