Analysis: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

So my AP English Literature Composition class grade is basically all based on a 7-10 page “log” we write about the books we choose to read each month. It is more of a “log” than an essay, in regards to the format and tone. I thought that since a lot of these book I chose aren’t analyzed that much or were written more recently, it would be cool to have more opinions on it out there on the internet.

So here we begin with the first book I read, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. A warning though, these are all unedited, and this particular one is rather…difficult to slog through, as it was 1)started at 9 pm and finished at 4 am 2)the first log and 3)the first paper I had to put effort into since, well, January of that same year. My favorite comment from my teacher on this is “your lack of proofreading/editing is disconcerting” 🙂

Jeffrey Eugenides Book Log

Jeffrey Eugenides is half-Greek and half-Irish/English, He was born in Detroit, Michigan and went to school in Grosse Pointe, the hometown of Cal. Eugenides has expressed a fondness for Detroit despite its tumultuous history and reputation, which would account for his focus on the changes in the city that parallel changes in the Stephanides family life. He wrote Middlesex to tell the story of an intersex person that he felt was missing from the Herculine Barbin, the memoirs of a female who assumed a male identity. He sought to really flesh out a multi-faceted character with feelings and motivations that were not coming through in the memoirs. Eugenides has said that he began learning writing experimentally first, which would account for his unique style.

For a book titled “Middlesex”, Middlesex spends an awful lot of time in places other than the Middlesex and away from even the concept of middlesex. And that reflects Eugenides’s message somewhat. Because it’s considered a true “American” novel, it makes sense that the main point is that for every aspect of life in modern America, whenever that modern period occurs, is the culmination of a long history. The great history of America and Cal’s personal history is an amalgamation of every type of detail, but as the events happen, we aren’t aware of what’s important and what’s not. As Cal recounts the lives of his previous generations, there are all sorts of observations, of Cal’s neighbors on Grosse Pointe for example, or customer’s at the Zebra Room, but in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter. Few things that were significant to the characters Cal focuses on at any one point, end up staying significant. There is no final reflection on this culmination of events, no climactic reveal that is very clearly a result of all preceding events(the climax, i’m guessing Jerome’s climax).

This is most obvious rereading the book. On the very first page, in the second paragraph, Eugenides throws a whole smattering of seemingly random details, each of which recalls some small event or detail, both significant and inconsequential, and reading it the first time, I don’t even recall seeing this. They seemed so out of context at the time that my brain didn’t even take note. By the time we learned about the “the redheaded girl from Grosse Pointe”(1) for example, we have already struggled through two generations of climactic points and then a couple more in Cal’s early life. The fact that “her brother liked [her]”(1) too is even added as an afterthought in parenthesis, even though the moment they have sex is one of the most climactic points in the plot. Eugenides describes all these details as if they are all equally important; and as a first time reader, you would assume so. He’s a former field hockey goalie, but a member of the Greek Orthodox liturgy. The former is used as a throwaway detail to start off a chapter in action, while the latter is a recurring concept that hangs over the entire plot. It is the reason for the more hysterical behavior and beliefs of Desdemona(for example calling for Cal to stand guard outside her door against Milton’s ghost) and Tessie(her resercatios against Milton trying to use science to get a girl). Father Mike was a Greek Orthodox priest and he was indirectly responsible for Milton’s death; and Cal peeing on Mike at his baptism contributed to the feelings of impotency that lead Mike to set in motion the events that lead to Milton’s death. Knowing all these details from the first read through, it might not be hard to understand why Cal is a “rare attendant” then(1). That simple statement has so much backstory to it, but we wouldn’t know it from the first, and possibly even the second read through. Perhaps it seems strange to dwell so long on the first page, but I find that it is where this aspect of Eugenides’s style is most clear. Eugenides doesn’t make an attempt to differentiate between significant and inconsequential here on the first page, and he continues do the same thing. He introduces the setting and then some time later, he’ll reference it very briefly and it’ll suddenly seem like the most important thing in the world and how could you have every missed that? For example, throughout Eugenides account of Desdemona’s story and Miton and Tessie’s story, he makes references to Cadillacs. From the very beginning when Callie asks Milton about the Cadillac seal on his car to the “Cadillac Boulevard” where Tessie and Milton grew up. And you don’t realize the significance of Milton having a different Cadillac every year until that year he died. The Obscure Object makes an appeareance(“Milton lying on his bed, dreaming about my mother in the same way I would later dream about the Obscure Object.”) before you even get to the chapter titled “The Obscure Object.” Eugenides creates this pile of details filled with self-referencing loops and twists that lead to nowhere to basically to create this chaotic passage of time that reflects our own passage through life. We never know what’s important at the time and we may never find out until it comes up again later on. Beyond just an individual life however, Eugenides’s style reflects the flow of one generation into another. The vivid accounts of each generation lose their weight as we move onto the story of the next. The intricacies of Desdemona’s struggles and even her character become diminished as we move on to Tessie’s and Cals’ stories, a shift that is made stronger by Eugenides use of references and unimportant details. As the struggles of the previous generation fade into the reader’s memory, the reader themself is drawn into a different character, one that also lacks a clear picture of the previous generation’s struggles at this point. As Desdemona takes a backseat to Tessie and Milton’s dramas, Eugenides begins to ease us into their thoughts more and Desdemona becomes a supporting character. By the time she pops up in Cal’s story again, at the very end, Eugenides doesn’t even give us her inner thoughts, only her words and external reactions. On yet another level, Eugenides brings this same characteristic flow of time and event to American history itself. Generational differences drove many changes in American history, the 1960s counter revolution being a big one, and Eugenides often tries to incorporate the contemporary events. Sometimes it is obvious like when Cal’s family was actually in the thick of the 1967 Detroit riots; sometimes it seems more unrelated, such as when Eugenides begins the arc of Milton’s death by   When he transitions to another date, he might preface it with what’s going on in that year [vevidence] And so even though the conflicts of the generations of Stephanides are intricate and unique, Eugenides universalizes their experience. By constantly reminding the reader of AMerican history [oil, mentioned Cadillacs before], Eugenides reminds us that his story is not about individual development, but generational development. He starts from a small Greek village in Turkey in the 1920s and ends up in 1980s Germany, all very smoothly and without you questioning how you ended up in another decade all the sudden.

