Middlesex

Posted: November 28, 2017 in Uncategorized

Winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides originated from his
appreciation for the character of Tiresias from Greek mythology, who was turned into a woman for seven years by Hera and thus knew what it was like to be both sexes.  Middlesex explores nature vs. nurture, identity, and what it means to be classified as a man or a woman in modern society througmiddlesexh its protagonist Calliope (later Cal) who was born intersex due to a genetic mutation called 5 alpha reductase deficiency.  While this mutation is not unheard of, especially in interrelated families or small, isolated villages, the really interesting part here is that it was not treated at birth.  Calliope grew up socially as a girl, then when her intersexuality was discovered as a teenager, decided to become Cal and assimilate as a male rather than undergo surgery.  Just like Tiresias, Calliope is able to experience society both as a male, a female, and an other.  Much of the first third of the book occurs in flashback as we trace the emergence of this gene through the two previous generations, starting with Cal’s grandparents in Fascist Greece.   Then we get to the main event: Calliope’s development, first as a young girl with conflicting emotions and a quirky family in suburbia, next as a humiliated subject of medical inquiry and freak show exhibitionism, and finally as a man.  Middlesex combines contemporary writing and issues with literary symbolism and allusions to explore age old debates of gender constructs.

“When this story goes into the world, I may become the most famous hermaphrodite in history.

[ . . . ] I’ve got a male brain.  But I was raised as a girl.  If you were going to devise an experiment to measure the relative influences of nature versus nurture, you couldn’t come up with anything better than my life.”

There are some interesting insights in Oprah’s overview of the book, including an interview and Q & A with Eugenides.

A note on Book 1: many students comment on how gross it is that Lefty and Desdemona end up married despite being brother and sister.  And, yes, it is.  . . .  There is a lot in the book on the extremity of their circumstances that lead up to this, and it is a bit of an homage to the convoluted prophesies and plots of Greek mythology — just like we might want to scream at the page when Jocasta and Laius bind Oedipus’ feet; we want to scream at the page that there are other options here, too!  As one class said, “it’s not gross; it’s a metaphor.”  True.  In addition to the expository benefits for explaining Cal’s genetics, Eugenides uses the relationships of Lefty and Desdemona and Tessie and Milton as a metonymy for the immigrant experience in which many communities struggled to embrace American culture and created close-knit impenetrable little communities in America.  Many immigrant children found breaking out of these communities and traditions difficult: Italians married Italians, Greeks married Greeks, and many of the old world practices and village mentalities were not broken by a new world of opportunity and integration, but instead were exacerbated by it.

If, however, the content is still too offensive, I will allow you to read Pride and Prejudice instead.

Click the more tag below for assignments and more information


There are tons of allusions (the book is Greek, after all) so don’t forget to do some research as you read and be sure to have something prepared to present to the class on the allusion you signed up for to the left.

You might find articles like How common is intersex, The Spectrum of Sex Development intersex, interesting and helpful.

We’ll also look at The Role of Setting and Geography in Middlesex.

And, of course, don’t forget to be thinking towards your Bildungsroman character presentation 2017.

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Stay tuned as I’ll be posting more as we move through the unit.

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