Cal Stephanides, "the most famous hermaphrodite in history" (1.2.1), tells us the story of his life, the life of his parents, and the life of his grandparents.
His Greek grandparents, Lefty and Desdemona, are brother and sister living in Turkey (your read that right: brother and sister). When war breaks out between Turkey and Greece, Lefty and Desdemona flee to America. There, they live with their cousin Sourmelina and her husband, Jimmy Zizmo. After a brief stint as a cog in Henry Ford's factory, Lefty helps Jimmy smuggle liquor into Canada while Desdemona weaves silks for the Nation of Islam. They make the Great Depression seem like a grand old time.
Lefty and Desdemona have two children, but we really only learn much about Milton, who will be Cal's father. Milton is courting his cousin, Tessie (Sourmelina's daughter), but ends up going off to fight in World War II. Tessie almost marries a priest, but Milton returns not in a casket, so Tessie marries him instead. The priest, Father Mike, marries Milton's sister Zoë. They pop out four kids and Mike regrets his entire life while Zoë drinks and shouts a lot. Now that's a great depression.
Milton and Tessie have two kids: one who is just called Chapter Eleven, and Cal. That's right: Finally, we get to Cal's story. Cal is born intersex but raised female, as Calliope, because of her ambiguous genitalia. As Calliope, she spends a lot of time hanging out with her grandfather (Lefty) who has a stroke and soon dies. Then, the Detroit race riots happen, and Milton buses Calliope to private school so she won't have to integrate. Oh the horrors!
When Calliope hits puberty, she starts looking more and more masculine. She also falls in love with a girl whom is referred to as the Obscure Object. Calliope has a sexual experience with both the Object and her brother, and they're both combinations of pleasure and pain… like eating a habañero pepper.
When the Object's brother catches Calliope and his sister together, Calliope runs… smack into a tractor and gets injured. The doctors in the emergency room realize that her genitals are different from other girls', so they send the poor kid off to a specialist in New York, Dr. Luce. Luce suggests sex reassignment surgery to make Calliope a girl, since she was raised as one, but Calliope runs away.
Calliope no more, Cal hitchhikes to San Francisco. There, he finds himself in a sex show run by a man named Bob Presto. Cal swims naked in a pool while people watch him through a peephole. Meanwhile, back in Detroit, Father Mike blackmails Milton, saying that he's holding Calliope hostage. Milton chases Mike down, but dies in a car accident.
The sex show is busted by the police and Cal returns home. He reunites with his family, mourns his father, and looks forward to the future in his new identity.
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Narrated by Cal Stephanides, a 5-alpha-reductase Greek-American hermaphrodite identifying as a male, Middlesex tells the story of the Stephanides family's immigration to America and their assimilation. Book One begins in 1922 with Cal's grandparents, Desdemona and Lefty Stephanides, who are siblings living alone in a small village in Turkey, working as silk farmers. When the Turkish army invades Bursa and Smyrna, the siblings are forced to flee. They witness many atrocities as the cities burn down but, thanks to Lefty's courage and ingenuity, they manage to make it safely onto a ship that takes them to Greece. From Greece they board a ship to America. On that ship, they realize that they are in love with each other, and that no one knows they are actually siblings. They stage a fake courtship, and before the journey is over, they have been married in a Greek Orthodox marriage ceremony. Once in America, they contact their cousin Lina Zizmo, who lives in Detroit. They tell Lina their secret, which Lina agrees to keep because she also has something to hide (she is a lesbian).
Book Two tells of how Lefty and Desdemona adjust to living in America, as well as the story of Milton and Tessie, Cal's parents. Lina's husband, Jimmy Zizmo, gets Lefty a job at the Ford Motor Company. While there, Lefty graduates from their English school with flying colors. His success, however, is marred by investigation into his home life. The Ford authorities find out that Jimmy has a criminal record and they dismiss Lefty from work. Lefty now goes to work for Jimmy, helping him bootleg alcohol during Prohibition. One night, after the couples go see an erotically charged performance of The Minotaur, both couples have sex and conceive children. As the women cope with the stress of pregnancy, the men avoid the house. Jimmy begins to suspect (falsely) that Lefty and Lina are having an affair. One night, he lures Lefty onto the ice to threaten him. The plan backfires, and Jimmy crashes through the ice.
Desdemona gives birth to a son - Milton - and Lina gives birth to a daughter - Tessie - and the families hold Jimmy's funeral despite never finding a body. After learning about the genetic complications caused by incest, Desdemona fears giving birth to more children, so she begins to avoid Lefty. Lefty in turn starts a speakeasy in the basement of their house. Frustrated with being ignored for too long, Lefty grows angry with Desdemona, demanding that she get a job to support the family. She gets a job at a temple run by the new-found Nation of Islam, teaching the women how to raise silkworms. While there, she overhears their enigmatic leader, Minister Fard, preach on the dangers and treachery of white people. Emotionally vulnerable, Desdemona begins to take his words to heart and worries even more about her and Lefty's relationship. One day, the police arrest Minister Fard for inspiring another man to commit human sacrifice. He is forced to leave Detroit and as he walks past Desdemona, she realizes that Minister Fard is, in fact, the supposedly dead Jimmy Zizmo.