Sometimes he uses metaphors and asides that relate to Greek myths, such as when he describes the night before Callie’s gynecologist appointment: “Saturday night, July 20, 1964”(353). He mentions the Turkish invasion of Greece the very same night, and goes into detail describing it, giving us a more full picture of where Callie’s life falls into the expanse of history. But he also adds a mystical element too, musing about how the Greek gods would often help mortals they favored. It’s rather ironic that those mortals would be Greece’s enemies, but Eugenides does so to imply the universality of these Greek myths, especially to a second-generation immigrant child whose strongest connection to their homeland is these myths. Such people, Cal and Eugenides himself, look for those parallels between myth and reality everywhere in life to feel closer to their identity. Eugenides continues to do this  the Minowithtaur, Tiresias, Hermaphroditus[add more stuff]. Other times, Eugenides may forgo the Greek mythology, but still indulge in very spectacular metaphors that convey a similar feeling of significance. Cal’s first impression of the Obscure object is that “A Big Bang had occurered, originating at the bridge of her nose, and the force of this explosion had sent galaxies of freckles hurtling and drifting to every end of her curved , warm-blooded universe”(323).  He does something similar when he describes Cal and Chapter Eleven’s eggs waiting to be birthed into the world and muses on how they are omniscient at that point, somehow making the birth seem even more miraculous than it already is. While his characters’ lives are diminished when compared to the important historical events happening concurrently, they are significant still, which Eugenides conveys through his focus on detail and infusion of Greek religion and mythology. Eugenides reminds us that the typical American family line often continues on outside of the drama of history, but his comparisons and descriptions romanticize events and details, giving much more weight to the personal experience of a single family, specifically an immigrant one as it assimilates into America.

Eugenide’s smooth, sometime romanticized style also comes from him occasionally describing one event with vivid imagery and then switching to plain “telling” language. He only really hones in on specific events, just as a movie picks and chooses scenes to piece together a story. And Eugenides often acknowledges the cinematic nature of his tale and style. He even becomes very meta sometimes, at one point lamenting how he is dipping into his trust fund(this story) in writing this for us. “Patient reader,” he addresses us, “you may have been wondering what happened to my grandmother. You may have noticed that, shortly after she climbed into bed forever, Desdemona began to fade away. But that was intentional. I allowed Desdemona to slip out of my narrative because, to be honest, in the dramatic years of my transformation…” Cal/Eugenides explicitly tells us that people fade away from the main plot line, of life and of this story, as their generation passes their prime. Just as history is dictated by the next generation, so is this story. And so Eugenides occasionally brings us out of the story, not with time period, but by literally leaving the fictional world of the book, to point out things like this in it. His book is history, but he has the privilege of being able to do this, which you cannot do while you’re experiencing history.

