Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

"Middlesex" by Jeffrey Eugenides catches the reader's immediate attention with the very first sentence, when it is stated that the protagonist Cal Staphanides was born twice, once as a girl and the second time as a boy. Cal's story, the story of a hermaphrodite and her family set in the historical and political background of Greece and America, is told in very metaphorical and figurative language, and with its long and detailed descriptions it almost makes the reader believe that he or she is reading an odyssey. Yet the language has an amusing quality to it on one hand (e.g. "A redheaded girl from Grosse Pointe fell in love with me, not knowing what I was. (Her brother liked me, too)."), and a rather scientific language on the other when the narrator gives details about genetics and chromosomes and other biological aspects concerning the causes of Cal's hermaphrodity.

The occasional use of the Greek language in the book also points to the problem of the protagonist's search for identity, which, centrally, has to do with gender (Cal isn't sure whether 'she' is a 'she', or 'he' is a 'he', or 'he' is a 'she', or 'he' is a 'she'). Cal is not only a hermaphrodite, but also a Greek, who lives in America. So, he is some kind of a 'double hermaphrodite' - that of sex and that of the language, speaking English, mixing it with Greek words.

The narrator of "Middlesex" is a first person narrator, Cal Stephanides himself. An extremely interesting narrator since the story is told from the perspective of the protagonist, but the reader gets the whole palette of stories and of all characters. The first person narrator becomes omniscient like a god who can see what his ancestors were feeling during wars and everything else concerning events and thoughts of all characters.

The book is very interesting, pleasant, entertaining and easy to read. Unfortunately, it is also very time consuming because of its excessive length. But once the readers reach the hardly expected end of the story, they realize that the first long chapters of the book, finally leading up to protagonist's story, are necessary to grasp the origins as well as the consequences of Cal's hermaphrodity.

A bit more on the characters of the story:

"Middlesex" is a title that certainly does not suggest a usual, everyday story with usual, everyday characters. The title "Middlesex" already suggests some kind of a sexual oddity, as is the case in the book. Every character in the story has at least one quite strange sexual characteristic, starting with the protagonist's grandparents, who basically are the start and the cause of Cal's hybridity.

Tracing back the cause or causes of the protagonist Cal Stephanides' hermaphrodity, the reader first becomes shocked by the grandparent's odd attraction to each other, namely that of incest. Cal's grandparents, Desdemona and Lefty, are closely related. In fact, they are a brother and a sister, who in the middle of family hardships (lacking a mother and a father), and in the middle of the Smyrna war with the Turks, develop a loving relationship more intimate than a normal relationship between siblings is allowed to get. They get married on the ship to America, and create a family of their own on an entirely new continent.

The fact that they are closely related is always stuck in the back of their minds until they sail across the ocean amongst the American crowds to which their family relation and their past are unknown. They create their own reality of who they are and how they had met for the society that does not accept or tolerate incest.

Unaware of the genetic mistake they were about to create - their granddaughter, who during puberty turns out to be a hermaphrodite, Desdemona and Lefty are joined by love and lust. Eventually, however, they become the victims of a crime they committed themselves. Bad guilt makes Desdemona withdraw from her husband, fearing that the outcome of their sexual intercourse might be a baby monster. Eventually, both of them withdraw from each other and lead an unhappy life until they die.

Through the fate of characters in "Middlesex", Eugenides shows serious consequences of incest - mental as well as physical.


  1. I read this book too, and as you mention in your post, I fell for it after having read the first sentence.
    What I didn't like about the book was the history thing that lasted sooooo long... You know, that story about the war? Too much in my eyes...
    But on the whole I think it's a fascinating book that really makes you think...

  2. Yes, I know! That history part was waaaaay too long!!!! I just sort of had a quick run through it. I read it, but I wasn't really there while reading it. Know what I mean? If you are interested in this topic - transsexuality, you should see a great independent movie Boys Don't Cry. And if you want to know anything about the movie, ask me. I studied it throughly. Hey, have you Eugenides' Virgin suicides? It's just crazy! About four sisters, virgins, that commit suicides. It is his best book. Coppola filmed the novel....

  3. Virgin Suicides is definitely one of my favourite books and it actually was the reason why I read Middlesex as well... I was so fascinated by the book that I somehow HAD to read another of Eugenides' books...