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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.
  • Best Years of Your Life: Callie's carpool driver, Mrs. Drexel, tells this to her carpoolies. Callie, age 12, hates her for this.
  • 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 to 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, as meeting her gradually makes Cal realize her attraction to girls.
  • 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.
  • Didn't Think This Through: When Callie finds out that the doctor was lying to all of them about their genitalia, their first reaction is to leave a "Dear John" Letter, take all the money they have, and cut their hair. It ends with them getting beaten up by two random thieves and arrested for taking part in an underground circus. Oh, and their father dies during a botched ransom attempt from the local priest. Tessie, when they reunite, has a lot of Anger Born of Worry.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Cal ends the novel happily settling down with a woman that accepts his sordid backstory. He reassures her that she's not a "last stop" for him, but rather a "first stop".
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Hurt Foot Hop: When Calliope is running away from Jerome, she jumps over a historical marker, grazes it with her foot, and hops in pain.
  • Important Haircut: One of the first things Calliope does to change to Cal is get a short haircut.
  • Intersex Tribulations: Cal was raised female but began developing masculine characteristics upon hitting puberty due to 5-alpha reductase deficiency.
  • 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.
  • Late Coming Out: Sourmelina doesn't come out as a lesbian until middle age.
  • 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.
  • Last Het Romance: Cal's newest flame mentions that she tends to be this for guys that use her to determine their sexual orientation. When she finds out that Cal is a male pseudohermaphrodite, Cal reassures her that she's the first woman with whom he wanted a serious relationship.
  • 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.
  • Maternal Impression: After returning home from a vaguely sexualized production of the play The Minotaur, Desdemona and Lefty have sex, as do Lina and Zizmo. Desdemona—who is actually Happily Married, but also quite old-school, and doesn't always feel comfortable about wanting sex—pretends to be asleep. Milton and Tessie are both conceived that night, and these circumstances of their conception are not particularly imprinted on either of them. But years later, when they grow up, marry each other, and have Cal, he sees reflections of himself in his parents' conception.
    Cal: Parents are supposed to pass down physical traits to their children, but it's my belief that all sorts of other things get passed down, too: motifs, scenarios, even fates. Wouldn't I also sneak up on a girl pretending to be asleep? And wouldn't there also be a play involved, and somebody dying onstage?
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • One-Gender School: Cal goes to an all-girls' school, and it's noted that Pseudo Romantic Friendships are considered normal there.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: The Obscure Object (referencing the film That Obscure Object of Desire, since she's Cal's Closet Key), and Cal's brother Chapter 11 (referencing how he went bankrupt later in life).
  • Pass Fail / Ambiguously Brown: 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.
  • Pining After Protagonist's Parent: Cal's mother Tessie was originally engaged to Father Mike Antoniou, but she left him for her second cousin Milton. This is part of what leads Mike to make fake ransom calls to Callie's parents after she runs away — he's spent so much time feeling inferior to Milton that he wants to get the better of him for once.
  • 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. According to Euginedes, this is why he wrote the novel in first person.
  • Pseudo-Romantic Friendship: At Calliope's all-girls school this is stated to be considered normal, due to the belief that a certain amount of emotional energy which is normally reserved for crushes on boys gets redirected into friendships with other girls instead. However, Cal's friendship with the Obscure Object ends up becoming both romantic and sexual.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.