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Literature / Middlesex

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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.

A novel by Jeffrey Eugenides published in 2002 which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Calliope (later Cal) Stephanides was born with a rare genetic condition that caused her to look externally female, but in adolescence begin developing male characteristics.

That's not really the point, though. Most of the book is a Generational Saga which recounts the story of Cal's parents and grandparents who happened to make such a trait possible.


Middlesex contains examples of:

  • A-Cup Angst: One of Calliope's big concerns while she still thought she was a girl.
  • The Beard:
    • Jimmy Zizmo is this for Lina, who is a lesbian and had to leave Bithynios after her affair with another woman was discovered.
    • Callie has a brief fling with the Object's brother before they consummate their relationship.
  • Blind Mistake: The fact that the doctor who delivered Callie was nearsighted and didn't notice her unusual genitalia had huge effects on the lives of everyone involved, especially Callie.
  • Body Horror: The realization that Calliope's body is not normal has aspects of this.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Desdemona and Lefty. Because of the era they lived in, they knew incest was taboo, but no one ever explained genetics to them… or at least, didn't explain it them them before Desdemona was already pregnant. She gets freaked out and spends the rest of her pregnancy praying that she's sorry and didn't know—it would be stupid for God to punish her when she didn't know—so please let her baby be ok. The baby is. The genetic repercussions don't show up until a generation later.
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  • Closet Key: "The Obscure Object" for Cal
  • Coitus Interruptus: The Object's brother stumbles upon a liaison between her and Callie. He subsequently blackmails Callie into breaking off their friendship.
  • Detroit: The book is set in Detroit and its tonier suburbs, and events in that city repeatedly interplay into the lives of the Stephanides family. Notable examples include Lefty's ill-fated job on the assembly line at Ford, bootlegging across the Detroit River to Windsor during Prohibition, the founding of the Nation of Islam, and the 1967 riots and the fallout thereof.
  • Elegant Classical Musician: Milton's clarinet skills are initially what make him attractive to Tessie. They even use it in foreplay.
  • Faking the Dead: Jimmy Zizmo
  • Framing Device: The modern-day segment of the story features Cal now identifying as a man working as a diplomatic attache in Berlin, and trying to court a Japanese-American woman living in that city.
  • Generational Saga
  • Groin Attack: Played for drama. Certain forms of physical activity proved to be excruciatingly painful for Callie's undescended testes back when she wasn't aware of having them.
  • Hermaphrodite: Cal has an intersex condition doctors call 5-alpha reductase deficiency, which results in her having XY chromosomes, but genitalia that looks more female than male. She is perceived as female until puberty, when male hormones kick in, resulting in secondary sex characteristics that don't match up.
  • Historical Domain Character: A few:
    • General Hajienestis, the insane Greek commander in their war against Turkey.
    • Desdemona encounters Mustafa Kemal during the occupation of Smyrna.
    • Henry Ford, who watches Lefty perform in a factory pageant.
    • Jimmy Zizmo's reappearance as Wallace Fard Muhammad.
  • Important Haircut: One of the first things Calliope does to change to Cal is get a short haircut.
  • Justified Title: Middlesex refers not only to Cal's condition, but also to the street where Calliope spent her late childhood and adolescence.
  • Kissing Cousins: Tessie and Milt are second cousins. Tessie's mother Lina is cousin to (both of) Milt's parents.
  • Large Ham: Cal's narration borders on this at times. Justified in that when it does, he's lampshading Greek epics, which have the tendency to do this.
  • Mad Brass: The real-life Greek General Hajienestis features prominently in scenes set during the Greco-Turkish War; he's unable to command his troops effectively because he thinks that he's a corpse with legs made of glass.
  • Married at Sea: Desdemona and Lefty, and the fact that their documents were conveniently lost in sacking of their home town made it possible.
  • Matchmaker Crush: Desdemona tries to get Lefty to marry one of the two eligible girls from their village, Lucille or Victoria. Desdemona helps get both of them dressed up, and sends Lefty of to meet them, then goes to bed and has a dream about him herself.
  • Maternity Crisis: One woman gives birth during the great fire of Smyrna, surrounded by fellow refugees crammed up against the harbor. She and her baby most likely died.
  • Merlin Sickness: Lefty develops a purely psychological version of this after his second stroke. Desdemona is terrified that he'll eventually regress past when they got together and think of her or refer to her as just his sister again.
  • Nobody Over 50 Is Gay: Averted by Lina, who only came out after she was over 50. Of course, the rest of the family knew well before then:
    Cal: Lina was, as Aunt Zo put it, "one of those ladies they named the island after."