The narrative moves forward a few years to the middle of World War II, and Tessie and Milton are now young adults. Lefty has started a restaurant named the Zebra Room. Milton has begun to court Tessie, playing romantic songs for her on his clarinet. Fearing their "consanguinity," Desdemona tries to set the two cousins up with other people. She succeeds in getting Tessie to accept an offer of marriage from Michael Antoniou, a short, young man studying to be a priest. In protest, Milton enlists in the Navy. Once he gets there, he realizes what a mistake he's made and, afraid of going into combat, he desperately seeks a way out. Stuck at home watching movies while Michael is away at seminary, Tessie realizes that she actually loves Milton and writes to him, accepting his proposal. Desdemona agrees to it only because she thinks Milton is about to die. In a deus ex machina, Milton's application to Annapolis goes through, and right before he is to enter combat, he gets orders to report to the officer training academy.
Milton and Tessie get married and move around America for a little while. They have a son, whom they name Chapter Eleven. Father Mike marries Milton's sister Zoe. When Milton and Tessie finally move back to Detroit, Milton takes over Lefty's restaurant, making it very successful. Left without anything to do, Lefty starts gambling again, a habit from his days in Turkey. He eventually loses all his money, and Lefty and Desdemona are forced to move in with Tessie and Milton. Meanwhile, Milton and Tessie, wishing that they had a daughter, decide to try to conceive another child. Enter Calliope Stephanides.
Dr. Philobosian, an old family friend who fled Turkey with Desdemona and Lefty, delivers Calliope. He's too distracted by a beautiful nurse to realize that Calliope is not actually a girl, and so her family welcomes her home as the daughter they always wanted. As Calliope grows up, tensions in Detroit build between the races and riots eventually break out. Despite Milton's foolish efforts to physically protect his diner, someone burns it to the ground. The diner's fire insurance, however, saves the family and they end up getting a lot of money for it. They relocate to a wealthy suburb of Detroit named Grosse Pointe and Milton starts a roadside chain called Hercules Hot Dogs. There, seven-year-old Calliope makes a new friend, Clementine Stark, who practices kissing with her, awakening her sexuality. Lefty's health declines and a series of strokes results in his death and Desdemona's withdrawal from the outside world.
As the Stephanides grow more wealthy, Desdemona tries hard to die and Calliope wonders why she hasn't entered puberty yet. When Detroit passes a law to desegregate and "bus" its schools, Milton places Calliope in Baker & Inglis, an all-girls school. She feels uncomfortable changing clothes around her classmates and struggles with her body's development. Tessie takes her to a salon to remove the hair emerging on top of her lip. Meanwhile, Chapter Eleven comes home from college a hippie, high on LSD and toting his Marxist girlfriend behind him. He fights with the family, eventually dropping out of college to live in the backwoods of Michigan.
At school, Calliope is placed in the accelerated English class, where she meets a girl she calls "The Obscure Object." They are cast in a production of Antigone and they become friends. During the performance, another girl dies and, traumatized, the Obscure Object runs to Calliope for comfort. They grow closer over the summer and Calliope realizes that she loves the Object. The Object invites Calliope up to her summer house, with the Object's older brother Jerome and his friend Rex Reese. There, the four teenagers drink and smoke pot, and Jerome and Calliope have sex while the Object and Rex hook up next to them. Calliope is petrified that Jerome might have found something wrong with her, but he doesn't notice anything. The Object acts jealous towards Calliope the next morning, and the two girls begin a secret sexual relationship at night, which neither acknowledge during the day. One day, while Calliope is subtly stroking the Object's genitals, Jerome walks in on them and viciously makes fun of them for being lesbians. Calliope attacks him and then runs for her life. While she is running, she fails to see the tractor headed her way, and she crashes into it. As a car drives her off to the hospital, the Object kisses her goodbye, their first and last kiss.
At the hospital, the doctors realize that there is something wrong with Calliope's genitals and they recommend that her parents take her to a sexologist in New York named Dr. Luce. He is very famous, having redefined the criteria for determining gender. After examining Calliope for several weeks, he tells her parents that she is essentially a girl with male hormones kicking in at puberty, and that with hormone therapy and a little surgery, she can remain their little girl. Calliope, however, reads his written report and realizes that she is, biologically and genetically, a boy. Freaked out by this information, she runs away. Now going by Cal, (s)he hitchhikes across the United States, meeting kind people and creepy people along the way. Cal ends up in San Francisco, where he lives in a park with other runaways.
One night, while everyone else is at a Grateful Dead concert, other homeless men beat Cal up when they discover his gender secret. Penniless and bleeding, Cal calls the man who drove him into San Francisco, Bob Presto. Presto runs a strip club called Sixty-Niners, and he offers Cal a job portraying "the god Hermaphroditus" in the peep-show part. There, Cal meets other hermaphrodites who give him support and guidance. One night, the police raid the club and arrest Cal for being underage. At the police station, Cal calls his family and he learns that his father is dead. While searching for his missing daughter Calliope, Milton got a ransom call. He decided to meet the person without telling anyone, and after delivering the cash, he realized that it was actually Father Mike. Furious about the con, Milton chased Father Mike down and crashed the car on the Canadian border, dying on impact. Although saddened, Cal tells us that it is somehow for the best, since Milton missed many of the upcoming hardships. Cal returns home for Milton's funeral, but he stays behind to talk to the aging Desdemona. She doesn't recognize Cal at first, but eventually she realizes who Cal is and apologizes for her actions long ago. She tells Cal her secret, that she and Lefty were siblings. Cal promises not to tell people until after Desdemona dies.
In the present, Cal is living in Berlin, working for the Foreign Service. He meets an Asian woman named Julie Kikuchi, whom he takes on a couple of dates. Although he originally pulls away from her, afraid that she will reject him, he goes back and tells her the truth. She accepts him, and they tentatively and happily start their new life together.
