Calliope Stephanides may have been named after one of the Muses, but as we watch her life unfold in Middlesex, it's the Fates that seem to be guiding her path from childhood to adulthood and male to female. It's amazing how many world events come together at exactly the right time in order to make Cal: the Turkish invasion of Greece, race riots in Detroit, and the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Maybe the only reason she's named Calliope is because Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos are all terrible names for a child. Or pet. Or anything.
Just as Cal is a mix of both male and female ideals, he is a perfect balance of fate and free will coming together to create something new.
Fate and free will aren't that different. Cal has free will and makes conscious choices that affect his fate.
A book called Middlesex just has to deal with issues of gender. It's not Essex or Wessex or Sussex: it's freaking Middlesex. Born intersex with primarily male features but raised female, Cal is right smack in between two genders, and he has to learn to rationalize them both. Through a lot of introspection (and a stop-over at an underwater sex carnival in San Francisco) Cal ends up becoming the best of both worlds.
Because Cal is raised in a rigid gender stereotype (girls should wear dresses and play with dolls) it makes it that much harder for him to transition into a male gender.
Because Cal was so "girly" as a girl, he tries extra hard to be uber-masculine as an adult man.
If you've seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding or ordered a gyro at your local Greek sandwich shop, you know that Greeks are not only big into family archetypically speaking, they're just big families. And loud families. Cal's family in Middlesex is about as Greek as you can get—by the time he is born, his grandparents, parents, and brother all live in the same house together. And being from a country that gave birth to some of the greatest philosophers and plays of all time, they love drama, too.
Cal's family seems dramatic, but they ultimately love and support each other when the going gets tough (and cities are on fire).
Cal's family isn't as large as your typical Greek family because they keep marrying their own relatives. When Cal finally finds someone to settle down with, he'll find a new family to be a part of.
Whether or not you want to think about it, your family wouldn't exist were it not for sex. Middlesex is a novel about generations, kind of like the parts of the Bible where someone begat someone, and that person begats [sic] someone else, and so on and so forth. Thankfully for our reading pleasure, Jeffrey Eugenides can write passages that are a heck of a lot steamier than "begat." It's a little easier to think about your parents having sex when you see just how hot it is. Or does that make it creepier?
Through his writing, Jeffrey Eugenides makes sex scenes that should be uncomfortable into something steamy, which kind of makes them more uncomfortable.
Cal is a product of his parents's traditional attitudes toward sex and the looser attitudes toward sex of the 1960s.
It's pretty hard to concisely summarize the plot of Middlesex, but one way to boil it down would be to call it an epic quest. It's Greek, after all, and they love their quests. The characters of Middlesex aren't looking for the Golden Fleece, though, they're looking for love. And their love crosses all bounds: family, gender, war… you name it, and the love of the Stephanides family triumphs over it.
We talked about sex being necessary to make a family, but love is too. All the members of the Stephanides family are born from sex that results from love.
It sounds cheesy but it's true: Cal has to learn to love himself before he can love somebody else.
In a family epic like Middlesex the characters age and grow old every time we turn a new page. The young lovers Lefty and Desdemona are swinging young newlyweds on one page (it's hard to imagine someone named Desdemona as young, we know) and on the next they're doddering old grandparents. They can't stop time. All they can do is use it to take a moment and reflect on the past, and use what they've learned to affect the future.
As Cal gets closer to middle age (a.k.a. over the hill), he learns to appreciate the perspective his years have given him. As it turns out, the view from the hill is pretty good.
The thing about being over the hill is that you go back down it. Lefty does this literally when he starts reliving his childhood instead of just ruminating about it.
We talked about old people in the part of this section focused on old age, but we didn't address this one critical issue: old people die. Well, everyone dies at some point, whether they're old or not, and there's a lot of death in Middlesex. There are deaths off-page during wars and riots, there are deaths of minor characters, and there are deaths of major characters whose lives we've known for a long time. So, if you're wondering why our copy of Middlesex is stained with tears… that's why. Why it's stained with peanut butter… well, we like to eat and read, okay? Nothing wrong with that.
One of the first deaths that really impacts the novel is the death of Dr. Philobosian's children. When they die, he immigrates to America, where he later delivers Cal. His oversight of Cal's true sex sets the whole novel into motion.
The novel ends with a death. Even though his father is dead, Cal is hopeful for the future and treats it as a new beginning.
America in the early part of the 20th century was a place rife with wealth, and the wealth was growing. While Lefty and Desdemona aren't living a life on par with Leonardo DiCaprio's Gatsby in Middlesex, they have a lot of earning potential. And the way to make to money is through work. The work of Cal's ancestors affects who they are, whether they're working in factories, smuggling liquor into Canada, or peddling hot dogs. Since Cal is a product of his ancestors, we're surprised he isn't working in some sort of hot dog-flavored liquor factory.
The men of the Stephanides family are focused on one thing: earning money to support their family. Earning money comes at the price of being close to family.
Each generation of Cal's family is wealthier than the previous one… until Chapter Eleven bankrupts the family business, that is. We have no idea how they fare after that happens.
It's easy to just lump race into black and white and a few things in between and on either side. But we're talking about race here, not Oreo cookies, and one of the things Middlesex does is remind us on a regular basis how complex race is.
Race is never simple, and this was especially true in the early days of American immigration. White could mean Italian, Dutch, Irish, English, German, Greek, and so on. Thanks (that's a sarcastic thanks) to Ellis Island, all of these people were expected to act "white," whatever that means. Often it meant changing their names, or modifying their behaviors. Through the experience of Lefty and Desdemona, we see how by trying to act the same as everyone else, they start to become more isolated from each other.
This is heavy stuff. Can we go back to talking about Oreos?
Cal spends a lot of his time in a very white world, but enters into an inter-racial relationship with Julie Kikuchi by the end of the novel.
Cal sees how his father's attitudes antagonized the black people of Detroit. Consciously or not, Cal is more open about race because of this.
We only see Cal go to church a couple of times, but religious beliefs permeate throughout Middlesex. And, like everything in this book, it all starts with his grandparents, especially Desdemona. She grew up in the Greek Orthodox Church and works in a temple for the Nation of Islam. How's that for religious diversity? She believes it all, too. Good thing Scientology wasn't around back then…
Desdemona's beliefs are a combination of religion and superstition, but it's a combination that works. Everything she predicts comes true.
Cal has no faith in religion, especially in the concept of the afterlife. He believes that his ancestors are gone when they are dead, and nothing about them exists except for memories.