  • No Periods, Period: Averted in that periods are discussed, but since Calliope doesn't have a uterus she can't actually get them and fakes them so her mother won't suspect anything.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: The Obscure Object, and Cal's brother Chapter 11 (referencing how he went bankrupt later in life).
  • Pass Fail: It's somewhat complicated, but Jimmy Zizmo, Cal's maternal grandfather, made himself the persona of Wallace Fard Muhammad (a real person who founded the Nation of Islam) after faking his death. Additionally, the way his origins are discussed by the characters and the narration, Zizmo could genuinely be of mixed ancestry and passed as Greek, Turkish, and Polish before faking his death and assuming his new identity; or he could genuinely be Greek, Turkish, and Polish, and be passing as a mulatto. The novel is delightfully ambiguous on this.
    Desdemona: An Arab? Is that why you didn't tell us about him in your letters?
    Lina: He's not an Arab. He's from the Black Sea.
    Desdemona: Pontian! He's not Muslim, is he?
    Lina: Not everybody from the Pontus converted. What do you think, a Greek takes a swim in the Black Sea and turns into a Muslim?
    Desdemona: But does he have Turkish blood? Is that why he's so dark?
    Lina: I don't know and I don't care.
  • Pizza Boy Special Delivery: To determine Callie's sexual orientation, Dr. Luce has her watch a low-budget porn film called "Annie Delivers To Your Door," in which the titular pizza girl has sex with a different man at each house, starting with a pool boy. Callie finds the film too raw and unpleasant-looking to be arousing, but she tells Dr. Luce that she's attracted to the pool boy because she knows that's what he wants to hear.
  • Pronoun Trouble: Cal runs into a bit of this, and even trying to talk about them in this article is a bit awkward.
  • Raised as the Opposite Gender: A non-standard case. Cal's parents did specifically want their second child to be a daughter, but bringing their baby up as a girl was clearly because of mistaking it as one, with no intention of forcing fake gender identity.
  • Rock–Paper–Scissors: Lefty and Desdemona play Rock-Ax-Snake (Ax breaks Rock, Snake swallows Ax, Rock kills Snake) when she's trying to persuade him to marry one of the two eligible girls in Bithynios. Lefty wins both rounds, so he doesn't have to marry either of them.
  • Romantic Two-Girl Friendship: At Calliope's all girls school this is stated to be common, since according to Cal, energy that is normally reserved for crushes on boys gets redirected into friendships with other girls instead.
  • The Runaway: Calliope becomes one after realizing that they intend to surgically alter her body, so he cuts his hair, remakes himself as Cal and ends up in San Francisco as part of a strip joint show as "Hermaphroditus" and meets another intersex woman.
  • Secret Keeper: Lina does not tell anyone her cousins Desdemona and Lefty are siblings, and they don't tell anyone she's a lesbian.
  • Shown Their Work: The amount of research the author did on Cal's condition really shows.
  • The Speechless: Lefty, after his first stroke.
  • Sperm As People: Inverted; Cal imagines himself and Chapter Eleven as tiny homunculi inside their eggs, waiting to be fertilized.
  • Tangled Family Tree: Cal's family tree looks like this due to all the incest tropes above.
  • Transgender: Cal goes through a similar process when he decides to start living as male.
  • Traumatic Haircut: In the concessions area at Ellis Island, Desdemona went into a YWCA that gave her a makeover, including giving her a '20s Bob Haircut and a cloche hat. Desdemona is angered and humiliated by this, and vows never to cut her hair again.
    Desdemona: That's the last time anyone cuts my hair.
    Lefty: You look fine. You look like an Amerikanidha.
    Desdemona: I don't want to look like an Amerikanidha. That's the last haircut.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: In story, Cal comments that people are probably wondering what happened to Desdemona since she seemingly drops out of the story. Turns out that she's still alive and has just retreated to her room, and lives long enough to see Cal's new male persona and confess the reason he's the way he is.
  • While Rome Burns: A British naval vessel refuses to rescue Greeks from Smyrna, nonchalantly watching the city burn and refugees drown. They're even playing orchestral music as Desdemona and Lefty sail past on another ship.
  • Wrong Genetic Sex:
    • As the result of 5-alpha-reductase deficiency. Genetically, Callie is 46,XY, but lacks the enzyme that converts testosterone to its active form. Thus, he has cryptorchid (undescended) testes, no ovarian or uterine structures, a nonfunctional vaginal pouch, and a microphallus (such that it's repeatedly mistaken for a larger-than-normal clitoris, both by Callie and by several doctors).
    • Also applies to Zora, affected by complete androgen insensitivity syndrome, who—although being able to pass as a female—identifies as intersex due to her XY chromosomes.
  • Wrong Name Outburst: In his youth, Lefty visited a brothel and chose a girl who resembled the sister he truly wanted. And he called the prostitute by her name. (He was high at the time.)
    Irini: By the way, I'm Irini. We don't have a Desdemona here.


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