Having dwelled on Eugenides’s style, it occurs to me that I have somewhat neglected the themes. What strikes me most is again, like the fullness of his language and details, is exactly how many themes are brushed upon. There’s sexuality and the changing stigma against it for all genders, which is shown in Cal’s discovering of his true nature and the reactions of various people to him because of it. His journey seems rather common: never quite fitting in, parents in denial, finally discovering the truth and becoming a sex worker when they ran away and had nowhere else to go. It’s something queer people have struggled with throughout history, and there is not tidy conclusion to his struggle. It’s more about his discovery of his identity, once he had all his options open. Dr. Luce’s diagnosis that showed Cal was not Callie(pardon the name-gendering, this was done purely for stylistic purposes) forced this male identity upon him, but what pushed him to embrace the identity for real was realizing that everyone around him wanted him to be a certain way. He basically realized that all of his life as a girl had been dictated by the expectations of everyone around him, though he had been lucky enough to naturally fit in enough to not elicit strong or violent reactions against him. Figuring out that things were not as they seemed allowed him to make an objective decision about which gender identity he wanted to assume. It’s pretty much a theme of seeking out the truth for yourself. I think it is interesting how the first time Cal is Cal, he makes a conscious effort to conform to manly stereotypes, with the sway of his hips for example. Yet, when he encounters the queer(implied) man who take him to the diner, he admires the more feminine clothing and seeks to model himself after him in the future(and he does). Eugenides has future Cal understanding that he doesn’t quite fit in either identity exactly and still having problems with it to this day, until he consolidates his relationship with Julie. On one level, even insecure adult Cal at the beginning has already developed greatly from the Cal in the main storyline. But Eugenides also has adult Cal’s final resolution drawn out through the book, offering a break at the beginning of some chapters to check on his affairs. He pulls us out of his flowing tale, in an almost disorienting way(since these brief sections are also devoid of his more flowery, figurative language), as if he is distorting the flow of time. It seems to be a reminder that what’s going on at the moment in the story is far in the past, and that all these events will converge to one point. Imagine watching a movie but seeing a few minutes of the last half hour every once in a while, sometimes in the middle of a cliff hanger. It’s a constant reminder that however important you think the current events are, the final moments of Cal’s story are more important. Returning to the sexuality theme, Eugenides makes room for a couple of  another intersex person, Zora, Sourmelina and eventual love Ms. Watson, and Ben Sheer. Though Eugenides’s tale is very much about American life and the American Dream, it is specifically about the life of someone outside the sexual norms. By incorporating these side characters, Eugenides give a little more weight to this aspect of the story, which might otherwise be lost among the other details. Zora and Ben play important roles in helping Cal discover himself. One thing about Zora though; she suddenly disappears, and is never mentioned again, despite Cal’s reverence of her. Though we know that he would later search out her book, it supports the idea that there are people who we cross paths with and never see again, regardless of how large an impact they’ve had on us(the same goes for Clementine and the Obscure Object. It’s as if he eases us into this story of sexuality struggle(even though he smacks us in the face with incest, but that is beside the point; we are speaking of identity, not necessarily love right now), with Aunt Lina’s character and her sexual deviations and edginess, before we start the real story of Callie. Until then, Lina is the only sign that there is any presence of sexuality as a theme.

