Middlesex and the Pursuit of Identity
Following the success of his debut novel, Jeffrey Eugenides wrote Middlesex, a story centered on Calliope Stephanides, chronicling the lives of the three generations of the Stephanides family.
Middlesex follows the story of Calliope Stephanides. At the start of the novel, Cal chronicles his grandparents’, Eleutherios (“Lefty”) and Desdemona, life in Smyrna, Greece. Lefty and Desdemona are, in fact, siblings, orphaned by the ongoing wars. Fleeing from the burning city and journeying to America towards a better life, Lefty and Desdemona marry aboard the ship guided to America. Now living in Detroit, Lefty and Desdemona experience life during the Prohibition era. Together, they start a family, raising their children Milton and Zoe. When Milton comes of age, he falls in love and marries Tessie Zizmo, his second cousin. Tessie gives birth to her first child, a boy known throughout the whole novel as Chapter Eleven. Their second child is our delightful narrator, Calliope “Callie” Stephanides. Unbeknownst to the Stephanides family, Callie is an intersex, or, more specifically, a hermaphrodite. From there, Cal embarks on a journey of self-discovery, gradually finding acceptance of himself.
Winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize, Eugenides’ international best-seller intertwines historical events such as Watergate, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, and the Great Fire of Smyrna. For Lefty and Desdemona, fleeing their native homeland and immigrating to America symbolizes rebirth. Escaping Smyrna allows them to put the past behind them and start anew in America; however, they often find themselves caught between two cultures.
The title “Middlesex” bears significance to the novel. By “middle,” word dictates “a point or position at an equal distance from the sides, edges, or ends of something.” At cursory glance, the title refers to Cal. Cal was born with both male and female genitalia. As the story progresses, readers discover “Middlesex” is the name of the street that Cal was growing up in during his adolescent years. According to an interview on with Jeffery Eugenides, he stated the title implied “the androgynous nature” of the protagonist (“Q & A with Jeffery Eugenides”). Not only that, but the title also refers to events or characters that remain at the center of the spectrum. For example, “The Minotaur,” the play Lefty and Desdemona attend focuses on a mythical creature that is part man and part bull. The story deals not only with Cal as a hybrid of two genders, but also with a hybrid of two different cultures: Greek and American. Several of the character from Middlesex undergo an identity crisis.
The grandparents of Cal, for example, Lefty and Desdemona Stephanides travel to America and become expose to a culture different from their own. Both Milton and Tessie are the children of immigrants, caught between two different cultures. Throughout the story, we don’t see Tessie finding difficulty with her identity, unlike Milton. At birth, he was given the name, Miltiades, named “after the great Athenian general” (125). Later in the child’s life, he would be known as “Milton,” after the English poet, John Milton. In Tessie’s case, she was born “Theodora Zizmo,” but as she gets older, she’s known as “Tessie.” Already, readers begin to see the second generation immigrants starting to assimilating into their culture.
As Middlesex is partially an immigration novel, the setting often reflects the characters’ identity. In Lefty and Desdemona’s case, they lived in Detroit, where Henry Ford his automobile company, thus representing their humble beginnings and pursuit of the American dream. A few years later, Milton moves his family from Detroit to Grosse Point. Finding many “For Sale’ signs throughout the area, Milton and his family discover many properties “suddenly went off the market, or were sold, or doubled in price” (254). While Milton views of the houses, his real estate agents asks questions regarding his profession, slowly realizing that she’s not selling the property to “the right sort of people” (256). The narrator explains that the real estate agent uses the Point System to evaluate prospective buyers, but in this case, the Point System is used as a racial or cultural identification to abide by “community standards” (256). Since Milton successfully purchases the Grosse Pointe property, taking a step away from his middle class status and rising to the upper class.
With a new house brings along big changes for Cal: puberty. While the first two sections of the novel consisted of questions of cultural identity, Cal’s story focuses on gender identity. Eugenides raises an interesting argument regarding gender identity. At the start of the novel, Cal narrates the events prior to his birth: his grandmother, Desdemona dangles a silver spoon over his mother’s Tessie’s stomach. Based on the movement of the spoon determines whether the unborn child will be a girl or a boy. Unbeknownst to Desdemona, gender and sex are two different things: sex is biological and gender and is cultural.
Although raised female (and known as Calliope Helen Stephanides until his late teens), Cal is genetically male. In many ways, Cal’s family adhere to gender stereotypes. As Cal states, Tessie “starved for a daughter,” going “overboard in dressing me” (224). Cal was raised as a girl, and “had no doubts about this,” until he reached puberty (226). Because of puberty, Cal becomes aware of his body’s physical changes (specifically while playing sports) and leading him to avoid taking showers after gym class in front of everyone. Around this time, Cal meets and falls in love with a girl known only as the Obscure Object.
While the narrator argues that attending an all-girls school might light to developing crushes on females, it was totally acceptable; however, Cal argues that what he felt for the Obscure Object “felt physical” (328). A tradition from the school, Baker & Inglis, will be performing the Greek play, Antigone, allowing the Obscure Object and Cal to become friends. Casted as Antigone is the Obscure Object, while the narrator will be playing Tiresias. The play shares significant relevance to the narrative. Antigone follows the titular heroine, who is a product of incest, following one of the themes of the story. Tiresias is a blind profit, but also famous for being transformed into a woman. Eugenides continuously relies on the literary devices to reflect his central themes. It is on the day of the play that Cal realizes his true feelings for the Obscure Object, feeling “a wave of pure happiness surge through [his] body. Every nerve, every corpuscle, lit up. I had the Obscure Object in my arms” (339).
I 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.
The quote above signifies a rebirth for Cal, another prominent theme shown throughout the novel. Towards the end of the novel, Cal realizes that he was born with 5-Alpha-Reductase Pseudohermaphrodites, genetically male but born with external genitalia appearing female, causing our narrator to question his identity by fleeing to San Francisco. The unexpected death of his father brings Cal home and his story comes full circle. Cal explains that there is an old Greek custom where a man guards the door, blocking the doorway to keep away spirits from reentering the house until the church service was over. Cal does not attend his father’s service, but instead guards the doorway (529). The story has come full circle, beginning at first birth as a girl, and ends with his acceptance of identifying himself as a man.
Eugenides, Jeffrey. Middlesex. New York: Picador, 2002. Print.
“Q & A with Jeffrey Eugenides.” Oprah.com. Oprah Winfrey. Web.
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