Like everything in Cal's life, the word Middlesex has dual meanings, the obvious one being the fact that Cal is between sexes. (Insert as much talk about genitals as you're willing to stand right now.) He is both male and female anatomically speaking, and occupies both genders over the course of his life.
However, Middlesex can also mean the house that Milton buys and raises his family in. Cal refers to the house with an almost worshipful reverence. "Middlesex!" (3.3.61) he says, complete with exclamation point. "Did anybody ever live in a house as strange? As sci-fi? As futuristic and outdated at the same time?" (3.3.61). Clearly, Cal thinks the house is pretty cool.
Middlesex doesn't have doors; it has weird sliding barriers to section off different rooms instead. It's full of peepholes, shelves, and secret passages, too. Frankly, while we'd love to live there, it's totally the perfect place for Cal. How do you think the house mimics Cal? What secret passages does he have? (Yes, we're talking about genitals again, guys, and then some.)
At the end of the novel, Cal has returned from being a performer in a sex show in San Francisco, his father has died after being blackmailed by his brother-in-law, Cal has realized that religion is a crock, and Desdemona has finally confessed that she and Lefty were brother and sister.
That ending makes Titanic look uplifting. Strangely, though, Cal remains optimistic. "I stood in the door for an hour, maybe two. I lost track for a while, happy to be home, weeping for my father, and thinking about what was next" (4.7.198).
What we've read has basically been one giant epic coming of age story, and Cal has finally arrived. He's happy to be who he is, telling Desdemona, "I like my life" (4.7.187). And now that his life is basically in order, Cal has accepted the fact that fate and free will have combined to make him, and he's kind of excited to go along for the ride.
Due to the structure of the novel, we know that Cal's journey as an intersex man is never going to be easy, but we also get a glimpse at the beginning of the last chapter into his burgeoning relationship with Julie Kikuchi. This could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
Unlike America, Smyrna seems to be an actual melting pot, in which you can savor all the different cultures. Cal paints the picture like this: "Everyone in the city could speak French, Italian, Greek, Turkish, English, and Dutch. […] Did I mention how the reek of the fig women mixed with pleasanter smells of almond trees, mimosa, laurel, and peach?" (1.3.117).
This is so different from homogenized Detroit, where the only thing melting out of people is their identity. Lefty is expected to act as American (whatever that means) as possible, even receiving instruction from his employer on the American way to brush his teeth. The irony underlying all the pressure to conform is that Detroit is super segregated. Desdemona notices this when she enters the Black Bottom Ghetto: "There was no roadblock, no fence. The streetcar didn't so much as pause as it crossed the invisible barrier, but at the same time in the length of a block the world was different" (2.3.107). And here Detroit was starting to sound like a pretty nice place to live…
Both Smyrna and Detroit burn to the ground, but Cal draws significance from Detroit's motto: "Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus. We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes" (2.1.7). Kind of sounds like our main character when you think about it, doesn't it?
We don't get much of a feel for San Francisco in this book. Cal's welcome to the city is brutal (he gets kicked in the head and peed on), and his life there is only possible because he's part of an underwater sex show run by Bob Presto.
Eugenides does cast San Francisco as a gay mecca of sorts: "Many of these sailors had picked up amatory habits that were frowned upon back on dry land. So these sailors stayed in San Francisco […] until the city became the gay capital, the homosexual Haupstadt" (4.4.103). For Cal, it's yet another miraculous case of right place, right time.
It took Eugenides ten years after The Virgin Suicides to write Middlesex, but it'll only take you a fraction of that time to read it. That doesn't mean it's easy, though. Middlesex is long, chock-full of literary language, historical references, and a confusing narrative structure. Still, it's not without insight and humor, so you should take the time to read it. Plus, we're here to help with all the symbols, shout-outs, themes, and characters with the Greekest names you'll see this side of the Atlantic. It'll take a few hours, days, or weeks, but who knows? It might stick with you for a decade, or longer.
Silkworms are a huge factor in Desdemona's life. She raises them in Greece, and then finds herself trying to raise them for the women of the Nation of Islam in Detroit. Her motto with silkworms is, "to have good silk, you have to be pure" (1.2.9). That motto could also be a way Desdemona rules her life, which sounds funny to say about a woman who marries her brother.
The worms are incredibly sensitive, and Cal even goes so far as to say that "silkworms reacted to historical atrocities" (1.2.9). We bet they get hay fever too, like, in the worst way. Or are super allergic to tree nuts. And dairy. What happens to the silkworms when they experience tragedy? Does their reaction remind you of any human character in the story?
The silkworms make a return when Desdemona gets a job at the Muslim Girls Training and General Civilization Class. To make a clumsy metaphor of our own, they help her weave two cultures together: her own Greek heritage, and the Muslim religion. The silkworms also reinforce gender stereotypes regarding women and submission. "You have to be pure," Desdemona tells the women in the class.
Cal mentions the Bombyx mori later, saying that the species "no longer exists anywhere in a natural state" (3.10.154). If we had a symbolism alarm, we'd be ringing it so hard right now. Can you think of any other tamed bodies in this book?