Cal/lie Stephanides was first born as a girl in Detroit in 1960, and then born again as a teenage boy in Petoskey, Michigan, in 1974. He is intersex, and is now 41 years old and living in Germany. He has decided to write his memoir after reading about historical figures who were also intersex. Cal’s grandmother, Desdemona, was born in Bithynios, a small village on Mount Olympus near Bursa in Asia Minor. Both her parents died in World War I, leaving her and brother, Lefty, as orphans. Desdemona works in a silkworm cocoonery. In 1922, Desdemona tries to set Lefty up to marry girls in their village, but Lefty isn’t interested. Despite the fact that they are brother and sister, Desdemona and Lefty are secretly in love with each other.
After years of Greek rule, the Turks reinvade the area of Asia Minor where Lefty and Desdemona live, and they plan to flee to the U.S. via Smyrna. Desdemona secretly brings her silkworm box with her, despite Lefty’s insistence that no one in America farms silk. In Smyrna, Lefty briefly encounters a young Armenian doctor named Dr. Philobosian, whose entire family is soon slaughtered in the Turkish assault on the city. It becomes increasingly clear that the whole city is about to be destroyed and on-Turkish residents killed. Convinced that they are about to die, Desdemona agrees to marry Lefty. However, at the last moment they are able to escape by pretending to be French citizens. They bring Dr. Philobosian with them. Onboard the ship to the U.S., Lefty and Desdemona pretend to be strangers and engage in a fake courtship, followed by a wedding.
In the U.S., they are greeted by their cousin, Sourmelina, who moved to the U.S. years before and has completely assimilated. They trust Sourmelina to keep the secret that they are brother and sister because Sourmelina herself also has a secret: she is a closeted lesbian. Lefty and Desdemona go to live with Sourmelina and her husband, Jimmy Zizmo. Lefty gets a job as a factory worker at the Ford Motor Company and learns English at night. However, the same day he graduates from his English course, he is told that he has been fired for living with someone (Zizmo) who has a criminal record. On this same night, Sourmelina and Desdemona tell their husbands that they are both pregnant, having conceived at the exact same moment.
Now that Lefty is unemployed, he starts working with Zizmo in the bootlegging business during Prohibition. Sourmelina gives birth to a daughter named Theodora (Tessie). While Desdemona is giving birth to her son, Milton, Zizmo attempts to drive himself and Lefty over a frozen lake to Canada for a “final scheme.” However, Zizmo he drives his car into the ice and drowns, while Lefty gets out just in time. After Theodora’s birth, finding himself once again without a job, Lefty opens a speakeasy in his basement called the Zebra Room. He also tells Desdemona to get a job, and after seeing an ad in the newspaper for a silk worker, she goes to inquire about the job, only to find herself in the Black Bottom ghetto. To her surprise, the address in the ad is for a mosque run by the Nation of Islam. Desdemona starts working there, teaching the young followers of the movement how to make silk and showing them her silkworm box. While working, she listens to speeches made by the movement’s leader, Minister Fard, and is forced to confront her own complicity in racism as a white person. When a scandal forces Fard to leave Detroit, he reveals to Desdemona that he is really Jimmy Zizmo (and that he faked his own death).
The narrative jumps forward to World War II, when Milton and Tessie are young adults. Desdemona has noticed an intimacy developing between them, which brings back her fears about her own incestuous relationship. Milton ends up seducing Tessie by blowing his clarinet on different parts of her body. However, Tessie then gets engaged to a young man named Michael Antoniou, who is training to be a priest. Furious, Milton enlists in the Navy. Desdemona is beside herself with worry about Milton’s safety, and although won’t admit it, so is Tessie. Eventually, Tessie decides that she can’t marry Mike, and calls of the engagement, accepting Milton’s offer instead. Mike ends up marrying Milton’s younger sister, Zoë. Milton and Tessie have a son, Chapter Eleven. Milton takes over the Zebra Room, and without anything else to do, Lefty starts gambling and spends all his and Desdemona’s money, forcing them to move in with Milton and Tessie. Callie is conceived when Chapter Eleven is about five, and she inherits two copies of a recessive gene, which causes intersex conditions, that has been in her family for over 200 years. On the day Callie is born, Lefty has a stroke and loses his ability to speak.
When Callie is seven years old, the 1967 Detroit Riot erupts, and while most of the Stephanides family spend their time hiding in the attic, Milton spends the period crouched inside the Zebra Room, holding a gun. Fearing for her father’s life, Callie sneaks out to save him on her bike. A man throws a Molotov cocktail into the Zebra Room, although by this point Milton and Callie are safe. The insurance payout is large, and allows the Stephanides family to buy a Cadillac and move to the affluent suburb of Grosse Pointe, where they live in a strange house on a street called Middlesex Boulevard. Callie befriends her neighbor, a little girl called Clementine, and the two girls begin to sexually experiment together. However, then Clementine’s father dies, and she and her mother move away. At the same time, Lefty has another stroke. His mind deteriorates, to the point that he forgets whole periods of his life and thinks he is living in another era. He reveals the secret that he and Desdemona are brother and sister, but no one in the family believes him, assuming he is speaking nonsense. Eventually, he dies. Despondent, Desdemona gets into bed with the plan of never getting out again. She remains there for 10 years.
Later on, Milton opens a chain of hot dog restaurants called Hercules Hot Dogs. At 12 years old, Callie notices that other girls her age have grown breasts and started their periods, and is concerned that this hasn’t happened to her. She now attends the private Baker & Inglis School for Girls, where she is socially excluded due to her class background and Greek ethnic identity. Chapter Eleven comes home from college a totally transformed person; having embraced countercultural style and ideology, he has grown his hair long, drives a motorbike, and has started meditating and taking acid. Meanwhile, in Mr. da Silva’s advanced English class, Callie develops a crush on her classmate, whom she nicknames the Obscure Object. When the two girls are cast in a production of Antigone, they develop a friendship.
