middlesexDefining the Un-Definable: A Hermaphrodite Examines Gender Identity

Author: Jeffrey Eugenides

A generational epic, Middlesex is a novel about forbidden love, history, and gender identity set against a panoramic Greek background where the tragic invasion of Smyrna enables Calliope Stephanides’ grandparents to leave Greece for America and start a new life. The sins of the past, however, follow them in the form of a mutated gene that Calliope, our hermaphroditic narrator, feels defines her future, specifically in the year 1974 where a failure to develop as a girl and a crush on a school mate leave her to believe that she isn’t like other girls at all. Following the Stephanides family from the saga of the grandparents, through to the illicit love of the parents, and on to Calliope where the linage ceases, Middlesex claims to be a novel about identify, sexual discrimination, and a narrator who is both male and female. However, in reality, Middlesex is like a Greek epic, fraught with sagas of war, politics, segregation, industrialism, race riots, hippies, and the sexual revolution, all of which employed to create a portrait of a unique immigrant family with a supposedly dark secret that is birthed through Calliope herself.

Calliope, now Cal, narrators the story, a smooth voice that has infinite knowledge and winds back the clock like an expert storyteller. The introduction, indeed the book jacket, is somewhat of a lie, since the grandparents’ story, more to do with themes of incest than identity, takes up at least half of the story and is, in its own rights, a novel. Disappointed readers will want to return to our compelling narrator, yet the vividness of Smyrna, of Desdemona and Lefty’s denied love, guilt, and escape into a new world is such a compelling story, that eventually, we are prepared to sit back trust the narrator’s pace and voice to just fall into this somewhat overwhelming, yet decadently drawn, world.

Following in the steps of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Middlesex takes readers through the burgeoning world of industrialism and disdain for immigrants, going through a familiar historical time in a deeply personal manner; as the story continues to unravel, the race riots take precedence and through Desdemona’s eyes, we see African American Muslims and the beginning movements of dissent in a segregated society; eventually, as the story moves ever close to our own time, Milton and Tessie, second cousins, marry despite Desdemona’s foreboding. Thus Cal’s parents are introduced.

Cal’s parents have markedly little page space, and then the second portion of the novel begins: Cal’s birth and happy childhood as a beautiful bouncing baby girl. Cal is the recipient of the 5-alpha-reductase deficiency, a rare genetic mutation which causes Cal to have the secondary sex attributes of a girl while having the hormones of a boy. As Cal enters into puberty, ashamed that s/he does not change like other girls, a sexual awakening leads to deep seated feelings of fear and guilt as an altering body and a loss of loveliness lead to destruction of the narrator’s self-esteem. Eventually, discovery becomes inevitable and when a team of doctors seek to add the nature-to-nurture quandary and propose extensive surgery, a frightening Cal is faced with a monumental decision.

As you’ve probably noticed (faithful reader, you’ve stayed with me for awhile) Middlesex could easily be several novels, yet it works well together, the building of a person through the past, the interrelatedness of who we are with who our ancestors and family were, and, frankly, just the good writing which makes each character palpable, each historical situation relevant and visceral in a way that touches the soul, that readers find themselves progressing very quickly through this thick novel. Not to say that it isn’t exhausting sometimes. The heavy themes, both historical and contextual to Cal’s search for identity, can become depressing after 540 odd pages (16 discs for those audio book readers among you). After completing Middlesex readers will feel like they have come through an experience and while the thoughts and issues raised continue to resonate after the haunting echo of the last sentence, readers will certainly seek lighter fare after this emotional journey.

Jeffery Eugenides, author of The Virgin Suicides, won a Pulitzer Prize for this particular novel, and it is certainly well earned. The themes of the intersex movement and the obvious commentary on society and different periods and tensions are subtly interwoven with the complexity of life and the traumas of misunderstanding. Showing a world in shades of grey, Eugenides creates situations where there is no right answer, and this in and of itself is, effectively, the final answer. Cal himself embodies the shifting paradigms of too many choices, and yet fights for those choices just as he is in some ways pained by them, painting a dark world that only Eugenides could so eloquently portray.

And here, I feel that it is completely necessary to take some time out to marvel over the sentence structure, the flow of the narrative and the sheer beauty of the language. Eugenides paints an accurate portrait of conversation and family life while retaining an old-world sense of language structure and the beauty of semantics. This creates a breathless, transcendent narrative, enjoyable for its sheer structure and the many quotable lines that will have readers sighing in delight.

Middlesex is a dauntingly large novel with an even more intimidating theme, yet the beauty of the language and the relatability of the characters draws readers into a world where we may not want to go, but cannot bear to leave. Highly recommended.

*A Note on the Audiobook edition: I listened to the unabridged audiobook read by Kristopher Tabori and wouldn’t have wanted the experience in any other way! Tabori’s voice is soothing yet expressive, his accents for the characters entrancing and realistic. Likewise, it’s nice to hear the correct pronunciation of Greek words, places, and names, adding to the novel’s scope.

  • Frances Carden


Frances Carden
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