There is also racism, with Desdemona’s time in the silkworm hatchery and with Jimmy Zizmo as Farad Muhammed as he wants to call himself. At this time and many others, Eugenides comments on history, how some of America’s discrimination comes from its many immigrants that have had bad experiences that color their tolerance of certain groups in America. Desdemona has a double-assimilation problem almost, as she tries to cope with being an American, and supposed part-Turk(so she can keep her job). All that brings me to another theme, assimliation and patriotism. Desdemona and Lefty’s identity strongly affect their lives in America, and they begin to lose it as they try to survive. Desdemona, right away, lost her silkworms, then her hair, then her pride as a Greek(lying that she was part Turk), then her son Milton who never became fluent in Greek, and finally Lefty, the only person who shared her experiences back in their village in Greece. Even writing that sentence somehow made me nostalgic as I think back to how far their family has come. Perhaps there is more to Lefty’s death pushing her over the edge. Not only did she lose her true love, she also lost the last external reminder of her identity. Since she never really accepted American culture, this is a particularly strong blow to her. She had nothing else tying her down to this strange country she lived in, so there was nothing left to do but await death. Lefty makes more of an attempt to be an American, but in the end, the most he achieves is being a restaurant owner, which is a rather typical immigrant family job for the time.

Milton on the other hand, builds a huge franchise and becomes a successful businessman, something immigrants often can’t do, but second-generation children can. He also becomes far more patriotic, out of choice, not necessity like Lefty and Desdemona. He adamantly defends America helping the Turks, when even his friends don’t. He believes very whole-heartedly in science and in every aspect of his character except his name, he is a true American(for that time). His cultural heritage is even commodified into Hercules’s Hot Dogs, where the ancient Greek myth is now somewhat of a tacky mascot.

It’s interesting to see then, that Cal and Chapter Eleven have become even more assimilated, yet less patriotic(mainly Chapter Eleven). Chapter Eleven rebels against is family, against traditional(1950s) American values, but it is an inherently American thing to do at that time. Whereas Milton’s cultureal identity can be seen from the contrast between that part of him and his patriotism, there is an even smaller trace of it in Chapter Eleven and Cal. By the time it’s their turn to live their story, their heritage has been reduced to the food they eat, random references to mythology Callie is obsessed with for a time, and a throwaway line about how hairy Greek girls are. That adult Cal is in Germany the whole time also speaks to this, as the Stephanides line as gained such an ingrained American identity, it almost takes it for granted, and spends a lot of time abroad. Cal is aware of

Eugenides shows us the slow integration of the immigrant families in the early 1900s that created the very American people that live here today. His broader message is that America is just a whole lot of people, of all genders, races, cultures, and anything in between, assimilating into a society that may well not exist without this assimilation in the first place. It’s self-perpetuating.

War is also briefly touched upon, as a catalyst for change and destruction is seen with Desdemona and Lefty fleeing the Turks for their lives, Milton’s death wish enlisting in the military, and Milton’s spat with his neighbors over another Turkish invasion of Greece, that lead to “the end of an era” kind of thing when the neighbors stopped coming over for dinner on Sundays.

Death and love also make their appearance. It’s interesting that Desdemona died long after her life held anything of worth, to herself and to the story(besides revealing her secret to Cal), while Milton died while he was still somewhat in his prime and could have been capable of doing many things still(like making sure Chapter Eleven didn’t bankrupt Hercules’s Hot Dogs). It’s like Eugenides presents two ways of rationalizing death, one as “well they’ve been here for far too long anyway” and the other as “they died before the worst came”. As for love, every major plot point is spurred on by love. Lefty and Desdemona fleeing together, Zizmo’s death and the new direction their lives took afterwards, the Tessie-Milton-Father Mike-Zoe love whatever it was, each of Cal’s ephiphanies about himself/herself at the time. Eugenides portrays a great variety of romantic love, weaving it into his tale, as another aspect of the passage of time and a reflection of the culture of America in that particular time and all that jazz. There’s incest, homosexuality, young adolescent love, sex, and jealousy, the parents disapproving of the rebellious love interest(Chapter Eleven’s girlfriend), distance created by marriage and childbearing for various reasons, an almost drunk rape, and more. To list every single one would be exhausting.