Just as the first (and only) performance of Antigone is due to begin, another girl in Callie’s class, Hettie Grossinger, collapses onstage from a brain aneurism and dies. Over the summer, Callie and the Obscure Object become inseparable. Callie meets the Object’s brother, Jerome, whom she finds annoying. Callie and her family are supposed to go on a trip back to their ancestral village of Bithynios, but the Turkish invasion of Cyprus prevents this from happening, and Callie goes to the Object’s summer house in Petoskey instead. There, Callie gets drunk and high on marijuana and has sex with Jerome while the Object hooks up with Jerome’s friend, Rex Reese. However, shortly after this Callie and the Object start having sex themselves, although they do not verbally acknowledge that this is happening. Callie notices that her genitals look different from the Objects’, but this doesn’t particularly bother her.
Soon after, Jerome catches the girls having sex on the porch, and accuses them of being “Carpet munchers.” Callie punches him and spits in his face, and while running away gets hit by a tractor. The Obscure Object rushes Callie to hospital, and on the way they kiss. However, this is the last time they will ever see each other. In hospital, the doctors are shocked to find that Callie is intersex. She is sent to New York to a see a famous sexologist, Dr. Luce, who specializes in intersex conditions. While staying in New York for Callie’s examination, Milton and Tessie try to pretend like they are having a fun vacation, but Callie is miserable. After learning that she is actually more biologically male than female, but that Dr. Luce wants to give her hormones and surgery to confirm a female identity, Callie decides to run away and assume a male gender identity, changing his name to Cal.
Cal hitchhikes across the country, cutting his hair short and acquiring men’s clothes en route. He is picked by various shady people, including a man who tries to have sex with him named Ben Scheer and another man named Bob Presto. In San Francisco, Cal lives in a park with a group of young homeless Deadheads. After he runs out of money and is beaten up by two homeless men who discover he used to have female gender identity, Cal calls Bob for help. Back in Detroit, Milton and Tessie are distraught at Cal’s ongoing absence. They try everything they can to find him (although at this point they still think of him as “her”), to no avail. One day, Milton gets a phone call from someone claiming to have kidnapped Cal and asking for a ransom of $25,000. Milton agrees to pay it immediately. In San Francisco, Cal ends up performing as “the god Hermaphroditus” at Bob’s sex club, Sixty-Niners. He performs alongside an intersex person named Zora and a trans woman named Carmen. Cal lives with Zora, and from her gains knowledge and appreciation about intersex people. Zora is proud of her condition and writing a book called The Sacred Hermaphrodite. One night, Sixty-Niners is raided by police, and Cal is arrested.
Without telling anyone what he is doing, Milton drives to the agreed upon place to deliver the ransom money, and is shocked to find that the “kidnapper” is Father Mike. A car chase ensues, and Milton realizes that Mike robbed him and is planning to flee to Canada. Mike makes it over the Canadian border, and while trying to follow him Milton ends up driving off a bridge and into the Detroit River. Chapter Eleven comes to pick Cal up from jail in San Francisco and is surprisingly accepting of Cal’s new identity. The brothers fly back to Detroit together. Cal reunites with Tessie and also Desdemona, who remains bedridden. Desdemona is now also senile, and initially thinks Cal is Lefty when she sees him. When Cal explains that he is intersex and transgender, Desdemona reveals the secret that she and Lefty were brother and sister. While Tessie and Chapter Eleven go to Milton’s funeral, Cal decides to stay and guard the door of the house to stop Milton’s spirit reentering, a Greek tradition performed by a male relative of the deceased.
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Middlesex is a 2002 novel by American author Jeffrey Eugenides, loosely based on elements of the author’s life and inspired by his Greek heritage. The protagonist is an intersex individual known as both Cal and Calliope whose life has been affected by a mutated gene that worked its way through three generations of their family’s bloodline. As they delve into their heritage and learn about their family history, they come to terms with their own complex gender identity and find peace and happiness. Primarily a bildungsroman, or coming of age story, Middlesex also explores themes of nature versus nurture, rebirth, and the differing ways men and women experience society. It also explores themes of the American Dream and is one of the most in-depth and acclaimed novels to look at concepts of gender identity. Middlesex debuted to widespread critical acclaim and was a best-seller, although its sales didn’t pick up until it began winning awards. Most notably, Eugenides won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and was a finalist for the fiction category of the National Book Critics Circle Award. It has also been adapted into an award-winning audiobook narrated by Kristoffer Tabori.
Middlesex is told from the perspective of Calliope (Cal) Stephanides, as the young intersex individual tries to understand the strange family history that eventually resulted in their unique birth. The first half of the story focuses on the Stephanides’ family history and begins in 1922 in Bithynios, Greece. A brother and sister named Lefty and Desdemona Stephanides have lost their parents in the war with Turkey, and flee the advance of the Turkish army. It’s clear this brother and sister have an unhealthyattraction to one another. They travel to Smyrna and get a boat to America. They befriend an Armenian man, Dr. Philobosian, whose family was massacred by the Turks. As no one knows who they are, they don’t tell anyone they’re siblings, pretend to court each other on the ship, and marry. In America, they arrive at Ellis Island and travel to Detroit to live with their cousin Sourmelina (Lina), a closeted lesbian married to Jimmy Zizmo. Lina agrees to keep their relationship secret, and Jimmy, a bootlegger, helps Lefty get a job at a factory. However, Jimmy’s reputation soon gets him fired. Both Desdemona and Lina become pregnant, and Lefty is desperate for money. He goes into the bootlegging business with Jimmy. Dr. Philobosian meets them again, and his comments make Desdemona fear that her child will be born with defects due to inbreeding. Lina and Desdemona give birth to healthy children - Theodora or Tessie, and Milton, respectively. Lefty runs an illegal bar in the basement, and when prohibition ends, it becomes a legitimate bar called The Zebra Room.