The worms are so important, they have their own box carved from olivewood that Desdemona carries them in. She keeps other things in the box after the worms die, including "two wedding crowns made from rope and, coiled like snakes, the two long braids of hair, each tied with a crumbling black ribbon" (1.1.8). Worms, rope, snakes, ribbon… the fabric of Desdemona's life.
We also see the silkworm box one last time, when Cal goes into Desdemona's room upon returning home for Milt's funeral. She's stuffed the box so full of mementos that she can't close it. Perhaps this is a good representation of Desdemona's life: so full, a silkworm box—or even a whole novel—can't contain it. Or maybe she's just an old hoarder. There's a pretty fine line between the two sometimes.
Desdemona's spoon trick goes something like this: She dangles a spoon over the pregnant mother's belly, and by examining how it sways, knows if the child will have a penis or a vagina. She's right every time.
The problem? Sex and gender are two totally different things. When Tessie is pregnant, Desdemona and her spoon predict that Cal will be a boy, and they're ultimately right. For years it seems Desdemona was finally wrong in her prediction, though, as Cal is raised as Calliope.
Remember that silkworm box we talked about elsewhere in this section? Desdemona kept the spoon in there until her prediction apparently failed. Cal says, "though the silkworm box reappeared now and then, the spoon was no longer among its treasures" (1.1.101). What do you think Desdemona did with the spoon, and why? Was she upset she was wrong? Or did someone just really need a utensil to eat their Lucky Charms?
Not since American Pie has a band solo felt so erotic. The language used during Milton's clarinet playing is incredibly sexy. Turn on the A/C and read these lines:
In front of his window, clarinet erect... (2.5.34)
[Tessie] felt the vibrations penetrate her muscles, pulsing in waves, until they rattled her bones and made her inner organs hum. (2.5.81)
Breathing hard, bent over Tessie with trembling concentration, he moved the clarinet in circles, like a snake charmer. And Tessie was a cobra, mesmerized, tamed, ravished by the sound. (2.5.82)
"Why do you always play by the window?"
"I get hot." (2.5.39-2.5.40)
Um, yeah… we're getting a little flushed too. This isn't subtle in the slightest. If you need us to read between the lines for you... well, we'll tell you when you're older.
After Lefty's death, Milton converts the family diner business into Hercules Hot Dogs. Should we be surprised at another phallocentric (read: it looks like a pee-pee) symbol in this book? What is it with these men and their wieners?
Cal sees the stands as over-commercialized and a "steep come-down from the romantic days of the Zebra Room" (3.4.41). It doesn't help that Milton pretty much runs the restaurants all by himself, which puts even more space between him and his family. Speaking of distance, hot dogs are a classic American food. Why doesn't Milton sell gyros instead? We really like gyros.
After the sausage fest of spoons, worms, wind instruments, and hot dogs (go poke around the rest of this section to see what those are about if you haven't already), it's nice to have a feminine symbol step in: the red eggs. We see the same scene with the eggs twice—they're red eggs and part of an Easter game. In case you didn't know, eggs don't just make a delicious breakfast—they also symbolize ovulation. It's during the Easter red egg game that Tessie gets pregnant with Cal.
When Cal revisits the egg as part of his chronological timeline, there's something new in the picture: sperm. See kids, when a man loves a woman...
Anyway, when Cal revisits Tessie getting knocked up by Milt, we see almost everything that leads up to this moment. As Cal says, "Everything comes out of an egg" (2.7.6). When you think about all the tiny details that come together in order to fertilize an egg, it makes the whole process seem all the more miraculous.
When Lefty and Desdemona start living their lives more separately than together, they literally start spending their time in different rooms—Desdemona has the Silk Room, and Lefty has the Zebra Room. And if the Silk Room weaves people together (well, non-white people anyway), then the Zebra room keeps them apart (or away from their families, at least).
These rooms kind of represent Desdemona and Lefty's unspoken beliefs about race. Desdemona believes that people should be brought together, whereas Lefty wants to keep races apart. Do you think Lefty mellows out as he gets older, or is the old saying true: you can lead a zebra to water, but you can't change his stripes? That's how it goes, right?
Cal mentions a mulberry tree a little less than twelve times throughout the novel, but why? He eats berries off it, he references its significance in Chinese mythology, and the novel ends in the fall when Milton is dead and the mulberry tree is bare. But what does it mean?
At one point Cal touches on the tree's significance, and how he doesn't understand it either: "That mulberry tree had stood outside my bedroom on Middlesex, never divulging its significance to me" (3.10.153). Is Cal looking too hard for significance in objects, or have we just not discovered its meaning yet?
The crocus is what Cal refers to his genitals as. Here's a picture (of a crocus, not Cal's genitals… get your mind out of the gutter).
You've probably heard the term "budding sexuality," a kind of creepy euphemism used to describe someone who is, um, blossoming into adulthood. Cal's crocus almost literally does bud, which he describes as "the blooming of the crocus" (3.10.59).
Unlike other notable symbols, like hot dogs and eggs, the crocus is a blend of both male and female aesthetic, just like Cal. Aww…
Cal is an authoritative narrator—just check out our "Allusions" section to see all of the references he makes. But does he really know what he's talking about? There's no way he was there when his parents were courting; he hadn't even been born yet. And he's even further removed from his grandparents' story. Yet he tells both these tales in such vivid detail. Do you believe he speaks the truth?