There is also a subtle theme about femininity portrayed through the characterization of female characters. It’s interesting that Cal, both as a girl and narrating the story, saw things through a male gaze somewhat, noting the appearance of the women far more than the men. From comments on Desdemona’s appearance through the years to the way he begins the very first description of Clementine and the Obscure Object(I will get to this in a moment but does that decision to call her the Object not scream male gaze to you?). He describes the men too, but not nearly as often. Cal also goes to great lengths to describe himself at various times, which makes sense, but the way he does so is strange sometimes. As a child and middle school, there is strange fixation on the androgenous beauty of his features, though Eugenides does this to emphasize the change in expectations that comes around puberty and adolescence. Around this time Cal mentions that androgyny is in so he got by okay for a while, which is another example of historical references Eugenides uses, though this time it is more directly related to the plot, unlike him casually referring to the oil crisis in Turkey in the 70s to segway into talking Milton’s final Cadillac, to segway into the story of his death. In a way, these associations recall the way memories work, and the general theme of time passing on and the changing significance of things(which is essentially the legacy of each individual in the Stephanides line) fit well with that. Desdemona, Tessie, and Cal all seem to  have a harder time fitting in to American society than Lefty, Milton, and Chapter Eleven do. Desdemona refuses to compromise for American culture, Tessie remains very religious, even as much of America is enthralled by science, like Milton, and Cal has his own condition, which bars him from even being able to fully fit into a group of people that don’t even fit in completely in the first place. And even though Lefty and Milton are negatively portrayed as too industrious and distant, Tessie and Desdemona are overwhelmingly prone to hysteria. Given the time period those two lived in, it makes sense perhaps, and that may be why Eugenides did that. He falls back on archetypes somewhat to give the impression of a very typical family  for the time.

Honestly you could name almost any theme related to America and it would be in Middlesex. There’s so much drama and so many themes that it’s hard to track the development of any single one as you read the story. Some are more explored than others, but no single theme dominates the entire story. And that is part of Eugenides’s attempt to convey the complexity of being an American. He wants to capture the essence of every individual’s story, because the American identity needs every little bit.

As a second generation immigrant child too, I wonder why I haven’t assimilated as much as Milton or Tessie have, despite my parents caring a lot less about culture. I think it does have to do with the higher class environment I live in perhaps or simply the time period. Mostly I think that it is because Milton’s parents tried so hard to make him learn his culture. I’ve been so deprived of it that I yearn to learn more. Milton took his cultural heritage for granted almost, and that lead to him assimilating more than I did.

I am also questioning Eugenides’s decision to spend so much time on the two generations before Cal, and after reading the synopsis and reviews, I was a little bewildered by their intense focus on Cal’s story. What of the first two thirds of the book then? Is it just a very drawn out backstory? I picked this book because of its themes of sexuality, so to have to wade through not one but two American Dream-esque stories to get there just seemed excessive. But now I understand it. Eugenides is crafting an epic of the American dream, where everything can be traced back to some root, in this case the village in Turkey. To understand Cal’s life, we go through his coming of age and self-discovery journey, but to understand the other half of it, the base from which he began this journey, we need to understand her environment, we need to understand the parents that created that environment and how they got to that point, the grandparents that created those parents and how they got to that point. After that, the root fizzles out as the lineage up until Desdemona had been in the same secluded village with the same traditions and values carried on for generations.

I have mentioned the American Dream a few times, but never addressed it explicitly. Essentially, every generation goes through their own interpretation of the dream: lefty starting from scratch, Milton reaching beyond his parents, and Cal(yes they are all men, because for that time period, the American Dream was a male thing, and if Eugenides is going for an American epic, it is somewhat excusable) going through what’s probably the most relevant one today, the once of self-understanding and acceptance. Once again it seems that whatever Eugenides does, it is in multiples.

One last thing I have many thoughts on but unfortunately not enough brainpower to power through is the ending. Eugenides leaves us with a very reassuring waiting for what’s to come next line at the end of Milton’s funeral. Supposedly this is the end of the story? But the actual plot ended some pages ago when Cal and Julie reconciled. It’s almost like the last chapter is an epilogue, a final necessary but not particularly interesting piece to tack onto the end to connect the dots. Eugenides ends with this kind of open ended ending to give the impression of the sort of open opportunities that await Cal after this first great hurdle in his life, even if the future doesn’t look very bright yet. But at the same time, he cannot just leave us hanging and he has to resolve that Julie plot. And actually he kind of explained what happened between the end of the book and the beginning of adult Cal’s plotline a couple more pages back. So really the confusing part with the ending is that it is like an unraveled end that has its tail somewhere further back. So that would bring us back to this idea of an open future(even if we already know what’s to come), which is kind of the essence of the American dream.


Annotated Bibliography

Eugenides, Jeffrey. Middlesex. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2002. Print.



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