Milton and Tessie grow up, becoming closer. When they reach twenty, their friendship turns into something more. Desdemona still fears genetic issues and tries to keep them apart. Tessie becomes engaged to Mike Antoniou, who is soon to be ordained as a Greek Orthodox priest, and Milton joins the Navy out of grief. He’s stationed in San Diego, and seeing him about to be deployed Tessie realizes her true feelings. Milton comes home safely, Tessie breaks up with Mike, and Milton and Tessie are soon married. Milton turns the Zebra Room into a diner, and he and Tessie have a son. They decide they want a daughter next, and attempt to use scientific techniques to ensure this. Calliope is born healthy, but Dr. Philobosian, who delivers her, fails to notice she’s a hermaphrodite. On the same day Calliope is born, Lefty has a massive stroke that leaves him mute. The neighborhood goes downhill, and the family is suffering financially. However, when race riots destroy the diner, Milton is able to use the insurance oney to start a successful hot dog chain. They move to the suburb of Grosse Pointe, where Calliope meets a little girl named Clementine. When they kiss, Calliope begins to realize she’s different from most girls. Lefty dies, and Desdemona takes to her bed in grief. At age fourteen, Calliope attends a private girl’s school and falls in love with another girl she calls the Obscure Object and they begin a sexual relationship. However, Jerome, the girl’s brother, guesses their secret and assaults Calliope. At the emergency room, doctors finally discover she has sex organs from both genders. Milton and Tessie take her to see a specialist in New York, Dr. Luce. Calliope wants to continue living as a girl because she wants to be normal, but when she sees the report describing herself as genetically male, she understands the source of her confusion and runs away.
Calliope cuts her hair, starts calling herself Cal, and transitions to male. He arrives in San Francisco and goes to work at a strip club for a man named Bob Presto. He starts to meet other people like himself and begins to accept himself. However, he’s arrested when the club is raided, and when he calls home, he discovers that Milton is dead, killed in a car crash after being the victim of a kidnapping scam. Cal, still adjusting to his new gender, heads home, where his mother has a hard time but tries to accept him as her son. Desdemona, who is barely lucid, is able to reveal the genetic map that led to Cal’s birth. The family attends Milton’s funeral, but Cal stays behind to perform a traditional Greek funeral rite to ensure that his spirit stays at peace. Cal goes to work for the Foreign Service in Berlin, and writes his memoir. He falls for a woman named Julie Kikuchi, but pushes her away before things get serious because he’s worried about how she’d react to the truth of his identity. They meet again at an art exhibit, and he gets up the courage to reveal his secret to her. She accepts him, and the book ends with them agreeing to give their relationship another try.
Jeffrey Kent Eugenides is an American novelist and short story writer. He has written three novels - The Virgin Suicides, which was adapted for a critically acclaimed motion picture; Middlesex, which won him the Pulitzer Prize, and The Marriage Plot. He has also published a short story collection, Fresh Complaint, in 2017. He is currently a professor of creative writing at Princeton University.
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Middlesex Summary & Study Guide
Middlesex, a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, spans the lives of three generations of the Stephanides family. Protagonist Calliope (Cal) Stephanides undergoes a spiritual rebirth as he comes to terms with his family’s history and how it inevitably led to his hermaphroditic birth. The story takes place in 1922 in Bithynios, Greece. Lefty and Desdemona Stephanides, brother and sister, have lost their parents in the recent war with Turkey. They have an unhealthy attraction to one another. When the Turks move to reclaim their village, Lefty and Desdemona flee, traveling first to Smyrna and then sailing to America. Along the way, they pick up an Armenian, Dr. Philobosian, who lost his entire family in the Turkish invasion. Being anonymous on the ship, Lefty and Desdemona act out an elaborate courtship and get married.
The Stephanides lose Dr. Philobosian at Ellis Island and take a train to Detroit to live with their cousin Sourmelina (Lina), who is a closet lesbian, and her husband Jimmy Zizmo. They swear Lina to secrecy about their relationship. Jimmy, a rum-runner, gets Lefty a job at the Ford factory, but Lefty is fired because of Jimmy’s unsavory reputation. At the same time, both Desdemona and Lina become pregnant. Desperate for cash, Lefty helps Jimmy import booze. Dr. Philobosian finally arrives in Detroit. He inadvertently fills Desdemona with fear about inbred babies.
Lina gives birth to a healthy girl, Theodora (Tessie). Jimmy is paranoid that Lina has had an affair. Desdemona gives birth to Milton, an equally healthy boy, at the same time. Lefty opens a speakeasy in the basement to support the family. After the repeal of prohibition, he turns it into legitimate bar called The Zebra Room.
When Milton and Tessie reach the age of twenty, they begin a strange musical courtship. Desdemona, ever fearful of genetics, tries to keep them apart. After Tessie becomes engaged to Mike Antoniou, a soon-to-be Greek Orthodox priest, a devastated Milton joins the Navy. He is stationed in San Diego. Watching the newsreels at home, Tessie realizes her true feelings. Milton comes home safely. Much to Mike's chagrin, Tessie and Milton get married. Mike is left to marry Zoe. Milton takes over the Zebra Room, turning it into a neighborhood diner. He and Tessie have a son. Then, they decide they want a daughter, so they use “science” to manipulate biology to their will. Desdemona predicts they will have another son, but Calliope is born a healthy baby girl. Dr. Philobosian, who delivers her, fails to notice she is a hermaphrodite. On the same day Callie is born, Lefty has the first of a series of strokes, rendering him mute.
