Study Guide

Cal (Calliope) Helen Stephanides in Middlesex

By Jeffrey Eugenides

Cal (Calliope) Helen Stephanides

Greece-d Lightning

Cal is a "former field hockey goalie [...] and, for most of [his] adult life, an employee of the U.S. State Department" (1.1.2). This is interesting enough, but his professions and hobbies are probably the most boring aspects of his personality. Cal also describes himself as "Like Tiresias" (1.1.2) the Greek character who changed genders more times than RuPaul. This classical reference shows that he's both a whiz at Greek history and has had a bit of gender confusion in his day.

Gender confusion is putting it mildly. Cal calls himself "the most famous hermaphrodite in history" (1.2.1)—a fact that we can hardly debate since the book is fiction and all. Cal was born with male genitalia that looked like female genitalia to his doctor and, as a result, he was raised as a girl, and not in the fun "dressing up like Daphne for Halloween" kind of way, but in a way that's kind of tragic and colors his entire life.

The Facts of Life

As an adult, Cal passes just fine a man, even telling us, "I'm not androgynous in the least" (1.3.7). But the sixteen years he spent living as a female still stay with him. "It's a little like being possessed" (1.3.7) he says at first, and it takes him a long time (like, say, five hundred pages) to accept the feminine youth aspect of his identity. And when he does incorporate his tumultuous teen years into his adult identity, it pays off. He connects with a woman he meets—Julie Kikuchi—by being honest with her in a way he was never honest with anyone else.

We only get a glimpse into his relationship with Julie, but it's an important look. Cal admits that his courting rituals are typically strained, to say the least. Fear holds him back—fear of revealing his true gender to another, fear of their reaction. He says "they always think it's the old-school, gentlemanly routine. The slowness of my advances. [...] I've learned to make the first move by now, but not the second" (3.2.1).

We think Cal should be more confident in his ability to interact with people. He gets pretty much everyone. Cal's experience with dual identities gives him some incredible empathetic capabilities that border on supernatural. Like another great player in Greek mythology, the Oracle of Delphi, Cal believes he can put himself inside the bodies of others. When he's on the verge of having sex with Jerome, the Obscure Object's brother, he enters the body of the nearby Rex Reese. "I entered him like a god so that it was me, and not Rex, who kissed her" (3.9.162). Do you think this is true or an exaggeration, like it's Cal's colorful way of rationalizing the fact that he never had the experience with the Object that Rex had that night in the cabin?

Whether it's because of his supernatural empathy skills or because he simply has gained an incredible perspective on his incredible life, Cal realizes that if he wasn't raised the way he was, he wouldn't have turned out that way he is in the end. He's grateful for everything he's gone through, both the good and the bad. You take them both and there you have… the facts of life.

May We Have the Definition Please?

Calliope was named after one of the Greek muses, and we've already talked about some of the other Greeks Cal identifies with over his life. For a guy with so many personalities, he doesn't really fit in anywhere. "I don't like groups" (2.2.3), he says. He's also prone to isolation because of the trauma he's experienced. He says, "A traumatic experience early in life marks a person forever, pulls her out of line, saying 'Stay there. Don't move'" (4.2.2). That's some heavy shmoop, right? The most traumatic thing Cal probably experiences isn't getting mauled by a tractor, or having painful sex with the Object's brother—it's reading the Webster's dictionary definition of hermaphrodite, particularly that part that suggests monster as a synonym for the word.

This moment in Middlesex isn't just intensely harsh for Cal; it also serves as a harsh reminder for us as readers that people who look different have been discriminated and cast out throughout history. Seeing the definition sparks Cal's cross-country hitchhiking trip. Going from a muse to a monster will do that to a guy.

How are Things on the West Coast?

Cal's family has a habit of lying to doctors. It starts when Desdemona lies to the doctor studying her Mediterranean diet, and Cal continues the family tradition when he, as Calliope, pretends to begin menstruating. Later on Calliope also lies to Dr. Luce, trying to tell him what he wants to hear. This last bit of lying gets Cal in trouble, as Dr. Luce responds by believing that sex reassignment surgery (making Cal's body more neatly identifiable as female) would be the best course of action. That's a pretty cruel cut, to put it mildly, and it's no wonder Cal runs screaming from New York City.

Cal's sexual odyssey (an appropriate term for an extraordinary Greek) has him traveling across the country with a man who wants to sleep with him (Ben Scheer), a couple who lives in an RV (Myron and Sylvia Bresnick), and some really nasty homeless people who kick Cal in the face in San Francisco (unnamed, and they better be glad, because we'd track them down). Cal starts using men's bathrooms and remarking how clean they are (has he ever actually seen the inside of a ladies's bathroom?) and drinking beer.

Cal eventually ends up as a mermaid in a sex show. Does a mermaid fall into the definition of monster? The Little Mermaid and Pirates of the Caribbean seem to disagree on that issue. While he's there, however, he learns to accept his "possessed and awkward, extravagant beauty" (3.1.14). Why does he describe his beauty as extravagant? Is this because Cal blends together the best of both worlds? Or all worlds? After all, he's classic-meets-modern, East-meets-West, male-meets-female. Is Cal the future of humanity as we know it?