As the neighborhood becomes shabby and the family faces financial ruin, race riots destroy The Zebra Room, giving Milton the insurance capital to start a successful hot dog chain. The family moves to the well-to-do suburb of Grosse Pointe, where eight year old Callie meets a little girl named Clementine. Clementine's kisses give Callie the idea that she is different from most girls. At the same time, Lefty dies. Desdemona takes to her bed permanently.
At age fourteen, Callie is attending a private school for girls when she falls in love with a girl she calls the Obscure Object. The girls start a secret sexual relationship. Jerome, the Object’s jealous brother, guesses their secret and causes Callie to have an accident. In the emergency room, doctors finally discover her double genitalia. Shocked, Milton and Tessie take her to New York City to see a specialist, Dr. Luce. Callie, wanting to be normal, lies to Dr. Luce about her feelings, and he recommends that Callie continue to live as a girl. But, Callie sees the report describing her as genetically male. Knowing her true feelings, she runs away.
Cutting her hair and calling herself Cal, he arrives in San Francisco where he works in a strip club for a man named Bob Presto. Cal meets another hermaphrodite and starts to accept himself. When the club is raided and Cal is arrested, he finally calls his parents, only to discover Milton is dead. He was killed in an automobile chase after being the victim of a kidnapping scam.
Chapter Eleven retrieves Cal from California. He takes his new gender in stride. Arriving home, Tessie has a harder time dealing with it. However, she wants to accept Cal out of maternal love. Desdemona, in a rare moment of lucidity, reveals the genetic map that led to Cal’s condition. While the others attend Milton’s funeral, Cal acts out the traditional Greek rite of keeping Milton’s spirit from returning to the house.
Cal writes his memoir in 2001 while working for the Foreign Service in Berlin. He meets an Asian-American woman, Julie Kikuchi, whom he likes very much. Before things get serious, he cuts Julie out of his life. However, when they run into each other at an art exhibit, he gathers the courage to reveal that he is a hermaphrodite. They agree to give their relationship a real chance.
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The Silver Spoon
Middlesex opens with Cal Stephanides (also known as Calliope) introducing herself/himself. Cal was born a girl in January of 1960 in Detroit, Michigan to a Greek-American family. (S)he is a 5-Alpha-Reductase pseudohermaphrodite, which he discovered when he was sixteen. Cal calls upon the Greek muses to help him tell his story of self-discovery, birth, and family history. He embarks upon the story of his gender prediction by his grandmother, Desdemona Stephanides.
Desdemona, Cal's grandmother who immigrated to America from Greece with her brother Eleutherios "Lefty" Stephanides, calls the family together to predict the gender of her daughter in law Tessie's unborn child. She instructs Chapter Eleven Stephanides, Cal's older brother, to go into the attic where she and Lefty live and retrieve the silkworm box from under her bed. Chapter Eleven finds it amid mothballs and birdcages and runs back downstairs. Desdemona takes a silver spoon out of the box, ties a string to it, and dangles the spoon over Tessie's pregnant belly. Until now, Desdemona has gotten twenty-three out of twenty-three guesses correct, and, after a little hesitation, she declares that the child will be a boy. Tessie's husband, Milton Stephanides, disagrees with Desdemona, insisting that scientifically, it must be a girl.
Tessie and Milton conceive the child wanting a girl. Milton asked Uncle Pete, a family friend who was a chiropractor, for advice on how to conceive a girl, and Pete tells him that male sperm (Y sperm) swim more quickly than female sperm (X sperm), so the best way to conceive a girl is to have sex twenty-four hours before ovulation. Consumed by the 1960s cultural obsession with the new-found possibilities of science, Milton believes that the male sperm would rush off and die before the egg dropped, but the female sperm would reach it just in time. Despite Tessie's reservations that the child should be conceived spontaneously through love and not through this scientific method, she agrees to try for a girl using Uncle Pete's method. After Tessie speaks with their family friend, Father Mike, an assistant pastor at their Greek Orthodox church, she sees a mysterious and precocious young girl who convinces her that she really wants a girl.
Milton and Tessie conceive Cal on Greek Orthodox Easter and (s)he is born in January of 1960. The same day, Cal's grandfather, Lefty, suffers a stroke and loses the ability to speak. According to Cal's grandmother, he collapses after reading his fortune in his coffee grounds. Desdemona is upset that she incorrectly guessed Cal's sex, and she stops guessing babies' sexes as the Stephanides lose a little more of their old culture.
Cal has taken the idea to write a memoir from other famous hermaphrodites, and points out the brilliance of his struggle with gender from a research standpoint. Although Cal has a biologically male brain, until the age of sixteen, he was raised as a girl, a veritable case of nature vs. nurture. He maintains that the proper way to tell his and his family's story is through a feminine, circular manner, instead of a masculine, linear manner, and so he goes back to the beginning, to his grandparents in Greece.
It is 1922, and Desdemona and Lefty Stephanides are sister and brother living on the slope of Mount Olympus, operating their family silk cocoonery. Their parents were killed in the recent war with the Turks, which the Greeks won. Desdemona and Lefty live in Bithynios, a tiny village above Bursa, the center of the silk trade. Convinced that she is internally ill, Desdemona wastes away inside her cocoonery, trying to ignore her dreams. Lefty, quickly becoming Americanized, shocks Desdemona with his oiled hair and outlandish clothes. They have been close all their life, and Lefty's new passion alienates and isolates Desdemona. Their tension finally erupts into an argument, and Desdemona asks Lefty why he goes into Bursa all the time. Lefty admits that he wants a woman.
Lefty's new-found sexuality shocks Desdemona, and she yells at him, accusing him of wanting a fat, ugly Turkish woman. Lefty counters, reminding Desdemona that there are only two other Greek girls left in their village, Victoria Pappas, who has a mustache, and Lucille Kafkalis, who smells. Lefty storms out and Desdemona sighs, counting the worry beads that her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather counted before her. She feels that she must step into her parents' place, and decides to become a matchmaker for her brother and make the other girls more attractive.
Meanwhile, Lefty wanders through the cocoon market, hurriedly selling the cocoons - he didn't inherit his father's mercantile spirit and doesn't like bargaining. Then he goes into a church and prays to Christ, asking for strength to hold up against his unnatural sexual desires. After he leaves the church, he visits the coffee house for ouzo, a liquor, and hookah. He dazedly makes his way to a brothel, where he chooses Irini, a prostitute who looks fairly similar to Desdemona. During sex, while he is stoned, he calls out Desdemona's name a few times. When Lefty wakes up in the morning, he finds himself alone and penniless, and resolves that he has to change. He will let Desdemona set him up with one of the two girls.
Desdemona is prepared for Lefty's change of heart and, using a lingerie catalog that her father used to peek through, Desdemona makes over each girl and parades them in front of Lefty. Lefty feigns enthusiasm because he wants to move on from his desire for Desdemona, but instead they share an intimate moment that causes Desdemona to blush and feel a change in her body. Cal notes here that a certain Dr. Luce presented a study on this phenomenon, which he called "periphescence." It constitutes the giddiness, drugged sense of being in love, coupled with increased blood flow and tingling feelings. Desdemona feels all of this but quickly shuts it down, insisting that Lefty must now go and pay court to the two girls.
As Turkey and Greece continue to wage war in the background, Lefty approaches Victoria's house. Although Victoria is dressed up like a lingerie model, seductively standing in the doorway, Lefty cannot go through with his courtship and dashes away. He next approaches Lucille's house, but again, he cannot continue. Neither of them can live up to his boyhood ideals and his love for his sister. Meanwhile, Desdemona is putting on her wedding corset, weeping because she will grow old alone and her brother will find a new wife. She falls asleep and dreams that she and Lefty are sharing a bed together as husband and wife. As she wakes up, Lefty races home and tells her that he chose neither girl. Desdemona yells at him but is secretly happy. She bets him on a game of rock, paper, scissors that he will marry one of those girls but she loses twice. Lefty then semi-jokingly proposes to her and they embrace, justifying to themselves the rightness of their relationship. In the distance, the Greek Army is retreating.
Cal ends the chapter with a debate on destiny and chance, between genetics and choice. Did the mutated gene expressed in Cal override other genes, other choices, so that it would one day be expressed? Who or what is responsible for Lefty and Desdemona's romance?
An Immodest Proposal
It is now the present. Cal is living as a man in Berlin, Germany. As he boards the U-Bahn to work in the morning, he spots a beautiful Asian woman on a retro bike. He is about to go talk to her when she gets up, meets his eyes, and exits the train. Cal takes out a cigar from his double breasted suit and begins to smoke it to calm himself. He tells us that despite his early upbringing as a girl, he is not androgynous at all and can easily pass in society as male, even using male restrooms and locker rooms. He occasionally slips into mannerisms that he had as Calliope, like flipping his hair or checking his nails. It is like being possessed.
Cal switches his narration back to the past; the Greek Army has just surrendered. Desdemona is howling angrily as she gazes at the wreckage the war left behind. Together, Desdemona and Lefty leave their tiny village for their cousin's home in America, packing only a few family belongings. Elsewhere, in Smyrna, the Greek general has gone insane, believing that he is already dead and his legs are made of glass. Also in Smyrna, Dr. Philobosian, an Armenian doctor, is walking through the streets, concerned about the safety of his family and his home. As protection, he has a letter saying that he once attended to the Turkish leader, Kemal. He encounters a refugee rooting through the garbage for food and gives him money. That refugee is Lefty, who has been starving himself to give Desdemona the little food he has. The two have almost gotten over their reservations concerning being with each other and are slowly making their way to America.
Desdemona is still a little hesitant, and when Lefty snuggles up to her with bread she shudders away. Angry at her and angry at himself, Lefty storms away and walks through Smyrna. He walks past the richness of Smyrna into a deserted casino, where a few refugees are playing for fare home. Although he doesn't understand the game at first, he quickly learns, winning a large pot. He wants to leave, but the rough men threaten him, and after slipping some money in his sock, he proceeds to lose "all" of his money. The other men laugh at him as he leaves, but he returns to Desdemona triumphant, telling her that they now have money to board a ship.
In a nearby ship, Major Arthur Maxwell of His Majesty's Marines watches the Armenians and Greeks, refusing to get involved in the struggle. His commentary is racist and unfeeling, and he remarks more on the fineness of the city than on the sorrows of its inhabitants. Lefty tries to buy a ticket to Athens since the Turkish army is only thirty miles away, but the price has gone up. The Greek government retreats from Smyrna, and the Greek citizens begin to lose all hope. Mustafa Kemal arrives and the Turks begin to torch the city, hunting and killing Greeks and Armenians. In the destruction and chaos, Lefty makes a promise to Desdemona that, if they live through this, they will get married to each other. Turkish soldiers storm in and slaughter Dr. Philobosian's family while he is helping someone else. Using his rudimentary French, Lefty cons his way onto the French ship, bringing Desdemona and a dazed Dr. Philobosian with him. They sail away as Smyrna burns behind them and bodies, alive and dead, swarm the water. The world pays attention for a few days, but the tragedy is quickly forgotten.
The Silk Road
Cal narrates the Chinese legend of the discovery of silk, how a Chinese princess sitting under a tree noticed that the silkworm cocoon that fell into her teacup had begun to unravel, and when completely unraveled, it was a very long and very fine thread. He compares himself to the Chinese princess, as an unraveler of stories. Cal picks up where he left off, with his grandparent's departure from Greece. As the ship Giulia leaves port, passengers hold strands of multicolored yarn linking them to their loved ones on land. Desdemona and Lefty pretend not to know each other, and Lefty stays with a suicidal Dr. Philobosian in the the male section of the ship. Desdemona and Lefty start to stage interactions, cordial at first, as Lefty asks the other men on board about her. The news of their courtship sweeps the ship, as passengers debate their relationship. They slowly escalate their relationship, making it seem plausible, so that they will be able to get married. Cal speculates that this charade was not actually necessary, only really necessary to convince themselves that what they were doing was all right. After eight days, Lefty proposes to Desdemona to applause from the other passengers. The wedding is held on deck with rope crowns instead of flower stephana, and Desdemona and Lefty perform the Dance of Isaiah, walking in a circle three times in a transforming dance. Later that night, the two of them sneak onto a lifeboat and consummate their marriage, guiltily at first, but then lovingly, longingly, and with abandon.
Lefty and Desdemona spend time inventing family trees, thinking about the future and America (he wants to start a casino, she wants a cocoonery), and making love at night. They plot how to enter Ellis Island, which forbids criminals from entering, including those guilty of incestuous relations. To avoid the quota on southern and eastern European immigrants, they draw on the sponsorship of their cousin Lina. They learn a few lines of English from the Bible to fool the authorities into thinking they are fluent. Finally, they arrive in America, stunned by the view and the enormous Statue of Liberty gleaming over the harbor.
Book One introduces several of the themes that will shape the course of the novel, including the conflict between choice and fate. Wrapped up in this discussion is the subject of genetics, clearly an important subject to the genetically mutated Cal. As Cal recounts the story of how his grandparents fell in love, he represents elements of both choice (Lefty's decision to walk away from his two courtship dates, the couple's intentionally fake courtship period on the ship to America) and fate (the game of rock, paper, scissors in which Lefty agrees not to marry the two other girls, the anonymity of their circumstances as refugees). While Cal seems hesitant to take a stand on whether the genetic mutation passes down because of choices or fate, he reframes the question. By attributing the survival of the gene to a hypothetical “override” within the gene that ensures its own survival, he combines the seemingly opposite choice and fate. The choice becomes the genes and, as neither Desdemona nor Lefty is aware of the gene nor can control it, their lives seem ruled by fate.
Another of the major themes introduced in the first book is the problem of gender. As an intersexual person, Cal is concerned both with the interplay of genders within himself and within society in general. Although Cal is the only intersex member of his family present within this narrative, Cal presents Desdemona as a masculine figure. Desdemona’s long, thick, heavy braids are erotic symbols of both traditional femininity and masculinity. As something she keeps hidden, the braids reflect feminine sexuality. As strong, thick, phallic symbols, however, they also give her “a natural power” (24). This power that Desdemona enjoys as the master of her own house in Greece is stunted in America when the ladies at the YWCA cut off her hair. In Greece, as Desdemona counts the Stephanides family worry beads, Cal writes that she comes in a long line of Stephanides men to do so, allying Desdemona with the masculine side of the family. Despite her femininity, Desdemona inherits the traits more closely associated with the Stephanides men, blurring traditional gender roles further.
Cal also brings the reader’s attention to shifting understandings of nationality. Cal himself is a rootless expatriate, working for the Foreign Service in Germany while he narrates his story. Several times throughout the first book, Cal points out the decreasing distinction between different nationalities and ethnicities. Whereas you used to be able to tell people’s origins by their smell, and then their shoes, it is no longer so easy. Desdemona and Lefty switch nationalities when they leave Smyrna, pretending to be French citizens so they can board the boat. In the genocidal struggle between the Greeks, the Turks, and the Armenians, nationality becomes a crime punishable by cruel and violent death. And later, in America, Cal points out how nationality, ethnicity, and culture are slipping away from the next generations in describing Milton's rejection of Desdemona's silver spoon prophecies. Through his often regretful tone, Cal conveys his conflicted feelings about nationality and culture. He often seems to mourn the loss of all these cultural connections, which are clearly very important to his family. At the same time, Cal seems most comfortable divorced from his own culture, in self-imposed exile in Germany.
A last important topic introduced in the first book is the nature of narrative. Structurally, Cal plays with how narratives function, working both relatively straightforwardly and linearly through his grandparent's story and circularly through anecdotes about his own life. Cal begins almost every chapter with a small anecdote about his life, usually based in the present. This works to frame the other narrative of his grandparents, which can be viewed as essential to understanding Cal's present. In The Silk Road, Cal tells the story of the discovery of silk, how a Chinese princess found that the cocoon that dropped into her tea could be unwound to a beautiful delicate fiber. This story symbolically involves both linear narratives (the silk thread, winding its way across China) and circular narratives (each cocoon starts with a knot in the thread, a miniature loop, and is then wound into more loops). Cal and Eugenides seem to suggest the importance of both kinds of narrative for a full depiction of truth. Neither is complete without the other, and each type of narrative makes the other richer.
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